shearing sheep

When the scraper first hits, the compacted, manure-laden hay feels like concrete.  There’s just no easy way of getting through that top layer, and I know, because I tried every other tool sitting around the barn on that hot May afternoon.  It wasn’t until I came back to the scraper the shepherd had given me in the first place, that I was able to break through to the soft layers of rotting hay beneath.  While easier to move about, it has a smell unlike much else.  The smell doesn’t bother me much though; within a few hours, I am able to see the wide heaving floorboards that remind me just how old of a structure I’m cleaning.  Having the floor scraped, raked, and swept should prevent pieces of hay and other “prizes” from getting into the wool on sheep shearing day.

shearing sheep

For those of you that have never experienced sheep up close and personal, let me assure you: they are not cuddly cute animals eager to jump over a fence and lull you to sleep—they are strong, stubborn, and loud.  Consider perhaps a two-hundred-pound toddler that doesn’t speak your language.  Currently, the farm I live on has about 25 sheep and several lambs.  Years ago there were a few hundred and it was the largest sheep farm in the area.  In times past, sheep shearing was easily a multi-day affair.  This year it would only take the better part of the morning and early afternoon.

We called in the help of a local sheep shearer named Kevin.  He makes his living traveling around the state and shearing sheep for a modest wage.  Kevin is a kind looking thin man, with grey hair and wool shoes.  Most of all, Kevin is the real deal.

I’d never experienced sheep shearing day before.  I had this idea in my head… there would be some kind of contraption that the sheep would stand in and be held still, similar to a goat milking/medicating stand I’d seen somewhere.  Maybe pieces of wood could slide around the head and legs like in the stockade so that the shearer could have an easier time moving around them with big electric hair clippers.  Maybe this daydream is the case somewhere, but what I experienced was nothing like that.

shearing sheep

shearing sheep

Sheep were held still, not by some wooden contraption, but by Kevin’s sheer force of will, and the sheep were sheared not by large electric clippers but by giant scissors that strapped to Kevin’s hand and looked as if they had been assembled from large kitchen knives.  You might think that shearing sheep with scissors would take significantly longer than with electric clippers, but you’d be wrong—provided Kevin was holding the shears.  Kevin can shear a sheep in about two minutes.

Undeniably the most important part of a successful shearing day (really, any livestock project) is organization.  There needs to be a clear flow to the sheep entering and exiting the shearing area, and a way to keep them contained on both sides of the process.  Our barn is set up with two large pens that serve this purpose well.  During lambing season we use these pens to separate pregnant ewes from nursing mothers.

One of the pens attaches to a corral next to the feed yard outside the barn, while the other opens directly into the feed yard itself.  The sheep are herded into the corral and brought inside the barn in small groups.  Sheep are picked out of the group one by one, medicated for worms, and sheared.  After they are sheared they go to the other pen to join the rest of the sheared sheep and wait to be let outside again.  Simple.  Except that the only part of this that the sheep do willingly is growing the wool and leaving.

shearing sheep

I’ve helped around the farm long enough to learn some tricks to controlling sheep.  A hand placed firmly under their jaw and around the nose, lifted slightly, is enough to get a single sheep to stay still if you press them against the wall with your body weight.  Getting a sheep to stay in one spot while you milk, medicate, inspect, or tag them is one thing.  Taking one from a group and hand delivering it for medicating and shearing across the barn is something else.  Once a sheep digs in, it doesn’t want to move.

So here I am, the sheep against the wall, me shoving it towards the door of the pen with all my might, it just standing still, resisting me without even trying.  Tired of waiting, Kevin came over, took the nose from me, put a hand on its hind end, and walked it backward out of the pen in one fluid motion.  Sheep can be easily walked backward if you get a good grip on their nose and hind end.  Don’t take me wrong and assume that every sheep will just smile and wink at you when using this technique.  It’s possible they haven’t read this article.  What I did find though, was that even though they still resisted, their breaking point was something I was often able to outlast or overcome and get them moving in the right direction.

shearing sheep
The bag holder.

Once brought to the door of the pen, the shepherd administers an oral medication that helps prevent intestinal worms; a common parasite that goes with the territory of eating where you poop.  Simultaneously the shepherd’s wife looks up the tag number in the flock’s records.  After the sheep has a second to swallow the medication, Kevin grabs it and brings it down to the ground.  Once down, he proceeds to lift the front legs up, and stand behind the sheep.  This elaborate dance ends with Kevin keeping one hand on the sheep’s nose and the other shearing away with his giant scissors.  He works his way around the sheep and ends up with one large piece of wool that is picked clean of all exceptionally dirty pieces and placed in a giant plastic bag.

The bag is about ten feet long and four feet across, it has several small holes for air circulation and is made out of very stout plastic.  It’s held straight up and down by a large wooden frame with boards on the sides that enable one to climb up and into the bag in order to stomp down the wool inside to make space for the next batch.  It looks a little like it could be part of a lifeguard chair.

