Wool sales have had their fair share of knock-backs during the Covid-19 era but are now on somewhat of a comeback.

In his next exclusive interview for The Scottish Farmer, Chris McCullough interviewed Jayne Harkness-Bones who lives and breathes the wool trade.

Sheep, shearing and wool have been a huge part of life for Jayne Harkness-Bones who has represented Northern Ireland all over the world in wool handling competitions. Closer to home Jayne, or 'wee Jayne' as she is affectionately known as, runs a flock of sheep on her farm near Antrim and is the joint depot manager of Ulster Wool.

Tell me about your farm?

I farm in partnership with my dad, Robert, who was a contract shearer for many years and has shorn across the world following the shearing seasons in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

We farm a flock of 130 Mule sheep. After trying other breeds over the years, such as Suffolk/Cheviots and Texel crosses, we found the Mules lived up to the reputation of being easier lambed, had bags of milk, great mothers and very prolific.

We use two NZ Suffolk rams as they can easily cover high numbers of ewes. Their lambs are easily delivered, thrifty at birth and finish well off a grass-based system on our low-land farm that runs close to Lough Neagh.

All breeds will have their strengths, but we feel we are on to a system that works well for us as we are producing well covered fat lambs without concentrates, but are also producing cross-bred breeding stock. We sold some this year as hoggets and they were well-bodied animals that will carry positive traits from both sides – I have a selection of this past year’s ewe lambs to run over for next year.

Describe the day job working at Ulster Wool?

I’m the joint depot manager of Ulster Wool, the British Wool depot in Northern Ireland, and I’ve been working there for four years. Being a manager, I am generally involved in every aspect of the depot, from answering calls to assisting with producer registrations and general queries.

It also can involve driving the forklift truck and assisting the team with deliveries of wool, operations around the grading of the wool, to taking depot tours for students, young farmers and other interested groups. I can’t grade the wool, but I can tell the difference between most breeds of fleeces.

Then, there is the organising of all our shearing and training courses, regional committee meetings and board meetings. There’s never a dull day!

How did Covid-19 affect the business?

The last 21 months have been challenging here and at all of our sister depots across the British Wool network. We worked throughout the pandemic, as there was no working from home for us.

Not only were we able to continue to provide a service to farmers during a difficult time in a safe and secure way, but we provided a vital support to many families that were directly affected as a result of the farm-head being unwell, or in some very tragic circumstances, had passed away.

I was able to provide a listening ear over the phone and then get whatever support that family needed, whether it be finding a shearer, where to get empty wool sheets and where to leave the wool after shearing. I practised as an art psychotherapist for 10 years before I started working here and I can honestly say those skills have been fully transferable.

What do you like about the job?

From day one it felt like I’d always been here as I’m working with a team of like-minded, hard-working people and chatting to farmers I’ve known my whole life. The staff mostly come from farming backgrounds, so tea break topics are always about sheep!

Then I get to go home and help dad on the farm. What can I say, I really am living the dream! There are approximately 3700 farms that bring their wool here and all are welcome, even if they haven’t been before, or haven’t been for several years, we are a farmers co-op after all.

What quantity of wool do you process?

Last year, we took in a whopping 1.2m kg of wool, which was amazing considering the year everyone had. Most of that stays in the UK and goes into carpets, soft apparel, bedding and cloth.

There is a percentage that also goes into insulation, but this is the lower quality grades of wool. The wool that farmers produce here in the UK is the strongest in the world – it can’t be replicated anywhere else and is perfect for carpets as its hardwearing, is easy to maintain, renewable and sustainable.

Brinton’s is one of the biggest users of our wool and a new first is a 100% British Wool carpet range from Wool Britannia. The consumer marketing team has been working tirelessly to drive demand for our wool rich products and are also working on over 20 blue sky projects for new uses of wool with two UK universities.

They have also recently been working with designers at Fred Perry, which has just launched a 100% British Wool range of designer jumpers. There is only a small percentage of the wool that goes to China and the rest of the world.

How did Covid-19 affect wool sales from NI farmers?

The global wool market crashed overnight at the start of the first lockdown as auction houses literally shut their doors.

However, here the wool sales team were proactive in making every effort to keep selling our farmers wool. Remote auction systems have been developed by many livestock marts across the UK, and British Wool was no different.

Our Wool Board was the only seller of wool during the lockdown period. This was a massive effort to get everything set up and working and a real credit to the wool sales team.

Sadly, their efforts were not enough to keep the price of wool where it should be as there was a domino effect. The two largest scouring plants in western Europe are in Bradford, but they had to close for two months to put Covid safe measures in place for their employees, which meant wool could not be scoured.

As most of our wool is destined for carpets in the hospitality sector, this had a massive impact during lockdown as hotels and casinos simply were not renewing any of their interiors, so this had an impact of the price of wool throughout the pandemic.

Tell me about your wool handling success?

I’ve represented NI at seven World Championships and my top placings were fourth overall in Wales 2010 and eighth in France 2019. I have also won numerous all-Ireland titles and been on development teams for as long as I can remember.

How did it all start and where have you competed?

When dad was out shearing I was always wanting to go and help, so I got to rousey for local farmers when I was very young. When I got older I did a few seasons in Lochearnhead as dad was shearing as part of a gang there for Brian Perks and I went and rouseyed too.

It was amazing working in a gang with dad and we got paired up with some of the world’s most famous shearers, such as Joe Te Kapa, from New Zealand, who was living in Scotland then.

I’ve competed in most UK and Ireland competitions, and the world championships in Scotland, Australia, Wales, New Zealand, Ireland and France. The highlight of my competing year has always been at the Royal Highland. I would love to get to Corwen some time, but it always clashes with one of our local shows that I’m usually scorekeeping at for the shearing section.

Has NI agriculture got a good future?

Most definitely! I recently completed the agricultural business operations level two course at CAFRE and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was able to attend one evening a week and continued to work full-time and farm with dad.

With the amount of young people I know that are connected to and interested in agriculture, I have every faith that the future of farming here is in very safe hands. The use of technology is such an integral part of everyday life now and I see it being used more in the future.