18 August 2021
Gillian Williams has an impeccable pedigree when it comes to her knowledge of sheep! Breeding them, shearing them and making money from them comes naturally to this Falklands-born sheep farmer who now lives at her family’s farm near Tywyn.
But when it came to applying all that experience and knowledge to sustainable sheep farming in Wales, with its very different climate and topography, Gillian felt she still had more to learn. She credits Farming Connect’s Agrisgôp programme with introducing her to new ideas about how to maximise the value of the wool from the flock of 250 mainly Romney Marsh/Welsh Mountain cross breed ewes, she and her husband started to breed three years ago, following the purchase of Romney rams.
“We have moved away from what was a predominantly Welsh Mountain flock to what I call our ‘dual purpose’ sheep, which are valued for their fleeces as much as their renowned Welsh lamb.
“So far so good, the cross-breeds are coping well with Welsh weather, without compromising the quality and condition of the fine wool fleeces that Romney sheep are renowned for, and we have buyers prepared to pay a fair price.”
Married to contract shearer John, who is a partner at his family farm near Rhoslefain, he and Gillian rent a farm of around 300 acres in the next village. The couple first met in 1999 when John was contract shearing for Gillian’s well-known sheep farming brother in the Falkland Islands. Roll forward the clock to 2008, and after a few years of hopping between Wales and the Falklands – the young couple used to both work in gangs following the sheep shearing seasons, they married and returned to Wales where they built a house at the family farm. The rest is history and their two sons have grown up in Wales, speaking Welsh like their dad and grandparents.
“It’s no surprise that I’ve ended up a sheep farmer,” says Gillian who was brought up on a 22,000 acre sheep farm in the Falklands, now extended to a massive 50,000 acres by her brother, and where the fleeces produced annually from his flock of almost 10,000 Merino sheep are the key source of income.
“The difference in sheep farming in Wales and the Falklands, and in Tasmania where I attended agricultural college, is down to the scale of the flocks – thousands per farm is the norm over there – as well as the very different climate conditions which equate to considerably less rain and much more wind, which really enhance the Merinos’ prime-quality, fine wool.
“My brother is an acknowledged expert on maximising the value of Merino fleeces and although he does sell some meat to his local abattoir, he operates in a very different market to the one in Wales.
“My brother’s top-grade wool is sold mainly to the Czech Republic and Italy, via the Falklands Wool Growers’ warehouse in Bradford, for a good price, whereas in Wales, Welsh lamb is regarded as a prime product but the usually coarse fleeces, ideal for withstanding our wet weather, are almost worthless.”
In recent years, many Welsh farmers have reluctantly turned to destroying fleeces, which have to be shorn annually for animal-welfare purposes, rather than spending more on preparing them for marketing than the 30 or 40 pence per fleece which is often the going rate.
Gillian, a former senior administrator within the Falklands ministry of agriculture, has now combined her farming and business skills with her hands-on approach to making small craft items from Welsh wool. Using social media to sell her wide range of ‘Welsh Woolshed’ small, felted handmade products and rugs as well as whole fleeces to other craft workers throughout the UK, has led to a lucrative business.
Gillian’s Agrisgôp journey began in early 2019 when local leader Jess Williams, offered to facilitate a specialist ‘Welsh wool’ group for Gillian and John together with a number of like-minded neighbours.
Describing the group’s honest open discussions about the challenges of keeping sheep valued for both meat and wool, Jess quickly recognised that the members were keen to meet up with individuals who could tell them about the costs of importing sheep or embryos and the potential markets for the breeds which would not only do well in Wales, but also give them the best returns for lamb, mutton and the wool fleeces.
Jess arranged a number of visits to UK farmers who have focused on numerous breeds renowned for the quality of the fleeces, including one farmer who imports Merino sheep and embryos from Australia.
“I also arranged meetings with representatives from the British Wool Marketing Board and various UK wool buying organisations, so that the group could get an unbiased, general perspective of all the supply chain processes, the biosecurity, rules and regulations as well as the costs and time commitment,” said Jess.
“They visited the Haworth Scouring company in Bradford, where they were fascinated to see the raw fleece coming in from the collection warehouses, observing how it was scoured and combed on an industrial scale and learning which types of wool were used in different products from fine garments to carpets and luxury mattresses.
Gillian says that without the research and contacts she acquired through Jess’s Agrisgôp group, she would have been very ‘blinkered’ as to how best to invest her money wisely in order to grow her current ‘cottage’ industry into something more profitable.
“I was particularly inspired when we were taken to the farm of Lesley Prior, a renowned sheep farmer in the South of England who keeps Merino sheep that produce some of the highest priced wool in the UK. Then we went on to Fernhill Farms to meet Nuffield scholar Jennifer Hunter and her partner, a champion blade shearer, who have set up a very successful business adding value to the speciality wool she prepares, grades and sells profitably from a number of breeds.
“With the price of wool entirely dependent on the breed of sheep, thanks to the fully-funded support and guidance which we accessed through Agrisgôp, I believe that I’m finally driving the wool enterprise forward in a more sustainable direction and the whole family is excited for the future, ” says Gillian.
Farming Connect is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra Wales and funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.