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Further information


Fine Wool in Portugal

(by Luis Pinto de Andrade & João Pedro Várzea Rodrigues, Portugal)

  1. Introduction
  2. Wool Chain
  3. Collected wool
  4. Development project
  5. Participants institutions


In the last few years, world wool prices have declined. Furthermore, and unlike all other textile fibres and animal products, wool is not recognised as an agricultural product under the treaty of Rome. It cannot benefit therefore from any of the agricultural subsidies granted within the European Union. Since fine wool of high quality has been "rediscovered" by the fashion industry in recent years in many European countries, there is a potential demand for locally produced fine wool.

It is relevant to re-evaluate the present situation in what constitutes wool qualities in order to improve, or at least maintain the wool quality of some flocks, although it is necessary that herd books redefine and reintroduce "wool criteria" in genetic selection criteria so that breeding stock with improved wool characteristics may be identified. Premiums would provide an incentive to produce and disseminate approved breeding stock. This purpose fits into the national policy of conservation of genetic resources and autochtonous breeds. Therefore it is important to carry out an objective and directed survey of wool quality and to identify the best genetic basis in order to set up an initial fine wool flock (ó20æm).

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2-Wool Chain

Since 1940, Portugal has had established a system for collecting (livestock co-operatives that also work as wool storage centres) and classifying wool (technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture), so that batches can be grouped for sale to industrial concerns.

Several scientific studies on wool quality and improvement were carried out from 1938 until the 1970's (Morais, 1938; 1947; 1951, Ferreira et al, 1974).

As we can see in Table 1 in a study done in 1938 in some areas of South Portugal, it was possible to find quite a reasonable percentage of animals with fine wool (15-20 æm). The genetic bases of these flocks (Portuguese white Merino) are still available since most farmers in this region have maintained pure-bred flocks.

Table 1-Proportion of animals with different fibre diameters in Southern Regions of Portugal

Regions 15-20 microns (%) 20-25 microns (%) 25-30 microns (%) 30-40 microns (%)
Arraiolos 26.3 10.5 42.1 21.2
Evora 9.9 52.2 34.0 4.5
Reguengoa 20.0 58.2 20.0 1.9

Source: Morais, 1938

Due to the existence of specialised technicians within the sector, the Ministry of Agriculture created a structure named "Wool Production and Marketing" in 1940, which was crucial to the qualitative and quantitative improvement of wool. The activity of this structure has been developed in several ways:

As a consequence of this activity, the farmer's interest in the production of fine wool increased. The genetic improvement of flocks was widely accepted, leading to an increase in fine wool production.

Since 1974, the restructuration of the Ministry of Agriculture has resulted in a reduction in importance of the wool production sector. From 1974 till now, very few studies on wool fineness have been done and the technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for grading wool, have lost the laboratory references for fineness. However, wool grading has continued to be undertaken, based on the considerable experience of the technicians.

During the last two decades, there has been little progress in this sector and there is a risk of losing all the knowledge when these few technicians retire. This will lead to a loss of all the work done throughout the last decades. Efforts must be made in order to reset priorities of the wool sector, making good use of the existent knowledge and giving it a solid scientific basis.

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3-Collected Wool:

In Portugal, the collection of the wool is done by farmers' associations in three different places in the south and centre border areas (Beja, Evora and Castelo Branco). It is predicted that only 15 to 20% of the total production is delivered to the collection points. In Table 2, the percentage distribution of classified wool between 1990 and 1997 can be seen. In the southern regions of the country (Evora and Beja), the percentage of AA wool (19-22 æm) lay between 35 to 45%. In Castelo Branco region, the percentage of AA wool has decreased since 1990 (46.4%), reaching a minimum in 1995 (12.9%). This situation results from the crossbreeding between autochthonous and exotic breeds (Friesian, Manchego, Awassi and Assaf), which have been introduced to increase milk production.

Table 2- Changes in fineness of wool in the 1990's in the three places of collection (expressed as percentages)

Evora Beja Castelo Branco
Years AA A B AA A B AA A B
1990 35.4 34.9 15.4 51.4 27.0 12.2 46.4 22.7 17.3
1991 44.9 20.3 20.8 42.8 24.9 15.1 34.2 29.6 14.4
1992 37.0 26.7 14.6 50.1 23.3 15.8 39.5 27.9 19.8
1993 40.5 29.1 15.5 54.8 17.6 8.40 29.0 28.6 25.0
1994 41.5 19.0 25.6 45.3 29.1 15.2 24.7 27.5 30.7
1995 47.7 25.1 19.0 49.0 26.5 9.20 12.9 32.5 31.1
1996 29.0 30.3 17.4 39.4 31.4 18.8 18.6 25.9 29.3
1997 34.3 35.9 18.9 41.6 31.6 15.3 28.3 24.5 24.4

AA-(19-22 æm); A-(>22-25 æm) and B-(>25-36 æm) Source : Chabert, personal communication, 1997

In Table 3, the consolidated data shows a tendency for a percentage decrease in AA wool produced (44.4% in 1990 vs. 29.0% in 1996), which correspond to an increase in the production of A wool (>22-25 æm); B and D classes suffer slight changes. This tendency ought to be changed.

Table 3- Changes in the fineness of wool in the 1990's in Portugal (expressed in percentages)

Years AA

(19-22 microns)


(>22-25 microns)


(>25-36 microns)



90 44.4 28.2 14.9 12.4
91 40.6 24.9 16.7 17.4
92 42.2 25.9 16.7 15.1
93 41.4 25.1 16.3 17.1
94 37.1 25.2 23.8 13.8
95 36.5 28.0 19.7 15.6
96 29.0 29.2 21.8 19.7
97 34.7 30.6 19.5 15.1

Source : Chabert, personal communication (1997)

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4-Development Project

We are proposing a project "Evaluation of fine wool production in Portugal" that has been submitted to the framework INTERREG II to be implemented in the south and centre border area of Portugal.

The goals are:

To achieve these goals, it is necessary to:

Projects to be implemented:

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5-Participant institutions

The partner institutions in this project are the Ministry of Agriculture and the School of Agriculture of Castelo Branco. The following farmers associations also participate in the project: Ovinos do Sul da Beira (OVIBEIRA); Cooparativa Ovina de Evora (COE/UNICADE). Broadly, these institutions are responsible for:

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