Bales of hay and wool

The easier bit: sitting in an air-con tractor and stacking the bales. But shearing those sheep . . . well that's a job for younger men

Make hay while the sun shines, goes the saying, and what glorious weather it has been for hay making. It’s no longer the drudgery of old, with small bales manually handled into difficult-to-get-at lofts above the old cattle buildings. Today we sit in air-conditioned tractors listening to the radio while carting and loading big bales of hay into modern buildings without even breaking into a sweat. The downside to this is that my belly appears to be growing and my trousers are getting tighter!

Summer is also shearing time and our flock of Romney sheep have had their annual haircut. We use the local sheep shearing contractors, the Colemans from Lydd, who together with a few New Zealanders shear their way around the Marsh before heading off around the world doing the same task.

They work on piece rates with the gang leader charging around £1.65 a sheep. By the time he has taken all his expenses out, the shearers will receive around a pound. The better shearers are shearing around 300 sheep a day, but with the exception of a few, doing this number daily is a young man’s task and most find alternative employment by the time they hit their thirties.

Once all the sheep are shorn, we deliver the wool to the British Wool Marketing Board’s depot in Ashford where it is graded, packaged and subsequently sold at auctions throughout the year in Bradford. The Wool Board never owns the wool but sells it on behalf of the wool producers. Therefore on delivery of the wool we are paid only a very small percentage of its true value as an advance (about 15p a kilo), but are also paid the balance of the previous year’s crop of wool minus all the board’s expenses.

The value of the wool has decreased significantly over the years as other man-made fibres have taken over. It was once possible to pay the farm’s rent on the value of the wool cheque in the late 1800s / early 1900s, but by the early 2000s the price had dropped to a paltry 33p a kilo which barely covered the shearing costs. It has had a slight revival of fortunes in the last few years mainly due to the lowering of the world’s sheep numbers and the Campaign for Wool endorsed by Prince Charles. It is estimated that the best Romney wool, which incidentally is some of the best wool the board sells, will fetch £1.40 kg this year making each fleece worth around £5.

Between haymaking, shearing and all the other day-to-day farm work, I managed to spend a very enjoyable day at the Kent County Show judging Romney sheep. To the outsider every sheep probably appears to look the same, but there are differences between each one. Or have I just been working with them far too long!

* Simon Wright is a farmer at East Guldeford where he and his wife Anne also run a holiday cottages business. Click here to visit their website

Photo: Simon Wright