Fall shearing 2015 — and a bit of history

Sunday was a dreary and chilly day as the shearer rolled up to our Sheep Barn, ready to take care of the lambs that were not staying on our farm — most of them headed to auction. Being sheared now will allow them regrow up to an inch of fleece before they go to auction in November, bringing a better price at auction and providing some small fleeces to sell this fall.

Fourteen lambs were sheared: thirteen rams and one ewe. All had been dropped from consideration as breeding animals, since they fell short of our expectations for various reasons. Some have grown too slowly to this point, others have coarser fleece than we want on our sheep, and yet others aren’t built quite right or have some defect that caused us to pull them from our breeding list. In any case, on Saturday morning the youngsters all waited in our Sheep Barn for the shearer, having no idea what was coming!

The process of shearing a sheep has developed over millennia. Sheep were among the first domesticated species, at about the same time as the dog. Thousands of years ago, shepherds would collect the undercoat that was shed by the ancient ancestors of our flocks. At that time, sheep carried a dual coat of hair and of a soft undercoat that was shed annually and could be found rubbed off on branches and in thickets. Humans found that these bits of undercoat could be felted or spun, and soon sheep were domesticated so that the collection of the shed coat was simplified. They could then pluck it off as it was shed, much as is still done today with some of the unimproved breeds. As is typical, once we had sheep under our control, we began to aim for specific traits, genetically molding the sheep by selecting the preferred type to reproduce, creating — from the human viewpoint at least — an even better coat on a more easily kept animal.

Over the millennia this type of selection has produced sheep where the primary hair coat has become more and more similar to the undercoat — nearly indistinguishable by the naked eye. Breeds now have different wool types, ranging between two extremes: a fiber so fine that a whole shawl can be pulled through a ring from your finger, to a long, strong fiber for making heavy felted coats, boot liners, or water-resistant sweaters for seagoing fishermen. As we have genetically molded them, we have also selected for sheep that do not shed their coats — their wool must be sheared regularly, both for our own use and for their comfort. Most of the sheep we now keep are vastly different from those first domesticated ancient ancestors, and they depend on us for their survival. Without regular shearing, they would eventually perish under the weight of their own wool, unable to move within the thick cocoon that would encase them after years of growth.

Our lambs knew none of this on Friday. Although they had never experienced a shearing before, they instinctively knew what to do when they were set into position on the shearing floor. They were genetically programmed to go fairly limp and allow the shearer to do his job. This, too, has been selected over the millennia, since sheep who struggled could be accidentally injured or would be removed from the flock as “too much trouble to deal with” (and most likely used for the next mutton stew!). In this way over many thousands of years, humans have selected for a creature that sits calmly under a buzzing cutting tool or a sharp clipping blade, waiting stoically for the release. It’s truly a bit mind-boggling to watch!

Selection has also changed the sheep in other ways. Because most sheep are sheared at least once a year — and accidents do happen with the best shearers — in the early years of shearing, sheep who bled heavily didn’t survive well. Over the many ensuing centuries, the sheep that survived shearing were those who had little bleeding from the typical nicks or cuts of the process. Their lanolin/grease has also developed antibacterial properties, helping to prevent infection when there is a shearing injury. Now, a nick or cut that would typically cause serious bleeding in other species will bleed very little on a sheared sheep. Sheep have developed over time to be sheared — and to not do so causes more harm to the animal than to annually relieve them of their coat.

Our lambs were thrilled to be rid of their wool. When we released them into the field for the return to their paddock, they kicked up their heels and ran, happy to be pounds lighter! Now more comfortable, they will eat better in the coming weeks and will bring more at the auction in November. Besides that, I will skirt their fleeces in the coming weeks and prepare them for sale to our waiting customers — and when I know more, I’ll report on my progress and on the anticipated release date here!


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