Saturday, 14 March 2015

shearing school

Last weekend, my husband and I took a road trip down to Freeport, Maine with my lovely friend Rebecca to attend a beginner sheep shearing class through the University of Maine's Department of Extension at Wolfe's Neck Farm.

Bob and I are ready to start!
As a wool producer, shearing is an important and exciting part of what I do. All the blood, sweat and tears of caring for my flock over the past year are paid back in full on this day when I dream about what will become of the twelve bags of freshly shorn fleeces lined up in the barn.

It was watching shearing of sheep as a young child that drew me to sheep in the first place. I don't know how old I was, but I know it was a very long time ago. I remember going to a big barn in Old Barns, Nova Scotia with my family and it was dark and cold outside. Probably February or March. We were in the bottom of the barn and the ceilings were so low that all the adults had to walk bent over so as not to hit their heads on the rafters.  There was one or two lights hanging on nails and sheep were everywhere. Some of them had had their babies recently and the smell of sheep and hay was thick and soothing. The sheep were being sheared by a gray-haired woman dressed in overalls, a buttoned up shirt and booties on her feet. I remember how softly she spoke to the sheep; how quickly and mindfully she manipulated the sheep between her legs as she sheared the fleeces. The sheep looked as if they were smiling and closed their eyes as if they were falling asleep in her arms. I remember the shearers smile and thinking that I loved the scene before me and didn't want to leave.

Most people think that the fleeces of all sheep are used to make woollen garments or other wool products and this is why they are sheared in the first place. This isn't always the case. Most sheep are raised for meat and as breeding programs work to create bigger, meatier breeds, wool quality is often sacrificed resulting in poor quality fleeces for today's wool standards. A lot of fleeces end up rotting in landfills. For those who think wool is always itchy, you probably haven't worn a garment made from a breed of sheep that has a nice fleece and can make the connection that not all fleeces are created equal.

My Shetlands are a primitive, "unimproved" breed and have a range of colour and fleece quality. As a primitive breed, they will naturally shed their fleeces over time if they are not sheared. Some of mine are pretty patchy now and if I don't shear them soon, I will lose some of the fleeces to the earth and the birds who gather their dropped fleeces to line their nests. The advantage to losing your fleece naturally is that you don't have a coat that continuously grows and gets heavier and heavier as the years pass. There was a Merino sheep in New Zealand known as 'Shrek the Sheep' who became famous for avoiding being sheared for 6 years by hiding out in caves. His fleece weighed 60 pounds when he was finally caught and sheared!

If a fleece isn't destined to become a garment, other reasons for shearing are to maintain health (lots of gross stuff can get caught in fleeces and could cause skin irritation leading to sores, parasites, infections and other nasty things) and to increase square footage per sheep by reducing the surface area of each sheep.

Shearing takes time and considerable effort to do yourself and money if you have to hire someone to come in. This has led to developments in sheep breeding programs to create 'hair sheep' that have hair rather than wool. The hair breeds take up less room than a wool breed in the same space and they naturally shed their hairy coats in the summer so they don't have to be sheared. A time, space and money saver for meat breeders.

Table shearing a Katahdin (hair breed) crossed with a wool breed. This sheep's coat was mostly hair, but because it was crossed with a wool breed, it had some wool mixed in so it can't shed it's whole coat naturally and needs to be sheared.

Shearing is hard work! They say that it is for someone with a 'strong back and a weak mind'. I have a terrible back and my mind never stops so I am afraid shearing isn't something I think I will ever get into. They also say you haven't learned to shear a sheep until you have done at least 100 and you don't get good until you've done at least 1000. I sheared 2.5 sheep over the course of the day and my back and legs hated me while I was doing it!

We learned the New Zealand/Australian method taught by three different shearers from Maine. This is the most used method in the world and having experienced it, I can see why!  When you know what you are doing, it is incredibly fast, efficient and easy on the sheep and the fleece comes off as one whole fleece rather than sections. All good things!

