Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shearing sheep in preparation for lambing - the old fashioned way

So lambing for us this year is less than 30 days away. Typically, with the breed we "husband" shearing is a twice-a-year event, and everyone has a rich, full fleece even though shearing happened back in September last.

Due to budget cuts on the farm, I decided to not have the shearer come out for this period, but to do it myself. I had other reasons too - a desire to think about how it must be done, to learn more about the wool in a new way, and to appreciate my shearer even more (the guy, not the equipment).

By the way - we have a snug barn where everyone beds down each night and we have relatively mild winters. I might only "crutch" a sheep if I lived in Vermont or Minnesota or some such, as sheep can suffer if sheared and then forced to confront a late winter storm.

Good shearing looks "easy" - but it's hard work. The typical Australian method with electric shears requires a sturdy back. And despite some good immobilizing holds on a sheep, if they feel they can get their feet back under them, they will struggle, and even a 175-200 lb struggling sheep can tire you out, even if you don't lose control. I've seen some references that in Scotland sheep were sheared with the sheep standing (mostly), unlike the Australian methods, but little else can I find about it.

In most electric shearing instructions using the typical modern method, the belly wool is done first, then moving to more valuable areas.

Electric, and flywheel/crank shearing having been around for more than 100 years, it's a little hard to find good guidance on proper hand-shearing method. I found little enough on Google Books. The New Zealand sheep board has a methodology, but it looks a lot like the method used with electric shears.

There is a fellow in Vermont that does a workshop on traditional shearing. There's a brief video on the site indicates that in some ways the method differs (insofar as the animal is at times on fully lying one side and the other, and quite calm). The belly wool still seems to be the starting point.

Conversly, I found a very interesting Hungarian YouTube video of traditional hand shearing that starts with the topknot and then proceeds immediately to the neck and the most valuable back wool. I found the method to be very intuitively proper and decided to use it on sheep #2.

Here's the video:

Generally I was more satisfied with this approach than others I have found, although I still have a lot to learn about the amount of wool to take up/cut in each "throw" or pass. There is also something to be learned about the proper hold on the hand shear and the different results of clipping close to the skin rather than leaving it long (shearing seems easier when clipping quite close to the body).

The most crucial thing is getting a proper immobilizing hold on the sheep that is at once not too distressing for the sheep and not too tiring for the shearer (IMO). As I have somewhat weak lower back, the more I can put the sheep on its side, or be working straight down without twisting at the trunk while bending over, the less constant strain I have from bending over. Thus, I like the "Hungarian" method shown in the video.

For another style - here is a video of hand shearing done by a guy in New Zealand - clearly a very powerful and quick hand and beautifully sharp shears. Note the different in how he works the flanks and hip rather than straight down the back.

Frankly, the sheep I have done have a less than beautiful clip, due to my inexperience, and most of the wool from the last two is going to compost rather than to "market" simply because the sheep struggled enough to kick a fair bit off the boards into the straw. I suspect the bad clip will also have repercussions for the next "professional clip" as well, but I think the hands-on education gained is worth the loss.

There is something satisfying about working back the living wool, talking quietly to the sheep to calm it, and the quiet "clack" of the hand shears instead of the whir of the electric shears. It takes enough time that I can examine the sheep fairly closely for any health issues - time I need since I am a novice shepherd. I am sure my regular shearer, who has handled thousands of sheep, does not need but the few minutes he takes shearing to assess the overall health of a sheep!

God willing we will have lambs in early March!