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Dyed-in-the-wool

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After his third year running ‘in the domes’ at the Perth Royal Show and a swathe of ribbons in the shed, its fair to say Wannamal wool grower Iain Nicholson knows a good fleece.

It’s his ninth year competing in the Royal, the grand finale of the show season, and a fleece from his 2017 entries has won Reserve Grand Champion Fleece in the section for a ewe or wether. The attractively crimped and seductively soft 19.9 micron wool, with an almost perfect comfort factor of 99.6%, is now prominently displayed in one of the four perspex domes in the sheep shed at the show for the public to admire.

Iain is too busy clipping his latest show team to count the fluttering ribbons that mark Boorabbin’s lane in the sea of pens, but he seems satisfied with the placings, which include Champion and Reserve Champion fine wool polls in the merino competition – amongst others. The results reflect years of careful selective breeding, of fine-tuning genetics to produce his ideal all-round animal.

“Our specialty is wool, but we needed to produce a multi-purpose animal, more productive in meat and structure as well. It’s a fine balance,” he explains. “Our main criteria is full bales and fertile sheep – you gotta grow the best wool you can, on the best animal you can, without sacrificing the size.”

With wool prices peaking at $24.34 per kilo recently, you’d suppose Australia was poised to ride high upon the sheep’s back once again, but things have changed. It’s not the 50’s anymore and the sheep industry faces some scary challenges.
“The markets have been up and down for so long people have lost confidence,” says Iain. “Certainly in our area more and more people have gravitated towards cropping.”

Sheep are high-intensity farming and land is expensive. The result of erratic markets since wool, lamb and mutton prices bottomed out in the early 1990’s has seen sheep numbers across the country drop to 67.5 million head in 2017 – less than half the number at Australia’s industry peak in 1970 at 180 million head. Live trade export bans haven’t helped.

“People don’t seem to realise how much Australia has invested in the welfare of sheep overseas – building state of the art facilities with the most humane practices.”

Like many farmers, Iain fears that we can’t make changes in a market we don’t exist in.

“They’ll just go elsewhere,” laments Iain. “The good news is that the Chinese are screaming out for wool.”

They are. And it’s Australian wool they want – our reputation as the finest wool producers in the world hasn’t changed. The demand for natural, renewable and biodegradable fibres is another thing on the rise.

The fleeces Iain has just cut from his show team are now back in the Borrabbin shed, awaiting next year’s competitions. Whatever challenges the sheep industry face by the time the Royal rolls around in 2019, this dyed-in-the-wool farmer is sure to still be doing what he does best – producing world-class wool.