Wool Connect didn’t quite connect – Small

Guest Author, October 19, 2020

Wool grower Peter Small with his front-seat collie Jock.

AUSTRALIA’S wool customers have been let down by an unsatisfactory industry response to calls for more non-mulesed wool, but its growers should maintain that breech modification without blood or pain not be called mulesing, according to Victorian grower and knitwear company owner Peter Small.

In this open letter to Schneider Group managing director Givanni Schneider, Mr Small comments on the animal welfare certification issues highlighted in the recent Wool Connect conference, and lays some of the blame for growers’ breeding directions at the European buyers of their clips.

More than 750 people from 22 countries heard presentations 32 speakers from processors, retail brands and certification bodies, covering animal welfare, sustainability and consumer trends.


An open letter to Giovanni Schneider,

Schneider Group,

Wool Connect Conference

6-8th October 2020.

Dear Giovanni,

May I commence by congratulating you and your company on instigating the 2020 Wool Connect Grower Conference by Zoom on the 6th, 7th and 8th of October.

As an Australian wool grower and chairman of a small Australian knitwear company, the owners of the Toorallie brand, I was delighted to be able to participate, together with some 600 participants from all over the world. The Wool Connect Conference, using modern technology, afforded us a unique opportunity in these COVID-19 ravaged times to participate from the safety of our home office.

I do understand the intense frustration of our Northern Hemisphere friends and customers at Australia’s failure to address the supply of non-mulesed wool.

This has been a long festering and unproductive problem going back to 2005, when Australia gave the world an undertaking that mulesing of sheep would cease by 2010.

Although Australia has invested heavily in alternatives to mulesing, progress has been slow and unsatisfactory; sadly the result of poor and inept leadership at many levels in Australia, but principally with Australian Wool Innovation.

This debacle by Australia gives me great personal anguish. In 1994, I established for our company, Quality Softwools Australia, the first ever direct supply chain from farm to fabric — from sheep farms in Australia to combing and spinning in Biella, then onto the looms in Huddersfield in England.

I now travel to Tongxiang City in China to see the wool I have selected at Pooginook, an Australian Merino stud, processed into Toorallie’s Fleece to Hanger garment program.

On each visit, I hear the same message from our Chinese friends: “So many of our customers”, they tell me, “are asking for only non-mulesed wool. What is Australia doing about increasing supply of non-mulesed wool?”

Then of course in 2016, the Europeans and Chinese companies came to Australia for the 85th International Wool Textile Organisation Congress in Sydney. These companies wanted to present the resolution: “If Australia would make pain relief mandatory then that would be an acceptable compromise.”

As every Australian wool grower should, but doesn’t know, the chairman of AWI at that time, Wal Merriman, refused to let this resolution be tabled. Again our customers went home intensely dissatisfied.

Readers of Sheep Central will know that on April 22 this year Claudio Lacchio, top maker and then  chairman of the of Italian Wool Trade Association wrote an open letter to the chair of AWI pleading with AWI to: “Channel the right message on non-mulesed wool to wool growers”.

This was followed by another open letter on the 30th April by Emanuela Carletti of Loro Piana and Francesco Botto Poala of Reda, Italy urging the chair of AWI to lead the change to non-mulesed wool.

In addition, it is known informally in Australia that the Northern Hemisphere staff of The Woolmark Company have been reporting to AWI head office in Sydney the growing concern about the availability of non-mulesed wool, but with no response. All these endeavours have fallen on deaf ears at AWI. In May 2020, knowing that AWI was well and truly in the ‘bunker’ over this issue, I approached several educational and industry organisations to see if they would conduct an international conference to bring firsthand information direct from the Northern Hemisphere brands to Australian wool growers, but to no avail.

So it was with warm enthusiasm that I read in Sheep Central the news of the Schneider Wool Connect grower conference. Whilst I applaud the Schneider Group for organising and conducting this conference, I fear it will gain very little. As a participating Australian wool grower, I would like to offer the following constructive criticism.

I hoped the conference would deliver a clear message directly from many brands to growers. However, there was no clear message. I was not convinced by the number of brands participating, nor the message they wished to convey.

Yes, the need for more non-mulesed wool was there, but it was mixed up with a lot of sustainability and other issues. The conference was over-burdened with many quality assurance/certification organisations, who to me seemed more like rent-seekers than positive contributors to the industry.

One thing the conference revealed was the need for rationalisation of this whole certification industry. There is one wool measurement standard in the world, why not one “sustainability” standard?

Marta Maniero from Marzotto spoke negatively about the multiplicity of certification schemes in the first session on the third day. There is a need to investigate the number of these outfits and what they are really offering, other than imposing another cost to the grower.

We did hear a lot of inspiring talk about how we all have to care for each other and people who cared for sheep deserved to be well-rewarded. This is warm fuzzy talk, when we know exporters of wool out of Australia can lose a contract to Northern Hemisphere companies, and yes European companies too, for as little as a few cents a kilogram. That is the real world we operate in.

Then there is confusion by our customers about the interpretation of ‘non-mulesed’ (NM). This whole matter arose out of brands and retailers in the Northern Hemisphere being concerned about images of freshly-mulesed sheep. Under the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Sheep, mulesing is the removal of skin from the breech and/or tail of a sheep using (surgical) mulesing shears.