While the sheared sheep eagerly walked over to the other pen and joined its friends, I started climbing the side of the wooden frame trying to figure out if I was really supposed to jump inside this giant plastic bag of wool, or if that was a joke they told all the farm-hands.  I had flashbacks to childhood and being warned that I would suffocate.  I remembered warning labels with the misshapen-looking kid unhappily stuck in the bag that his Superman costume came in.

shearing sheep
The culled sheep.
By the time I reached the top, I had decided that yes, I am supposed to jump inside this bag and stomp around.  After a bit of assurance from the shepherd and his wife I made the plunge and realized that I didn’t have to worry about suffocating in my Superman-costume bag.  There were holes all over for ventilation, and the wooden stand was surprisingly sturdy for its age.  Once I got over the idea of jumping around in a plastic bag filled with wool, I was excited to take every opportunity to hop back in.  Sort of like when you can’t do enough cannonballs after you stop being afraid of the deep end.

There are some sheep that get to keep their wool.  These are the cull sheep.  Typically, these sheep are very old or have had a bad breeding history, making them undesirable members of the flock.  These sheep are sold as culls to two main markets.  Certain ethnic groups use mutton in their cooking and purchase the sheep for meat, but typically cull sheep are purchased as living lawnmowers.  Not being subjected to the breeding process allows these older sheep a prolonged and more enjoyable twilight period of their life.

shearing sheep

When the sheep are being pulled out of the holding pen for shearing, the flock’s records indicate their status as being “okay”, “check”, or “cull”.  An “okay” is medicated for worms, sheared, and moved to the final pen.  A “check” is perhaps an older sheep that needs a once-over to make sure she’s still fit enough to breed; a younger sheep that has had problems giving birth or getting pregnant; or a sheep that has been sick or behaving strangely.  If the animal requires treatment or further checks, it is sprayed with an antiseptic spray that temporarily dyes a spot of wool purple so they can easily be identified when in the pasture, and then moved to the final pen.  “Culls” are simply medicated and moved to the final pen.

shearing sheep

Shearing time is the perfect time for a check on all of the sheep individually.  All of the sheep move through the sheep shearing process as one status or another, except for this season’s unsold lambs, which move about, in and out of both pens until they are let back outside.

The corral can’t quite fit all of the sheep we have, so in the middle of this process, the other farmhand and I have to go outside and round up the remaining sheep from the lower-barn area and bring them into the corral.  This process is mostly physical comedy.

The lower barnyard has a large gate that opens into the main pasture.  Earlier in the day, all the shearing sheep were herded into this area from the pasture and the gate was shut.  It is a lot easier to herd sheep in a small barnyard than a huge field.  Unfortunately, the path to the corral features an intersection bordered by a fence keeping them from the main pasture, and a small stone wall to direct them either left or right.

The sheep quickly understand that a game is afoot, and very rarely turn to the left where the corral is.  Generally, they will go to the right, jump over the wall and form a big group behind you.  This circle continues until you try to head them off on the right; at which point they will turn to the left and instead of going the rest of the way into the corral, jump back over the wall on that side and group behind you again.  After several circles, escapes from the corral, and a few choice words, they end up where they need to be and sheep shearing is free to continue.

During these periods of downtime, while a sheep’s record is being discussed and sorted out, Kevin sharpens his shears with a stone.  Sheep’s wool is thick and a bit greasy, so a pair of sharp shears is absolutely essential.  Periodically the shearing area is quickly raked and re-swept, as the sheep drag dirt and hay into the shearing area with them.    Anything that isn’t fit for the large wool bag is thrown away.  Sheep’s wool doesn’t really burn or compost very well, so we aren’t able to dispose of it ourselves.

When all the sheep have come through the process, the door to the outside from the final pen is opened and they joyfully exit the barn and go into the feed yard.  But the sheep shearing process isn’t over yet.  Kevin cleans up his shearing supplies and I start the task of taking the bag down from the wooden frame and tying it up.  When the bag is securely tied, the other farmhand and I carry it up into the loft of the old barn.  The bag itself weighs a few hundred pounds, but its size makes it very awkward to handle by oneself.  The bag isn’t alone up in the loft, we have about four tons of wool stockpiled.

shearing sheep

In the not-so-distant past, this area was a major producer of wool garments.  Wool is excellent for making cold-weather clothing because it will keep you warm even when completely soaked.  It is also generally water-resistant and durable.  Despite all the fabric’s strengths, wool is increasingly and incorrectly seen as scratchy or old-fashioned and has been largely replaced by synthetic fleece and nylon.  Occasionally people will come to the farm to purchase small amounts for spinning yarn or some other textile craft, but they rarely return or buy very large quantities.  Periodically, a wool buyer will contact the farm and the wool will be shipped off to China for who knows what, but this usually requires about 10 tons of wool to make it economical for all parties.

Another sheep shearing day come and gone and some more wool in the loft.  I got to keep a fleece from one of the sheep and this winter my girlfriend, Taryn, and I are going to try and make it into yarn.  I’m not sure if we’ll be able to get through all four tons, but with the burgeoning interest in buying local and doing-it-yourself, who knows, maybe that wool in the loft will be gone before we know it.



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