When I first heard the term wool blind, I had both a bit of confusion and a series of interesting images: Shepherds who couldn’t see wool? A small hut covered in wool to use for spying on sheep? As it turns out, it is the sheep who can become wool blind. It tends to occur particularly in longwool breeds when they are in full fleece and unable to see because of the wool covering their eyes.
This sounds like a relatively simple topic that’s hardly worth an entire blog, but like many simple things, once you begin to dig in, you find it’s more complicated than you assumed. Because wool blindness generally occurs in longwool sheep, you would be unlikely to find a wool-blind Romeldale in my flock — although a wool-blind Romney would not be so unusual since they can grow six to nine inches of wool in a single year!
Wool doesn’t always grow on the face of Romneys. There are “open faces” like Kiera’s (left), where very little wool grows on the cheeks or face; and there are “closed faces” like McKenna’s (right). You will notice that McKenna has not only a long topknot but also cheek wool that extends all around her eyes. There is a whole spectrum of face wool between the extremes, and Harmony (below) is a good example of the in-between with a bit of fluff on her cheeks but not so much that it requires trimming to allow her to see.
Wool blindness can be particularly bad in regions with harsh winter weather, since ice and snow can cause the wool to droop over the eyes and freeze to the wool below, sealing off any vision. Studies have shown that wool blindness is linked to a number of undesirable traits, including less attentive mothering, lower longevity, and a lower number of lifetime lambs weaned. So why do we still have Romney ewes in our flock with wool on their faces? Well, that’s where I think this gets really interesting.
You see, the studies looked at sheep who could not see — who were wool blind. Of course, if a ewe can’t see her lambs, she will be a less attentive mother. Those lambs get less protection from their dam because if she also can’t see the predator who is threatening her babes! If she can’t see that predator or the many others that would like to make a meal of her, it’s also likely that her lifespan will be shortened as a result. It seemed to me that there were two possible solutions to all of these problems: either select for sheep who are open faced or trim the wool to allow for improved vision, thereby avoiding wool blindness and all of its issues. Which to choose? I do not need extra work, so the selection option was tempting — but I also wondered whether there might be a reason to stick with my woolly-faced girls.
In the end, the answer was obvious. On average, our woolly-faced Romney ewes produce a full 38% more wool than our open-face ewes. This number is specific to our flock. I took the data I’ve collected over the years and divided the ewes into two groups: one that occasionally requires a midyear face trim (like McKenna) and the other that never requires such handling. I then figured an average fleece weight for each ewe over the years she has been on our farm. [For this averaging process, I did not count the first year — a partial year of growth — and I threw out the heaviest and lightest shearing weights for any ewe who had eight or more clips.] Once I had an annual average fleece weight for each ewe, I averaged the clip for each group. Each of the woolly faced girls who have required face trimming came up with 38% more fleece.
I should note that the income from that extra wool pays me quite handsomely for the minimal labor of a single face trim per girl per year. These ewes continue to stay in our flock because they come from long-lived and heavily producing lines, contribute a high-quality fleece plus a couple of lambs each year, and are attentive mothers to their offspring. In other words, these girls reflect all of the best that a Romney has to offer — but with a bit of face wool that may (or may not, depending on many factors) need trimming occasionally. In my opinion, that’s a small price to pay for what they bring to our flock!