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Demise of Dales hill flocks threatens traditional Swaledale Wool

[Tuesday 28 November 2006]
swaledale sheep
Kathleen and Ken Hird with their
'Swaledale Wollens'

A YORKSHIRE DALES farmer's wife who diversified to sell hand-knitted clothing is worried about future supplies of wool from Swaledale sheep, which she says are fast disappearing from the region's uplands.

Kathleen Hird is finding it increasingly difficult to buy the Swaledale wool she needs to produce the sweaters, scarves and hats she sells at her Swaledale Woollens shop in Muker, near Richmond.

Kathleen bought Swaledale Woollens in 1975 and to this day the shop is continuing the centuries-old Dales tradition of hand-knitting. The shop sells a wide range of products, such as sweaters, cardigans, hats, gloves, rugs, hangings, shawls, scarves, slippers and socks.

Over the last decade Kathleen has witnessed a downturn in farming that mirrors a slump in the industry nationally since the mid 1990's.

"Ten years ago, we shared rented moorland with seven other farms, but there are now only two of us left," says Mrs Hird.

"It seems that hill breeds may be in danger of dying out. Foot-and-mouth disease took a heavy toll on Swaledale breeding flocks, and the low profitability of sheep farming has meant that many have not been replaced."

Although she and her husband, Ken, keep 1,000 Swaledale ewes at their Whashton, it has proved uneconomical to use home-produced wool, because of the high processing costs involved in handling the relatively small quantities she uses.

Without hardy breeds like the Swaledale to graze the uplands, there is a risk some areas would revert to scrubland says Mrs Hird, and as she explains, this would have a dramatic effect on the region's landscape.

"People generally visit North Yorkshire to enjoy the open spaces and walk in the hills. But the scenery would look vastly different without sheep, as the grassland would become covered in trees and bushes. That could also restrict access for ramblers."

swaledale woolens
Kathgleen with one of the Swaledale
Woolens products

Spiralling costs, poor returns and price pressure because of cheap imports are posing a real threat to hill farms at the moment, she adds. Fewer young people are choosing a career in agriculture, so shepherding skills are not being passed on by the older generation.

"It will not be easy to reverse this trend. If it is ever decided that we need more sheep to graze the hills, there may not be enough farmers left with the experience to manage the flocks.

"I think Swaledale wool is fantastic for making garments, but unless hill farms receive more support, I am seriously concerned that the breed may not survive."

For further information on the history of wool knitting in our region see www.swaledalewoollens.co.uk or Daelnet's feature 'The Dales Knitting Tradition'

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