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In a rush: return of the golden fleece? WITH WOOL PRICES RISING AGAIN, ONE VETERAN RECALLS SHEARING'S HEYDAY.

Byline: ANDREW FORGRAVE Rural Affairs Editor farming@dailypost.co.uk

IN June each summer, local farmers would dam up the Afon Cledwyn, in the valley south of Llangernyw, and drive their sheep into its waters.

Some would wade in and dunk the sheep briefly to ensure they were fully submerged. It was a family activity, so children would join in, most regarding it as a highlight of the farming calendar. Among them was Elfyn Owen, now aged 54. "I remember swimming with the sheep," he said.

"The idea was to wash the grease out of the wool before shearing. These days the Wool Board doesn't want the grease removed, but in any case I'm not sure we be allowed to block up the streams any more."

For Elfyn, the annual shearing day, when groups of neighbouring farmers would collectively harvest wool from their sheep, kindled a life-long passion for a natural fibre that, after years of stagnant prices, appears to be in demand again.

This year, not for the first time, he won the Royal Welsh fleece championship. He won at Anglesey too, reflecting a deep respect for a material that once built kingdoms before falling out of fashion.

Some of his fleeces come off his 65-strong Cernyw flock of Bluefaced Leicester sheep, others from the Welsh Mules which form part of his 600-head commercial flock at Ffrith Arw, Llanddoged.

He said: "You can generally tell which fleece to pick when the wool is still on the sheep," he said.

"When I shear, I always put half a dozen fleeces to one side, then spend a bit of time selecting the best one before going to a competition "I check the strength and length of the wool staple, and its crimp. If the ewes have been stressed, or have had a bad winter, the staple can break when you pull it.

"You can even tell from the staple what the time of the year they were stressed, a bit like tree rings.

"The quality of the wool has been much better this year than 2013 after the late snow we had.

"The best wool comes from yearling ewes as they have not yet had lambs and so haven't been stressed - they've just been growing wool off their feed."

At the age of 23, Elfyn followed the well-worn shearing trail to New Zealand. He spent a year with a Maori family, working 5am to 5pm each day. "That got me disciplined," he said.

"The sheep were neverending but it was a fantastic experience."

Shearing is a young man's game but Elfyn is still at it, both at home and for others.

He takes care not to overdo it: each spring he visits his osteopath in Llandudno for a "back MOT". "I should ask him to sponsor me in the competitions," he quipped.

"The trick is to keep your back as straight as possible throughout the day. Years ago, when people would catch sheep for the shearers, it was harder for them to have a stretch. I've known of shearers who use belt harnesses - a bit like a baby bouncer - to help their backs while they're shearing. If it ever got that bad with me, I think it would be time to stop."

Looking back to his father's time, Elfyn cannot believe how much things have changed. Not only are sheep not washed before shearing, fleeces are no longer twisted into knotted bundles by onfarm wool handlers.

The biggest change of all, however, has been the rise of the contractor and the wane of communal shearing.

To some degree, Elfyn keeps the latter alive, at least within his own family. Sons Dafydd and Ifan pitch in with the shearing, daughters Alaw and Mari do the wrapping and youngest son Elis loads the trailer. Elfyn's wife Ruth feeds the crew when she isn't away teaching.

Elfyn still does some reciprocal rocal shearing on other farms.

shearing on other farms. "I remember being fed very "I remember being fed very well on shearing days in the past," he said. "There was good food and good company. I still do work for other farmers - but only the ones that offer steak sandwiches!" As always, the emphasis is on quality rather than speed, the watchword of the modern shearing contractor. However this tenet was put to the test when, in a "moment of madness", he agreed to enter the new Speed Shear competition at this year's eglwysbach Show.

well on shearing days in the past," he said. "There was good food and good company. I still do work for other farmers - but only the ones that offer steak sandwiches!" As always, the emphasis is on quality rather than speed, the watchword of the modern shearing contractor. However this tenet was put to the test when, in a "moment of madness", he agreed to enter the new Speed Shear competition at this year's eglwysbach Show.

"It was a fantastic occasion," he said. "It was my first ever speed shear and I came fourth!

"It was a fantastic occasion," he said. "It was my first ever speed shear and I came fourth!

Fourth in the veterans' section, that is."

two years ago elfyn won the NSA sheep event fleece championship in Malvern, and this year he was runnerup with a Welsh Mule fleece. The winner was a shetland exhibit, reflecting renewed interest in coloured wool.

And at Llanelwedd this summer some 100 fleeces were on display, a big increase on recent Royal Welsh shows.

elfyn believes that, on the back of a much improved selling season, some flockmasters are taking a new look at wool.

"There was a time when the wool cheque would pay for the farm's annual rent," he said.

"Then it got to the stage that the cheque would barely cover the cost of paying the contractors.

"These days there are fewer sheep around, so wool is in shorter supply. When I was in New Zealand the country had 70m sheep, now it's only half of that.

"Wool is a wonderful, natural fibre and if the price keeps going in the right direction, farmers will take more care of their fleeces and present them to the Wool Board in better condition, which in turn should attract better prices."

For elfyn, however, it was never really about the price: he just enjoyed the process of shearing and producing a quality product.

"It will be a sad day when I finally have to give up," he added.

CAPTION(S):

Sheep being washed in the river Gwryd before shearing, 1950

| Elfyn (left) was the 2014 Royal |Welsh fleece champion. He's with Bedwyr Jones, BWMB; Helen Davies, NSA Cymru; and John Duggan PICTURE: ROBERT SMITH

MAIN: Welsh Mules and their Texel cross lambs | PICTURE: ANDREW FORGRAVE MAIN: Welsh Mules and their Texel cross lambs | PICTURE: ANDREW FORGRAVE

INSET, LEFT: Elfyn Owen with his Royal Welsh |2012 lowland champion, a Bluefaced Leicester yearling ram PICTURE: ROBERT PARY JONES INSET, LEFT: Elfyn Owen with his Royal Welsh |2012 lowland champion, a Bluefaced Leicester yearling ram PICTURE: ROBERT PARY JONES
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Sep 25, 2014
Words:1178
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