Tuesday, 5 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister to the House. He will be familiar with the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, with which he and his Department work closely. It has raised the issue of capacity to expand and develop the wool industry. Sheep wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable and has many uses. There is a strong case for its usage in the greening and insulation of houses and, in particular, industrial properties, etc., to be examined. As a material, it has enormous potential. Work is ongoing on how we can expand the use and demand for wool, particularly Irish wool. There are opportunities to develop the wool industry that need to be explored.
The national sheep chairman of the ICSA, Mr. John Brooks, contacted me and provided me with various press releases and statements he has issued seeking the establishment of a dedicated Irish wool forum. He sees such a forum as of particular importance in addressing some of the issues relating to the wool industry and makes a strong case for its establishment. The Minister will point out that there have been many groups, subgroups and subdivisions of subgroups in the agriculture industry, but this is a particular market and should be given favourable consideration. All indications point to an impending total price collapse for wool. The market in Britain has totally collapsed. We want to encourage the shearing of sheep. In terms of animal welfare and husbandry, it is unacceptable for them not to be sheared. There is a requirement for sheep in the meat industry, but there is also a market for wool. Irish wool is a particularly good product.
I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the establishment of such a forum, to include representation of interested groups, particularly the ICSA. Wool is an abundant natural resource, which is renewable and biodegradable. It has many benefits. Traditionally, we have had a wonderful industry engaged in the manufacturing of wool and wool-related cloth. There is scope to develop it. It needs a new focus and, as such, I am asking, as Mr. Brooks requested, that the Minister and his Department give serious consideration to the establishment of this forum or explore other options for the protection and, more important, the expansion of this industry.
I thank the Senator for his question. I apologise to the House for being late. I was engaged on the Order of Business in the Dáil.
Wool production is an important component of the Irish agri-industry. There are approximately 45,500 sheep flock-keepers registered on my Department's database. The 2018 census returns indicate that a total of 3.73 million sheep were kept in the country at the end of December 2018, representing a decrease of 142,000 or 4% on the total number recorded in December 2017. Approximately 2.99 million sheep were slaughtered in 2018. On producing wool for sale, in general, the farmer outsources the shearing of the sheep and sells the wool to agents. Officials of my Department oversee and inspect 50 approved and registered wool stores where wool is held while awaiting sale.
Ireland produces excellent quality wool. The factors contributing to this include Irish genetic breeding standards, sheep welfare standards and the availability of quality Irish grass, water and nutritional supplementation on sheep farms. Irish sheep have a high animal health status, being free from sheep exotic diseases, including sheep pox, that, when present, downgrade wool quality. In addition, Irish sheep farms adhere to high biosecurity and quality assurance standards. The animal husbandry on sheep farms ensures that programmes are in place to control ectoparasites such as sheep scab that can downgrade wool quality if not controlled. All of these factors contribute to the excellent quality of Irish wool.In addition, while national policies such as the clean livestock policy and the Bord Bia assurance scheme for lamb focus on food policy, they impact directly on the quality and cleanliness of the wool. The cleanliness of a fleece is related to farming practices where the sheep originates, as well as being influenced by the stakeholders along the supply chain. All stakeholders can influence the cleanliness of the sheep fleece.
In an industry such as the wool industry, where prices tend to move in cycles, it is imperative the industry players ensure and promote a diversity of options for the product in the marketplace. Wool is used in fabrics, carpeting, bedding and insulation. It can also be used in gardening and makes an excellent compost. Another possibility for the use of wool is wool pellet production, which is an excellent organic fertiliser. The current market uncertainties should provide an impetus for the industry players to come together to see what business opportunities are out there and to try to promote the excellent product in as many markets as possible. Based on my contacts with the industry, I am aware of huge possibilities in developing the Japanese wool trade market and to that end, I provided the wool industry with a letter of support for its Japanese contacts confirming the excellent quality of Irish-produced wool. Market forces and market demand, as the Senator is aware, dictate price and while I understand there are issues with price at the moment, I wish to inform the Senator that at present I am not considering the establishment of a dedicated Irish wool forum as requested by him. However, my officials and I will of course consider any proposal the industry wishes to submit in this regard.
I thank the Minister. He was honest and frank and I always like to hear that from a Minister. He tells it as it is and I acknowledge that. It is encouraging that the Minister has shared with us the possibility for developing the Japanese wool trade market. That is something I never knew that I have learned today so I will take that away with me. I note the Minister is not prepared at this stage to consider the establishment of a wool producers' forum, and he has set out the rationale and reasons for same, which I accept. I will convey that message to the ICSA in following up on this. I also note the Minister has said he will keep the door open and he will consider other proposals from the industry if they are forthcoming. I thank the Minister for that.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter. It is an extraordinary resource and it is regrettable, given the way markets have evolved, that a product of this quality, which is a natural fabric, has been displaced in many of its traditional markets over many years. We were probably all reared in households where there was always a ball of wool over the mantlepiece. That day is long gone. Synthetic fibres have displaced a lot of the traditional uses of wool. There are niche markets there, which we can support, and there is some activity in that area. I engaged with some people from Japan in my Department who are interested, in conjunction with Irish partners, in developing that market as an opportunity. It is a sign of the rapidly changing times that traditional uses are being displaced and we need to look at the other uses. As I outlined today, some of those uses may not be mainstream, such as pelleting for organic fertiliser and insulation. We have a huge job of work to do in this country to retrofit buildings for climate change purposes. Here is a natural product that could assist with that. There are opportunities. It is a question of the players working collaboratively to find out what the best market returns are, because sheep farming is a low-margin enterprise, and for many, shearing is a cost with little gain from the product shorn. It behoves all of us to work collaboratively to try to find new opportunities for that product.