The role sheeps wool plays in the bioeconomy of Irish agriculture

With sheep’s wool seen as an economic loss to the farmer, could new research into the use of hydrolysed wool as a sustainable source of fertiliser be a solution for farmers in light of heightened fertiliser prices while creating a circular bioeconomy in Ireland? Dathal Kent investigates.

Over the past number of years, the rapid decline in wool prices and its drop in popularity has shocked the wool industry and the farmers who supply it. A once-lucrative market for farmers has turned into what many consider as a waste of time. Because of these poor prices, the Irish sheep industry has shifted to breeds that are bred for their meat production with very little concern for their wool or its quality. The once-prized natural commodity is now seen as a waste product and as such is seen as a cost to the farmer. In many situations, the cost of shearing animals is greater than the value of wool. Prices for shearing a sheep are now at an average price of €2.40 a head while the expected return from the wool is around €0.15 per kg. 

Hydrolysis is a potential processing technology for value addition to sheep wool by producing nutrients and soil amendments.

Pioneering research from UCD is now looking at alternative options for farmers to make better use of the wool produced on their farms. The study which is being conducted by UCD lecturers Gary Gillespie, Oyinlola Dada and Kevin McDonnell is looking at how this wool could be possibly turned into fertiliser for use on farms. Hydrolysis is a potential processing technology for value addition to sheep wool by producing nutrients and soil amendments. The production of fertiliser from sheep’s wool would have benefits for all stakeholders as it would give sheep farmers an alternative market for their wool but it would also give the Irish agricultural industry a new alternative to expensive imported fertilisers. In the past few months, the price of fertiliser for farmers has skyrocketed with some farmers facing an almost doubling of costs when compared to previous years. Global supply chain issues and the increasing raw material costs for traditional fossil-based fertilizer compounds. These increasing costs have prompted calls for increased investment in more sustainable fertiliser production. 

The study found that utilising hydrolysis could potentially produce 1,788,790kg of nitrogen, 1,065,676kg of sulphur, 236kg of copper, and 51,960kg of zinc annually, which could replace fossil-based fertilisers. The study suggests a processing hub would be established in an area around the town of Athlone which is easily accessed from the majority of the country. It would be hoped that hydrolysis of sheep wool could aid with the development of a circular economy in Ireland which would be sustainable and reliable for all parties involved. This research has identified sheep farmers in the west of Ireland as those who would benefit most from a wool processing facility such as this as it would provide them with a much needed new income source. For the project to be a success, there would need to be a market for the newly produced fertiliser and as such the village farmers located in the east of the country have been identified as the most suitable buyers. The location of Athlone town allows for wool to move in a South-Westerly direction from the sheep dense counties of Donegal, Mayo and Galway to more arable based counties such as Wexford, Kilkenny and Carlow.

It would be hoped that the hydrolysis of sheep wool could aid with the development of a circular economy in Ireland.

The results of this study suggest that the cost of production for 1kg of N from hydrolysed sheep wool ranges between €2.60 kg N and €17.89 kg N depending on the costs associated with the purchasing of the feedstocks. For context, several local fertiliser suppliers (Republic of Ireland) are quoting CAN price in the region of €600 t (€2.22 kg N) and urea around €900 t( €1.96 kg N). There is very limited published work available on the economic costs associated with the hydrolysis of non-lignocellulosic by-products and as such more research is needed. The study is ongoing and future work in the study will be looking to assess spatiotemporal variabilities of nutrient contents and yields of wool.

Many people in the Irish agricultural industry will be looking forward to the results of this project. It is hoped that this project can help in reducing imported fertilizer which is a key principle of the new sustainable Irish agricultural model being set out by farming leaders.