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!


Blogger s-p said...

Wow...what did people do without Youtube? This looks really cool. The "hands on" of any kind of trade that requires sweat, wrestling and a fine finished product is God bearing, IMHO. May it be blessed.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Hilarius said...


I suppose it used to be that you could learn just about anything you really needed to know without 30 miles of your dwelling (i.e., you personally would know persons who conducted all of the essential trades in you community - butcher, baker, candlestick maker, etc.). Moreover, most small holdings even in our colonial days would have families that knew basic spinning, soap making, rendering, carpentry and similar tasks, as well as a great deal about farming and animal husbandry.

You Tube now becomes a useful way to "watch and learn" where we don't have grandfathers from whom to watch and learn.

You, as a skilled tradesman, must appreciate the many things we used to know as a people about working with tools that we've lost along the way, even though one can appreciate the advantages in new power tools (I know I find my chainsaw "indispensable" around the farm).

9:06 AM  
Blogger Hilarius said...

That should be "within 30 miles" or "without traveling more than 30 miles"

sorry . . .

9:06 AM  
Blogger s-p said...

As a "tradesman" I look at the apprentice system and think how it could solidify communities. Learning something from a website gets you to the utilitarian end product but it doesn't do much for making us more human. I know I rely on the internet for product information and "how to" stuff, but it is basically to make a buck faster, which I have to do. I don't know that we can wholesale return to the "old days", but it would be nice to move to a smaller place and find a niche where I could pass on 30 years of experience to someone who wants it and is willing to take the time to learn it hands on. (The old, "I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know...").

11:33 AM  
Blogger Hilarius said...


I hope you don't take my use of the term "tradesman" in any way other than I intended (which I admit may be an incorrect usage of the word) - honoring you as having learned and practicing a skilled trade.

I think apprenticeship is an underused means to train in any number of areas.

Personally, I regret that I did not live closer to my grandfather, who (being Kansas bred in the teens and 20's and a young adult in the 30s and 40s), knew a great deal about farming, motors, blacksmithing, and carpentry, and from whom I could have learned so much more.

3:11 PM  
Blogger s-p said...

Hilarius, I took "tradesman" as you intended: a term indicating a person skilled in a trade. I think our society suffers a lot because we don't have apprenticeships and inter generational passing on of skills like carpentry and mechanics etc. Of course if that happened about half of my work would disappear. You wouldn't beleive how many of my "professional" clients literally have never held a hammer or a screwdriver.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

That was a cool video (the Hungarian one). Thanks for posting it. I am going to watch it again...

9:49 PM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for sharing this. I enjoy watching sheep-shearing, and reading about your experiences, as well.

From the son of an old sheep-shearer.

3:03 PM  

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