The lack of adequate promotion for welfare-friendly alternatives to breech modifications procedures is one of AWI’s, and the industry’s, greatest failings. However, Australia, in my view, must be adamant that as long as there is no blood and no pain, the wool should be classified non-mulesed. To argue any differently is a nonsense and really questions what is this whole exercise about?

Finally, I must sheet some of the blame on this slowness by Australia to breed more sheep that don’t require mulesing, back onto our Italian friends. The shorter staple traditional fine wools that Italy has consistently told Australian stud Merino breeders they require, come off tight thick-skinned sheep. These sheep are the exact opposite to the long-stapled, deep crimping silky soft wools on plain-bodied sheep that are less likely to require mulesing. I think this fact was known to the Italian trade back in the mid-1990s, yet it is the Italian wool trade’s insistence on the traditional fine wools that has contributed to the policy hiatus within AWI over all these years. This hiatus has significantly slowed progress towards plainer-bodied sheep.

Peter Small


16th October 2020


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  1. Jim Gordon, October 20, 2020

    Peter Small, congratulations on a wonderful article, a very interesting read. I hope others find it as enjoyable as I did. I too, enjoyed the Wool Conect conference and would like to thank the Schneider Group for organising the event. Especially Elisabeth and Willy.
    The segment on chemical residues in lanolin caught my interest. I hadn’t thought about the wax glands storing chemicals. It makes sense when the skin is so pores. This certainly adds weight to breeding fly-resistant sheep and faster growing wool, so shearing more often could disrupt the life cycle of lice. Less need for chemical in both cases.
    You make note of the warm fuzzy feel. Remember this is why humans do things, the moments of pleasure, feeling good. As an industry, we have to produce a product that makes people feel good, then they will return again and again.
    I get your desire for the freeze branding to be included into the non-mulesed category on the NWD. The problem is the welfare groups see freeze branding as the same as mulesing, on a cruelty basis. They are the people that are having meetings with the brands and retailers, and setting the agenda. The discerning shopper and the welfare groups are in charge.
    The only solution to this festering blight on the Australian wool industry is to lose the hard wrinkle.
    The Italian story is an interesting one. I think it is solvable. How to produce a stiff staple without the tight wrinkly skin?

    • Peter Small, October 20, 2020

      Jim Gordon, I agree 100 percent with your two very good points. Firstly, it is the animal rights groups who have been setting the agenda, and secondly, the solution is in the breeding.
      However, until this point, Australia has had an indefensible position. All wool growers must be aware by now that there is an urgent need to increase the supply of non-mulesed (NM) wool.
      I would argue that freeze branding — as I believe there is no pain or blood — does present a defensible position for Australia. This is a case Australia should argue and defend. Those who believe that animal rights groups will not desist until our industry is destroyed do have a point, so when we finally have a defensible position, we should firmly defend that position.
      Another housekeeping issue Australian wool growers must attend to is completing their National Wool Declarations at the conclusion of shearing. We may well have non-mulesed wool that is not being reported by the grower. As a nation, we must do all we can to increase the supply of NM wool.

  2. Giovanni Schneider, October 20, 2020

    Dear Peter, thanks a lot for your constructive criticism. We will consider everything you’ve pointed out and we will make sure to address it in the next Wool Connect conference in 2021.

    Just for your information, the first edition was organised in one month as a spontaneous idea, as we felt that, during these challenging times we had to regain contact with the growers and be close to all of you around the world.

    Wool Connect is about establishing a dialogue between growers and other stakeholders without any filters.

    Thanks again for the suggestions.


    Giovanni Schneider

    • Peter Small, October 20, 2020

      Dear Giovanni,
      Thankyou for your response and I am delighted that you are planning another conference in 2021. Of course, whilst you have enormous support from Sheep Central and its many influential readers about mulesing, unfortunately the filters in Australia inhibit the accessibility of much market information back to many grassroot growers.
      I have been a long time advocate of our wool exporters talking direct to growers, so I applaud your initiative.
      Kind Regards,
      Peter Small

  3. Paul Favaloro, October 19, 2020

    Well stated Peter, your last paragraph nailed the mindset of the traditional wool grower. Encouraging growers towards a plainer body needs to be led by the dollar. AWI is riding on the benefits from the non-mulesed producers.
    How can producers fully understand the true value of non-mulesed wool when sold with all types in the open cry auction system?
    If there were two sales, one non-mulesed and another, wool with or without pain relief, we would have a better signal to the direction we should be heading.
    The Eastern Market Indicator is not a good indicator, as there is nothing to inform the producer of the volume of mulesed or non-mulesed being sold.

    • Peter Small, October 19, 2020

      Thank you Paul Favaloro, for your excellent suggestion of segregating non-mulesed wool for sale. Something has got to be done to break the current impasse. A market signal is required to not only increase the supply of non-mulesed wool, but also encourage growers to correctly complete their National Wool Declarations.

      • Bruce Pengilly, October 20, 2020

        Thank you Peter for an insightful article.
        We sold our first non-mulesed clip this year and it was hard to see where we received a premium for our effort.
        If you get it right, the extra for the wool is the bonus. Extra weight on your lambs as well as extra lambs is the bigger profit driver for us.

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