We are less than a couple of weeks away from shearing our ewe flock, and it’s obvious to even the most casual observer. The Romeldales, who typically grow 3-5″ of fleece annually, are looking pretty wooly. And the Romneys, whose fleece is often twice as long as their Romeldale flockmates, are nearly buried in wool – often to the point where the fringe that hangs down into their faces is long enough to block some of their vision or to hang with icicles that rattle as they move. I am happy that within a short period of time, we will harvest the fiber they carry and they can start regrowing their wool coats.
They have been growing the wool that they currently carry since January 25, 2014—very nearly a year. Over that period of time, we have provided the very best nutrition and care to ensure that their fleece would grow well. Poor management and illness can create tender fleece, ruining the fiber from that particular sheep for the entire year, so we are very careful. We make sure they always have good feed and fresh, clean water. We make salt and minerals easily available to every group. We minimize stress and treat every illness. In other words, our focus is to create healthy, happy, fleece-producing sheep, and nothing less.
Besides the focus on wool growth, we also protect that wool from damage after it has left the surface of the skin. All of our sheep are coated from minutes after they are born to minutes before they are sheared. After shearing, they are again immediately coated. Except for the short periods of time when we change coats to a larger size—accommodating an increase in size or heavy wool growth—each sheep again wears its coat until minutes before it is sheared a year later. Much of what we do is geared toward producing a high-quality fleece, protected from direct sun, wind, rain and nasty contaminants.
Caring for a coated flock is a lot of work, since each lamb goes through about seven coats in its first year, and each adult wears at least two or three during the same time period. Besides the work of caring for the sheep and swapping out their many coats, keep in mind that those same coats must all be washed, mended, folded, sorted and stored until they are once again taken out to our flock to put on to other sheep. Torn coats do not protect well; those whose elastic is overstretched do not fit well. Everything I do is to make sure that when we shear, the wool we harvest is the very best we can produce – the very best.
So when I went out the other day into the lean-to where the low nutrition group resides and saw that both Koko and Maggie had very large tears in their coats, I felt a whole assortment of negative emotions: irritation and frustration, to name just a couple. A torn coat in the summer is no big deal. The ewes are on pasture, so the threat of contamination is relatively small. Except for the dust from the road or dirt from where they lay, there just isn’t much that gets into their fleece during warm weather. Now, however, it’s a different story! Our ewes eat hay, which crumbles easily as they grab great globs of it from their feeders and eat over the next ewe’s back. Bits of hay and straw from the bedding get into everything: my pockets and clothes, the wool around their heads and necks—and into any small tear or opening in their coats. I have been protecting Koko’s and Maggie’s fleeces for over 340 days, and now, in just a few hours, they can contaminate all that lovely wool and dramatically decrease its worth! There was no way I was going to allow that!
It should also be noted that Koko and Maggie are both Romeldale/CVMs—a critically endangered breed. Their wool is highly sought after as a breed, and these two girls carry a couple of the best fleeces of our flock. The color, length, fiber diameter, and uniformity come together in such a way that their fleeces are typically among the nicest we produce.
Yet changing coats in the winter can be tricky, particularly when it is as cold as it has been here recently. I find it very difficult to change their coats with heavy gloves on; I need the tactile feedback from my fingers to know I have the coat in the correct position and leg straps seated properly. I had to take off my warm gloves so that I could do the job properly. As I pulled the first coat up from the back, I found that the winter weather had caused the coat to freeze to the ewe’s fleece, and pulling at it would have damaged the wool. Since we were in a shelter without power, I used heat from my hands to gently thaw as I pulled. By the end, there was little heat left in my hands! I heated one section at a time and pulled that section of coat free, moved my ungloved hand to the next section and repeated the process, over and over for both coats. It was a slow and bone-chilling project, but my only other choice was to leave them until I had help or until it was warmer out – either of which threatened the quality of the fleece I had protected for so long.
I did get both coats changed eventually, and I had thankfully caught both tears early enough that there was still little contamination. I’ve already washed and mended their coats for use on other ewes. Now I continue to watch for torn coats as I visit the flock, knowing that an entire year’s work can be ruined in just a few hours—and that vigilance at this point is rewarded by much less work in preparing the fleeces for sale. I watch and hope for better, warmer weather, which will make the whole process of changing their torn coats that much easier.