I've recently become re-aquainted with William Holman Hunt's 'Our English Coasts' (strayed sheep). I think I studied it for A-level, but it seems more relevent now.
It was painted at 'Lovers' seat' at Fairlight Glen near Hastings in Sussex, between mid August and December of 1852. Hunt endured rain, wind and bitter cold to master this view, and somehow despite the changeable weather, captured an elaboratly real snippit of an illuminated summer evening. Sheep are grazing near a rocky slope on the coastline, some of them huddling together in the background with two having a snooze in the patchy grass. In the foreground a sheep has strayed further over the edge than the others and has got caught up in the brambles. Some sheep have come to follow the tangled sheep's example; perhaps the bramble leaves were tasty. The elaborate attention to detail was typical of the Pre-Raphaelite's idea of painting out doors to be truly faithful to nature before adding a dose of political and religious satire.
Standing on the edge of an exposed cliff, the sheep are vulnerable, and wandering into trouble. It is thought Hunt was intending to mock the political and religious leaders of the time, and felt the country was vunrable to foreign invasion and the church was going astray. However there is no text to accompany the painting so it is open to interpretation.
'Strayed Sheep' moved me after visiting Woolfest, followed by a BAFTA award winning film 'The Lie of the Land' by Molly Dineen.
(You might know Molly better for her fabulous documentry about Gerri Halliwell when she captures an intimate moment of her talking whilst sitting on the loo.)
'The Lie of the Land' started out as a documentry about the ban on fox hunting, but as Molly started to investigate problems in the countryside she uncovered a harsh reality that competitive prices of the supermarkets and cheap foreign imports are killing farming. Not caring about the origin of the food we eat, and unwillingness to confront issues about life and death in the countryside, is causing a catastrophic disaster. I will try and get a copy of the film, and you can hear this interview with Molly Dineen on Woman's Hour two years ago.
Across the Lake District you can see empty fields with farms winding down. Our yarn industry, primarily wool production has been dangling on thin thread for the last decade. Activist gatherings at Woolfest, Wonderwool Wales, Fibrefest, and little shops like PYF are nursing the industry back to health. It's not an easy ride, but it is working.
Some farms burn fleeces because it costs more in petrol to drive the fleeces back to the Wool Marketing Board, for the money they receive. Shearing, a skill we have nearly lost, is necessary, very expensive, and usually carried out by freelance Australians. The Yorkshire Post explains,
"The average for all wool sold to the British Wool Marketing Board has crept back up to 72.5p per kilo, after a very bad few years, and the cost of shearing is roughly 50p per kilo. In striking comparison, Wensleydale wool is fetching close to £2.39, straight off the sheep - more when procesed and more when the wool board is not acting as middleman."
A farmer must obtain a special licence to spin the wool of his/her own flock. One example is Sussex based Wendsleydale farmer Julia Desch. She explains,
"If you take a hogget around 18 months old, it will have yielded 6kg of wool by that stage of it's life. Its sheepskin will have a value of around £150, and surplus male hoggets can produce up to 30kg of boned - out meat with a retail value of around £7 a kilo." Julia Desch and Sheila Leech are making farming work, so it proves it can be done!
The last remaining British mills are subsided by European grants, which won't necessarily be renewed. There are only a handful of mills left to choose from all of which are run by die hard individuals or couples.
Campaigning for farmer's rights to farm the land the way they were brought up to do, is difficult. The government does not deal with 'Agriculture' any more. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods has become the Department for Environment, Food and 'Rural Affairs'.
Yarn shops are coming back thanks to our hand knitting revival, but awareness of where yarn comes from is still limited. Industrial knitwear is largely carried out abroad, and most of the yarns we use are farmed in Australia then spun in China. British Textile and Fashion degree courses rarely encourage the study and development of yarn, and student's are rarely aware of a world shortage of wool with supplies at their lowest level for 50 years. Wool consumers at Woofest and Prick Your Finger recognise wool's carbon footprint, and are changing the way they spend. This must surly trigger improved wool prices for farmers?
As Prince Charles pointed out in his 2009 Dimbleby lecture, nature is our biggest bank. If we over draw on her we've had it.
"We must see that we are part of the Natural order rather than iscolated from it; to see that nature is, in fact, a profoundly beautiful world of complexity that operates according to an organic "grammar" of harmony and which is infused with an awareness of it's own being, making it anchored by consciousness. It is interconnected, interdependent function of creation with harmony existing between all things"
For hundreds of years, wool was one of our biggest industries. That is why Britain has more breeds of sheep than anywhere else. Our sheep breeding was designed so well, that we developed the richest palate of colour and texture to make fabric for every type of garment or furnishing. Except we can't use it because it's dangling of the edge of a cliff, while we import wool which doesn't even smell like wool.
As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out whilst sitting at his spinning wheel one day,
"The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems."
Please all do something, even if it's just talking about it.
And visit and follow the links at the Small Shepherd's Club, and wear more British Wool this winter.