The following is by no means a step-by-step instruction that anyone should try to follow without the guidance of an experienced shearer, but more of a reflection for me to share and get set in my head

First, you have to catch a sheep!  I learned that once you have your hands on their head, they pretty much give up and you have them. Getting them to where you want them to go can be a challenge though! Each sheep will be different, but I learned the most difficult ones are best to move by holding their head and making them walk backwards. It's best to shear on a level piece of plywood so you have a relatively clean and firm, but not too hard, surface to work on.

Next, you have to flip the sheep onto it's hind end. This was something I wanted to learn. I have had very few reasons for flipping my sheep over, but it's an important thing to know how to do when you need to trim their feet (very important to do at least twice a year) and if you need to do a good body check for whatever reason. It was easier than I thought and learned that once you have them upright, you can easily move them around depending on where you place your feet and legs. They also are quite calm too!

Me clearing the belly of the first sheep. This is a pregnant female who will deliver her lambs by the end of the month.
Bob clearing the belly of his first sheep. She was so sweet!  I love her face!

The first areas to be sheared are the dirty, sticky, smelly bits on the belly and crotch. The wool in these areas are often too yucky to be used and when done first, can be easily discarded before getting on to the good fleece. Starting at the brisket at the top of the belly, you shear using downward 'blows' of the comb carefully avoiding the udder in females and the pizzle on males. Then you move onto the insides of the lower legs and crotch between the udder/testes and the anus. With a few shuffles of the feet, you move onto the outer left hind leg clearing up over the top of the leg. 

Next, you move up to the neck. This part really scared me and just about everyone there. This is the only part of the sheep that you are really doing blind. However, all went well for everyone and although I'll probably always hold my breath when I do that part, it's not as daunting now. Once you clear the neck, you go up around the ear and behind the head and getting the front left arm in the process, do a few short blows up along the arm to the back of the head. By this time, you can lay the sheep right down on it's side and it will just lay there as you go from the hind end right up the back to the top of the shoulder until you clear right over to the other side of the back bone.

Using this method of shearing allows for the whole fleece to come off in a contiguous fleece and makes it easy for skirting and rolling up for storage.
After you've clear the backbone, you lift the sheep back up onto it's haunches and start working on clearing the other shoulder. By the time the shoulder is clear, my back is killing me, I'm sweating like crazy, legs are shaking and I'm trying to catch my breath! The good thing is that you're almost done!

Bob clears the shoulder on the right side. Almost done!

Using short blows going from the inside to the backbone down the right side of the sheep, you clear the side and finish on the right leg and hip. Done!


It would be a lie to say that there was no blood. It happens. However, the sheep didn't seem to notice and no one was seriously hurt. It's quite miraculous really!

Other things I got some one-on-one instruction was how to trim feet and identify foot rot (one of the sheep was starting to get it from being in a soft floor all winter); skirt a fleece (remove all the undesirable bits from a fleece before washing and carding for use); and how to table shear (not as effective, but has it's place).

We had a great group, with lots of observers, helpers and stories to share. It was a place to connect with like-minded folks and learn together. It was fantastic and definitely would like to attend more workshops like this. Great day!

Great day with a great bunch of folks

A good day's work has come to an end!


  1. brrr!, what will that poor sheep do without its warm wool coat? It still looks pretty cold there. I know it's still quite cold here in Sussex

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  3. brrr!, what will that poor sheep do without its warm wool coat? It still looks pretty cold there. I know it's still quite cold here in Sussex how many do you have to do?

    1. They are surprisingly tough! Last year I had mine done in March and it was cold at night and they would shiver a bit. I helped them out with a few heat lamps and they almost buried themselves in the composting deep litter bedding for warmth. After a week or two they have enough fuzz to regulate their bodies better. I'm shearing mine on April 3rd this year so hope the temps are a bit warmer by then! ;)