Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Woman VS. Wool

Shearing day is an annual event.  I’m never quite sure if we anticipate it or dread it.  I suppose it’s a little of both.  It’s an intense day that ends with “happy” sheep and the satisfaction of a completed task.

The sheep are shorn more for their health and comfort than anything else.  A sheep’s natural body temperature is 102*, so they do not feel the heat quite like humans, but still suffer on the hottest days of summer.  Imagine carrying a 2 to 5 pound woolen blanket on your back. A hot sheep is a miserable sheep, a miserable sheep will not eat, and if a sheep doesn’t eat….well, you get the picture. A close clip also keeps them from getting ticks and mites down in their wool where the pests can cause all sorts of health issues. It can also prevent flystrike, a horrible ailment of which I will spare you the gross and gory details.

For those who see sheep as soft, cuddly, woolly pets, I am here to correct that notion. These are large animals, most weighing in at two hundred pounds or more.  As prey animals, they are nervous to have their legs touched and care must be taken not to injure the animal OR the shearer.  Occasionally, when thesheep are laid on their backs, those sharp hooves start flailing about wildly. Since our sheep are in contact with humans on a daily basis, they are mostly manageable, although we do have the occasional freaky one. Thankfully, this year the event passed without major incident and with very little cussing.

Blondie has done the shearing around here every spring for a long time.  Here is the rather lighthearted entry from last year.http://homesteadhillfarm.blogspot.com/2011/05/day-at-spa-farm-style.html  This year, she requested that I approach the subject a little differently.  It needs to be noted that this is a hot, hard, intense day on the part of the shearer.

Shearing is an intense combination of muscle, skill and attention.  In New Zealand and Australia, it has evolved into a competitive sport.  There are shearers that can do hundreds of animals per day. With sheep far outnumbering the human population, it is big business “down under”.  A team of 9 holds the world record at over 3 THOUSAND sheep in one 9 hour day. Now, that’s some serious shearing!

1st sheep done!  Off to a good start
Here in the states, the approach is quite different. Sheep are not raised in the numbers in the Northern Hemisphere that they are in the Southern.  Shepherding is not “big business”, particularly here in the east. Still, there are professional shearers that have specialized equipment and will travel from farm to farm.  It is bad-breaking work, and the pay is not at all commensurate with the effort involved, but it is necessary and traditional and hopefully there will always be folks that will shear. The specialized equipment used in large operations makes the work must more efficient, but it is still very hard work. It takes a special sort of person to be a shearer.

There are some special interest groups in the world that would have the uninitiated think that the sheep are being abused and mistreated during this whole shearing process.  That simply is not true.  The animals truly benefit from the haircut. Any rough handling is quickly forgotten as the animals head out to green pastures once again.

For our small operation, it works best to do the work ourselves. (okay, get Blondie to do it) This way, we can control the schedule and pace of the work. I act as assistant, helping handle the animals, keeping track of the clipper cord, and trimming hooves. It makes sense to trim the hooves on shearing day, as we are already handling the animals.  Hooves need trimming to keep the animals’ feet healthy. If allowed to grow too long, the hooves cause painful feet which can lead to lameness. A lame sheep is a most pathetic sight and generally does not respond well to treatment.  Better to prevent the problem in the first place.

The sheep are brought in the night before to keep the wool dry.  This is because wet wool doesn’t cut well.  Because the sheep have been locked in the barn overnight, they are generally fairly grumpy.  It helps to get the job over with as quickly as possible.The shearing operation starts early the next morning, with the intention of being done by lunchtime.  While we didn’t quite make the schedule this year, the job got done without incident. We celebrated with ice cream on the front porch.

The shearing process is supposed to be like a dance.  There is a sequence for the “blows” (the passes taken with the clippers), certain places that feet and hands should be (for safety and efficiency) and prescribed positions for the sheep.  The idea is to peel the wool away in one cohesive piece with speed and precision.
The wool should "peel" off

The sheep are not supposed to escape...
particularly when they're not DONE!

This dance must be performed while holding a two-hundred pound animal against your legs and controlling the whirring clipper, while enduring warm (if not hot) temperatures. During this time, the animal must be monitored for distress and discomfort, anticipating her reactions in order to avoid injury.  Most of the time this whole thing can be completed without incident.  In the event of a knick to the sheep, medication is applied, and the dance continues. Occasionally, if concentration is lost, or the sheep truly wigs out, she will escape, dragging the wool behind.  Once I stop laughing, she is recaptured, and it’s back to work.  Figure out the misstep and continue the dance.  What a workout!

Sitting on a sheep is NOT part of the "dance"!

Almost done...look at ALL that wool!

If the wool is being sent for processing, or to the wool pool, it must be skirted (cleaned of debris and daggy bits of wool) and put aside for processing.  I keep meaning to check into the wool pool, but as you can see…we will just discard this year’s wool.

The wool is nowhere near ready to use for spinning, weaving or any other project at this point. It is full of lanolin, bits of dirt and vegetative matter, and smells distinctly like a sheep.  Those daggy bits I mentioned…that’s a nicer way to refer to the excrement that causes the wool to clump together at the sheep’s back end.  In the areas where the animal is naturally warmer (the leg joints) the lanolin melts together and forms clumps as well. In some ways it’s hard to believe that this mess could turn into yarn.  One of these days, I will detail the girls’ venture into the world of fiber processing.  Suffice it to say, they learned to process wool “from sheep to shawl” as it were. Those were the days…

The last one! 

As for us, another year’s shearing is behind us.

 Well…not so fast.  The ram still needs shearing.  With yesterday’s heat (it was approaching 90*), his size (probably 300 lbs) AND the necessity of keeping him apart from the ewes, we decided to wait.  The Boss and I will get him next week…and yes, that will be a story in and of itself!

The ewes were turned out to pasture as soon as they were all shorn.  After a night of fasting, they mowed the paddock quite well.  Then, they moved back out to one of their grazing spots on the hill where they will continue their rotational grazing until breeding time arrives in August. 

Such a beautiful sight!  

Thanks Amanda!

No comments:

Post a Comment