This article is dedicated to Tim Green, who died in February 2017

Spronking small


Over thousands of years humans have had such an impact on the landscape in the UK, it is hard for us to recognise now what is ‘natural’ and what is man-made.  We are so used to seeing the uplands denuded of trees that we blindly accept this is ‘natural’.  We follow paradigms without question: the UK looks green doesn’t it?  So all must be well.

The climax vegetation of the UK is forest.  Humans cleared some areas for growing crops such as wheat. Sheep and other grazing animals would graze the bits in-between and later the ‘common land’. Sheep ate a very mixed kind of herbage, some of it under trees.  Life in its fullest sense in balance with Nature would have been abundant – not always easy for humans – but there was at least access to land for the general population to forage and grow life supporting crops.  These low input methods of farming were symbiotic with the diversity of Nature.

Since the Enclosures Act of the 18th century land has been divided into fields (enclosures) so livestock stays in the same field for weeks, nibbling the same bits of grass over and over again.  The compacting of the soil encourages tougher grasses and the rich diversity of herbs is reduced.  For the sheep, it means a reduction in the variation of nutrients normally supplied by a larger variety of plants.

Sheep shearing of old

Sheep shearing

Life before the enclosures was more a case of foraging, as opposed to grazing a monoculture of grass. However, initially under the Enclosures Act the fields were small and enclosed by hedgerows, which harboured an abundance of diversity and still provided a variety of plants for animals to graze.  In the 1960’s subsidies encouraged farmers to grub out many of the hedgerows and trees to make the fields bigger and easier to manage.  An increase in field size means a reduction of biodiversity, and an expansion of fewer species of grass; in short, a monoculture.  Also, there are fewer places to shelter from the weather; shade in the summer and wind , rain and snow in the winter.  As many of us know, we are now witnessing the largest mass extinction of all life forms.  This is happening under our noses, not just for the more visible animals – hedgehogs, starlings, lapwing, herring gull (yes, they are on the endangered list too!) but the bees, hoverflies, butterflies and many other species.  Even in the loveliest looking patches of Dartmoor, where I live, it’s happening.  This is not due to any one cause, but the pressures of a generally accepted farming system.  We over-graze, burn, strim, flail, drain, weed kill and generally over-manage the land.

How can it be different?

The management of land and sheep is constantly evolving and should always be open to question.  Should we accept the ultra green, mono-cultural landscape without question?  Can we really afford to accept the serious decline of much of our flora and fauna?

To me, it is really important to understand as much as I can about sheep, the management of sheep AND the land, so that everything works in harmony.  I do believe that the integrity of a piece of felt goes right back to it’s ecology!

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Sheep, birds, flowers

A farm perched on the cliffs of the South Devon coast was subjected to the hedgerow grubbing frenzy of the 1960s, as was all farmland. For decades it has been a bleak patch of ground, the same as most of the farms surrounding it: part of the landscape that we became used to and accepting, in time, it’s own beauty as ‘wild and sweeping’.Over the last few years, however, Rebecca Hosking, Tim Green and a small team of enthusiastic farmers and ecologists have planted thousands of native trees and shrubs to create habitat for wildlife, nuts and fruits for humans and birds, firewood and timber for the future.  The trees give the benefits of shelter for the animals plus extra herbage for nibbling. There has already been a big increase in wild flowers, insect and bird life. Using electric fencing, the 400+ strong flock of primitive breed sheep is moved every day, mimicking the movements of wild herds of grazers. Continually moving the sheep to fresh ground means that parasites are reduced (if not eliminated), the general health of the animals is better and the land has time to recover.  The land is thriving and looks and feels more vibrant in comparison with surrounding farm land.   In short, the benefits of providing hedgerows and trees in a more diverse landscape cannot be understated for the welfare and health of the sheep as well as the increase of ecological diversity.

The produce that comes from this farm is being sold locally.  As many farmers in Britain are experiencing difficulties with supermarket contracts, a local farm produce movement is re-established.  Over the last decade or so we have seen an upsurge in farmers’ markets, veg box schemes, community supported agriculture schemes and growing food on allotments.

