The 2024 Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) again saw RBST taking to the stage to deliver some key messages around the role of native livestock breeds in modern farming. With 400 speakers across nine venues, the two-day conference covered a wide variety of issues linked to sustainable farming, where native breeds can play a key role. 

RBST CEO Christopher Price and member Maria Benjamin took part in one session which looked at why we must move beyond the perception of wool as a low-value by-product of the meat industry. In her opening to the session, More than a by-product: re-setting the way we think about wool, Chair Lesley Mitchell commented on how impressive it was to see so many sessions looking at wool and explained that the purpose was not to celebrate scarcity but to look at building resilience. She also highlighted the need to show 
the value that wool brings to the land.

The audience heard first from Andrew Hagley, CEO of British Wool who discussed the need for wool to be part of the solution for a more sustainable world, moving away from man-made fibres. He presented some worrying statistics, including the fact that of the 100 million tonnes of fibre consumed worldwide each year, only 1% is wool and 0.001% is British wool, with the vast majority of fibres – around 70% - being made from plastic. This trend is particularly concerning as research has highlighted that synthetic textiles are the largest known source of marine microplastic pollution.

In his presentation, Christopher Price discussed the role of sheep, specifically native breeds, in delivering climate-friendly sustainable products. He also talked about the work that RBST has carried out in relation to sheep farming and the potential for wool to be a carbon sink, with around 40% of a sheep’s fleece consisting of carbon.

Speaking about the level of interest in wool at the conference, Christopher said: “I’ve been involved in the Oxford Farming Conference almost since its inception and I had no idea then that we would end up with so many sessions based on wool and see them so well attended. Back in 2013, George Monbiot was talking in sweeping terms about ‘woolly maggots’ trashing the countryside, whereas now we can demonstrate that with native sheep, kept in the environments they were bred for, we can see a positive economic and environmental impact from sheep farming.” 

In the same session, the audience heard from Jennifer Hunter and Maria Benjamin about the wool-based business opportunities they have developed. At Fernhill Farm Jennifer and her partner Andy Wear practice regenerative farming, with Andy managing a 3,000 strong commercial flock of Romney x Shetland sheep. Jennifer, a 2014 Nuffield Farming Scholar researching global wool industry trends, has developed a fibre business with the key goal of repositioning wool in society as a primary product rather than by-product from the sheep meat industry. Maria Benjamin joined her partner RBST Chairman John Atkinson in 2015 on his Cumbria farm. Describing herself as an artist with no farming background, Maria explained how she looked for funding opportunities to make use of an old building on John’s 
45-acre family farm. Having started a small soap business, she then looked at ways of ‘doing something with the wool’ from the farm’s sheep without scaling up the existing flock. Today, using their own and other local farmers’ wool, Maria runs Lake District Tweed and The Wool Library. Maria’s approach is to keep it local, believing that it is not necessary to compete on a world market, preferring to keep work and money in the local community.

Another key session was chaired by RBST President Baroness Sue Hayman. This addressed Local abattoirs: funding, future model and next steps and came soon after the launch of the Smaller Abattoir Fund. In her introduction, Sue explained RBST’s stance 
and the fact that Government needs to invest in the infrastructure on which farming depends, just as much as it needs to invest in 
farming itself.

The ORFC sits alongside the main international Oxford Farming Conference and represents the unofficial gathering of the agroecological farming movement in the UK, including organic and regenerative farming. It brings together practising farmers and growers with scientists, economists, activists and policy makers.

Photograph - Lou Drury - Lincoln Longwool Ewe and Lamb