Opinion

The Irish wool sector must be supported

There is now every indication that the Stormont Executive may agree an aid package for Northern Ireland’s wool sector, and this would be the right thing to do.

Wool has been the industry hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Prices fell to almost zero after the implementation of the first lockdown last spring.

This nose dive in prices reflected the fact that most Irish wool is made into high quality carpets with hotels, restaurants, cruise operators and casinos around the world the big customers for this type of product.

Unfortunately, these sectors were the hardest hit by the pandemic. All hotel refurbishment and new-build projects have come to a halt. Moreover, the same can be said for restaurants and bars.

Sheep producers

Last year’s Covid-19 support package did not recognise the plight of primary sheep producers; it should have. One way of putting right this oversight would be for the Irish government to recognise the role of the wool industry within the agri-food sector.

So it’s time to look north again. My understanding is that Stormont’s Agriculture Minister, Gordon Lyons, is looking at the possibility of introducing a subsidy to cover shearing costs on sheep farms.

The rationale for so doing is based around the fact that shearing can be regarded as an animal welfare-related activity. As we all know, if sheep are not shorn in a timely fashion the risk of fly strike rises accordingly.

Sheep industry representatives in Northern Ireland are asking that monies be made available to cover both the 2020 and 2021 clipping season.

Wool prices

It’s unlikely that wool prices will bounce back to pre-Covid-19 levels before the end of this year. So, the availability of a shearing subsidy would, at least, make wool a ‘breakeven’ operation for sheep farmers in the wake of a catastrophe that was not of their making.

Agreeing the principles of a farm support scheme; putting in place the actual payment mechanism is another challenge altogether. But let’s take this one step at a time.

If shearing can be supported on sheep welfare terms in Northern Ireland, I see no reason why the authorities in Dublin cannot take a similar approach.

Making the money available directly to sheep farmers is a bit of a ‘slam dunk’ affair. It would simply be a case of recognising shearing costs within the Sheep Welfare Scheme and topping-up the available fund accordingly.

Fly strike control is specifically referenced as one of the measures that must be undertaken to qualify for the scheme.

I see no reason why shearing should not be officially recognised in this context. But, again the government would have to increase the payment available per head, in order to make this a meaningful gesture at farm level.