Thoughts of shearing

Believe it or not, our major shearing of the year — fifty-one ewes — is just around the corner on Saturday, January 28th! If you are a fiber addict, please know that even though we shear in January, those fleeces will not be available for sale until sometime in mid February. I usually begin to get inquiries almost the day after we shear, but preparing that many fleeces for sale takes some time, so please be patient!

I mention our shearing not because I’m trying to tease the fiber people among our readers but because the preparations are beginning to take up more and more of my thoughts and my time. Keep in mind that fiber production is a major portion of our work here at Peeper Hollow Farm, and although wool grows for an entire year before we harvest it at shearing, what happens on that single day can make or break the quality of the wool we produce for the year. Over the next weeks, I will likely be writing multiple blogs on the topic of shearing, but this particular posting focuses on a very narrow part of the whole event: the actual shearers.

I certainly know that we cannot do this alone. Every year we rely on a whole list of helpful workers and volunteers to help get the fleece off of the sheep and into the house where I’ll prepare it for sale. The first and most important step is the actual shearing of the fiber close to the body of the ewe without cutting her! It sounds simple — after all, many of us have used clippers to cut the hair of our sons or husbands! How different can it be to shear the wool off of a sheep? But it is different — very different in many ways.

Our two shearers harvesting the fiber from our ewes in January of 2015.

We bring in the best shearers that we’ve been able to find over the years, those who are willing to let me dictate how I want the job done. I figure that if I’m willing to pay them well, they’ll be willing to shear according to my guidelines. The first rule of the day: We are harvesting fiber, not shearing the sheep! People who shear sheep are generally focused on the end result of a clean-looking sheep. In my case, I don’t care if the finished sheep is scruffy or has some areas that are longer than others. That wool will simply add to next year’s clip if left alone — if it’s cut off to produce a tidy sheep, those bits of fleece are wasted. I want the fiber harvested so that it’s not spoiled in any way, for example, cut in half or stained by clipper oil in the process. The fiber is the focus, and we want it intact and beautiful!

That is not to say that that I’m willing to have my sheep suffer in the process. Our shearers are very careful to handle each sheep with gentleness and respect, and it shows in the sheep’s behavior once shearing begins. Many of our older ewes actually volunteer for shearing, coming to the door of the pen that leads to the shearing floor. These girls know they will feel so much lighter and more comfortable once the shearing is done. Many of these girls are heavy with lambs that are due in only a couple of weeks. Although we shear on the same schedule every year, we have never had a problem with early labor as a result of shearing stress. Everyone handles the sheep carefully and cuts are kept to a minimum.

Honestly though, the younger girls are not so keen to be sheared. After all, the sights and sounds at their first shearing are a little overwhelming! Their coats come off for an extended period, for the first time since their birth! They are then handed over to the shearer who flips them onto their rumps and begins to shear the wool from their most vulnerable area: from the rear leg up along the middle of the belly and up the neck to the chin. Yikes! The belly is then sheared away and removed so that it doesn’t contaminate the rest of the fleece — as is the wool from the top of the head and back of the neck. In the end, the entire remaining fleece is bundled into a bed sheet for later skirting while the ewe is vaccinated, recoated and released back into the holding area with the rest of the flock. The first time is scary, but every time after that becomes less stressful as they better understand what is happening.

Although the calendar says three weeks, shearing day will be here before we know it — and there is so much to do to prepare. I guess I’d better get busy!



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