How we grow and process fibre for textiles should now be put into this arena.  It is not enough to rely on the exploitation within developing countries to supply our needs. The unnecessary movement of goods around the globe might be good for corporations and their shareholders, but it’s not good for the planet and it’s not good for people; it encourages exploitation of the land, sea and people.  Bad environmental or welfare practices will not be questioned if we can’t see them, but by buying ethically produced food we support local enterprise and we acquire a better understanding of what we are eating, who grew it and how it was grown.  In this light, I am suggesting there is great potential for locally sourced fibre for textiles.  Sheep’s wool is a unique fibre, and technology has not been able to mimic it.  Would we want it to when this is such an easy, renewable and simple source of fibre?  For a relatively low input, sheep are a three-in-one provider: milk, meat and fibre.

Synthetic textiles are ubiquitous.  Made largely from depleting and irreplaceable sources  – oil – they require quantities of chemicals and energy to be transformed into a fibre for spinning into yarn. These textiles hold the same intrinsic problems as plastic, for they are the same.  They do not biodegrade and only limited amounts are being recycled.  They are so cheap we do not value them, so clothing has largely become throwaway, destined for landfill or to swamp developing countries, thus diminishing the localised textile enterprises and cultures of those areas.   Likewise, manmade fibres such as bamboo, require intensive use of energy and chemicals for transformation into a usable yarn.  Traceability is difficult in most cases.

Solutions – local textiles – bringing together designers and sheep farmers

For a new wave of textiles production to thrive, there needs to be more understanding and this starts with the soil: it is the beginning of everything. It is the substance we walk on, the substance that recycles our (organic) waste and the substance that supports life, yet we treat it as an inert substrate, rather than a living system which we depend on for most of our food.

Secondly, there needs to be a two-way conversation between entrepreneur/designers and farmers.  A better understanding of how land and livestock can be managed more sustainably on the one hand, and farmers could do with understanding more about the potential for wool, especially in a more localised market.

Bearing this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that the UK is still able to process wool within these shores; scouring, carding, spinning for yarn, and knitting and weaving.  Until relatively recently, we were also able to grow and process linen (flax) into cloth, but this is sadly no longer the case.  The growing and processing of both hemp and flax are potentially feasible, given the skills and machinery, and would go some way to making Britain self-sufficient in textiles.

It is a matter of balancing the needs of the land; on the one hand the needs of the farmer, the land and the crop (sheep or plant fibre), and on the other the commercial market system for textiles.

This is a lot to ask in a world where most of our wool is now sent to the far east just for scouring because it is cheaper and the environmental standards are lax.

At a Farmer’s Market of the the future, the conversation might go something like this:

Consumer: How many sheep do you have?

Farmer:  700.

Consumer: That sounds like a lot.  How do you feed them?

Farmer:  Well, we don’t need to bring in supplements, because over the years we’ve replanted the hedgerows, encouraged woodland. We now have a mature orchard and nuttery so the sheep can graze there too.  We have a grazing management plan that improves the health of the sheep and the land.

Consumer: Is the wool itchy?

Farmer: You can wear some wools next to the skin – merino for instance.  But merinos don’t like our climate, so we’ve cross bred them with Shetlands and Icelandics which are a much hardier but also have soft fleeces.  

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Portlemouth short tail

Consumer: Where is it processed?

Farmer: At the moment it’s sent to China for scouring, India for spinning, Italy for knitting.  But a textile designer and a manufacturer have got together with a group of farmers and are investing in setting up a local mill to scour, spin and knit garments all in one place, and it’s in Devon!  

Consumer:  That’s fantastic!   So when will I be able to buy these garments?

Farmer:  As soon as we can get the funding and find and train the local people to do the work.  If you are interested in buying shares to help it move more quickly, then sign up here and I can send you the information.  You can get involved by investing and you will eventually share the dividends, both in money and in clothing!  Maybe you have children who would like a career in local textile production?  This leaflet gives information about apprenticeships.

Now, as they say, “back to the real world”.  In the real world we have British mills closing down as China offers lower prices by exploiting cheap labour and lower environmental standards.  We have over-consumption of textiles driven by a throw away fashion culture..  The market is driven by cheapness at the longer-term expense of the environment, people and engagement in the production of fabric.  My fantasy, which I’ve just described, is a long way off.  But there are embryos of growing awareness; small enterprises developing in every corner of the UK committed to local sourcing, local processing, local jobs and the development of local markets.  My assertions may seem UK-centric, but the same principles can be applied globally.  Let’s start the conversation.

More information:

All colour images in this article are by Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green.