SENDING your product to England and back before it can be sold is not an ideal situation for any business. When that business is based on one of the most remote inhabited islands in the UK, the problem is even worse.

Sitting in the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles west of Walls, in Shetland, Foula is home to around just 35 people. Magnus Holbourn, who runs Foula Wool with his wife, is one of them.

“There are a lot of sheep here, and not a lot of people,” he says.

But those sheep are unique to the island, and with no cross-breeding “for the past few hundred years” they are a key resource that could help future-proof its economy.

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The sheeps’ fleeces, which come in all different colours but are never dyed, currently have to be sent to a spinning mill in the north of England to be turned into yarn, before being shipped back to Foula.

“It’s a logistical challenge, it’s an overhead for our business, and it’s also a contributor to the carbon footprint of our product,” Holbourn says.

However, a grant of almost £100,000 from the Scottish Government’s Island Communities Fund will be put to use changing all that.

Instead, Foula Wool hopes to create its own spinning mill on the island, a plan which Holbourn says has “lots of obvious advantages”.

These are not just the logistics of running the business, but also helping to contribute to a sustainable local economy.

And while the mill will create new jobs, giving new people and new families the chance to live on the island, it may also help to cement those already there.

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Holbourn – who was born on Foula – explains how he inherited a flock of sheep from his father. However, the first thing he did was to cut the number of animals.

He hopes that bringing a spinning mill onto Foula will break that pattern and give people a reason to keep stock high, preventing the need to bring sheep from outwith the island.

“The sheep that we have are quite unique, and that is a genetic resource,” Holbourn says.

“If people keep cutting them like I did originally, then we’ll find ourselves in a position where it’s unsustainable to not be importing sheep.”

As well as helping to safeguard Foula’s unique sheep population, the mill will be run from the island’s off-grid renewable energy network.

Electricity was late in coming to Foula – which is so remote that it has never been connected to the national grid.

Holbourn says he saw it arrive in his lifetime, “which sounds like I must be quite an age, but I’m not! When I was growing up we just didn’t have it.”

But with three wind generators, a solar array, a hydro-generator, and back-up batteries, the island’s power is now almost exclusively renewable, only keeping diesel generators as a “final back up”.

A mill would mean that Foula Wool can begin to farm, harvest, process, and sell their product all from their island base, using renewable energy to do so.

“Everyone has to find an occupation that they can justify to themselves, something where you can feel you’re not contributing to a climate emergency but doing something positive about it,” Holbourn says.

“It’s important to us that our business has as little environmental impact as possible – and you can also be a catalyst for other people to change.

“If they can see that somebody in a very remote and challenging environment is able to run a business that is environmentally responsible, then they don’t really have as much in the way of excuses.”

Visit Foula Wool's website.