The animal rights activist group PETA may have done the New Zealand wool industry a favour with its latest campaign portraying woollen garments and fabrics as ‘unethical’ says Brent Mountfort, sheep farmer and chair of the Bay of Plenty Federated Farmers meat and fibre committee.
“These outrageous claims give sheep farmers and the wool industry the chance to highlight the benefits of wool and how ethical and sustainable it is, especially when compared with synthetic fabrics.”
PETA’s latest campaign against wool claims shearing is cruel and that sheep are routinely abused and wounded during the process of removing fleece. The international organisation has enlisted celebrities, including Pink, to speak out against the use of wool.
Its website features videos of sheep being abused in shearing sheds and suggests: “Use alternatives to wool, including cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, and other cruelty-free fibres, as people with wool allergies have been doing for years. Vegan wool is easy to find, and it will keep you warm and cosy without contributing to cruelty”.
Brent says in New Zealand any shearer who wounds or treats sheep badly is quickly dismissed from the wool shed. “Farmers care about their animals and they are also their livelihood so farmers are not going to have them injured.
Hair cut for sheep
“Shearing is not unlike us having a haircut and is necessary for the health and welfare of the sheep. Otherwise they’d be carrying up to five kilos of wool year round which would be pretty uncomfortable when it’s hot.”
Brent says from an environmental and sustainable viewpoint, wool wins every time over synthetic fabrics which are made from petroleum products.
It takes about five times as much energy to produce one kilogramme of nylon and more than twice the amount of energy to produce one kilogramme of polyester as it does to produce one kilogramme of wool.
“Wool also sequests carbon. One kilogramme of clean wool stores about 1.8kg of carbon dioxide.”
The Australian wool industry claims that carbon makes up to half of wool’s composition. If this is true, it would represent a carbon store of 64,000 tonnes from sheep in New Zealand.
The attributes of wool for clothing, fabrics and carpets are impressive too, says Brent. Wool is warm, ‘breathable’, biodegradable, fire-resistant and renewable. It’s also naturally insulating and when used in carpets, curtains or as insulation in walls and ceilings, it saves on household energy costs.
“There’s also some research into how to turn wool into edible protein.”
However, much of the innovative research into new uses for wool in New Zealand has ground to a halt now there is no levy to fund it. Bruce says this is disappointing because many potentially exciting and lucrative research projects have not made it into commercial production.
Most New Zealanders know sheep which are shorn for wool are returned to the paddock, but in some overseas countries people believe that sheep are killed to get their fleece.
“It’s hard to change that kind of misinformation when people in cities have no contact with farming, but as an industry we must do that.”
The Mountfort family farm at Manawahe is a stunning example of sustainable and ethical sheep farming which is why in 2008 Brent’s parents Chris and Antoinette Mountfort won the supreme award in the Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards.
The couple spent 40 years converting a scrub-covered block of land at Manawahe, just north of Matata, into what is described as “one of the most attractive, sustainable and productive farms in the Whakatane district”.
They bought the first 126ha block in 1966 and with a baby on the way (Brent), struggled through some difficult years. Today Brent manages the property alongside his father and the farm has increased to 280ha, of which 180ha are effective.
Brent has continued in the family tradition of retiring and fencing out waterways and gullies, planting up to 20,000 trees and carrying out ongoing pest control.
“By retiring marginal areas we have protected the environment, encouraged more bird life and even though we are effectively farming less land, the profits have increased.”
That’s because, says Brent, the protected areas were those which didn’t grow good grass so needed more fertiliser and weed control or were subject to erosion. They were also areas where stock could fall into holes or be hard to move from.
“We are also more focused on our good pasture, and clover growth has increased largely because we have beehives which have improved pollination. Careful grazing ensures clover has the chance to grow and is not out-competed by other pasture species. We use very little nitrogen fertiliser”
The farm’s average lamb weight of 15.5kg increased last season to 18.9 kg and lambing went to 150 per cent since switching to Coopworth sheep.