Shearing Day:  A Sign of Springtime

The ground is still firm in the mornings—ice crystals shimmering on the bare garden soil as the morning light bedazzles off their edges. But the crystals don’t last long as the sun climbs and warms the early spring air. The ever-cheerful robins bob about in the lawn, and the little peaking tops of rhubarb leaves have pierced through their compost cover, waiting for just a little warmer weather before bursting forth.

Another right of spring comes today—sheep shearing. One of the first animals to be domesticated (after dogs), wild sheep’s wool naturally sheds in the springtime. The itchy sensation encourages the animals to rub on trees, bushes, and stone, leaving behind little tufts that are favored by the birds of the area for nest building. Some livestock like angora goats and rabbits still shed this way, and their fleece has to be harvested either by combing the tufts off the animals or gathering it up from fences and pastures.

But the process of domestication and selective breeding can change so much in an animal—from temperament, to build, to even coat structure. Sheep fleeces changed from the natural shedding to needing to be clipped off by human intervention.

This has likewise happened with our dog breeding as well. Some dogs, like their predecessor wolves, shed their winter undercoats in the spring. Our sheep dog Lena does this in fully “poofing” force, with fuzzy bits sticking to the furniture and carpet or blowing off in the breeze on a windy day. But other dog breeds, like Steve’s Cockapoo named Bo, has to go in for a haircut. In the wild, this would be completely unpractical! But with human caretakers, it’s part of the process of having these animals.

Bo goes to the dog groomer when he starts looking like a buff-colored mop with legs, but when to shear the wool from the sheep is a little more exacting science. The sheep need the wool through the winter to keep warm, but during springtime (typical lambing season), a heavy, wool coat can be messy and quite unpractical.

So, after winter but before lambing is the ideal time to give that sheepy coat a trim. We’re trying something new this year, with a planned lambing in the fall (more on that in a later story), so we were able to postpone our shearing date this year by a whole month, due to the lingering wintery weather. I’m sure the ladies appreciated keeping their coats!

But this was the appointed morning, when Chris’ rattly blue truck arrived in the barnyard for his 15th season shearing at our farm. Two Golden Retrievers lounged in the cab, watching me haul in the drum liner bags for packing the shorn wool.

Kara had corralled the flock into a smaller pen inside the barn so they were easier to catch, leaving the rest of the space open for returning the ewes whose haircuts were complete. The older ewes have been through this before, though it isn’t their favorite day. Sheep are quite pleased when everything goes according to routine—and shearing day is certainly not part of their idea of the routine!

Kara leads a ewe off the bedding pack and into the entry area, which is swept cement to keep the fleeces clean (instead of working on the bedding). Chris holds one leg and curls the ewe’s neck, easing her onto her rump with her legs sticking out (a “seated” position you don’t see sheep doing on their own!). Then begins the whirring electric shears and off comes the belly wool, which is short and usually a bit dirty, so that is discarded. He flicks it to the side, and I scoop it up into an empty feed bag.

Then he starts with one back leg, almost like a sculptor revealing the sheep hidden beneath the thick wool coat. Then there’s the blind cut up the chest and neck, and he peels the fleece open to work along the shoulder. Next he lays the ewe on her side and works in rows to expose her flank, back to the spine. Sometimes the sheep baas in protest, while others lick their lips—a reaction of appreciation for a good back scratch.

Then the ewe is turned onto her other side, and the rest of the coat is removed in one big sheet, ending with her tail wool. Chris lets her up and Kara directs the ewe into the open pen before catching the next in line. Meanwhile, I kneel down and pick up the huge armload of fleece and take it to the back wall, where I my drum liner bags await for stuffing. The rich and tangy smell of lanoline is on my gloves, my coat, my pants, my hat, my hair.

The raw wool is mostly air, so I pack the fleeces in as tightly as possible, punching downward on the wool—even sitting on the bag. On go the shears for the next sheep, and we begin the process once more. By the end of the day all 55 ewes and 5 rams are clean and pretty—amazingly white beneath that thick coat—and I have 7 packed drum liners of wool (approx. 600 pounds).

I can see Kara taking stock of the condition of her flock now that she can see their shapes more clearly. Soon she’ll be turning in the teaser ram, and then sorting for breeding groups. This is her chance to decide how much flushing (extra feed ration that helps to increase pregnancy rates) she may need to supplement to get the girls in prime condition before turning in the rams.

The last fleece ares packed into the bags, Chris gathers up his gear, and after seven hours we are finished with the process—and mighty hungry at that point too, despite a huge breakfast! Kara and I pack the wool bags into the back of the old pickup truck, ready to take to the woolen mill downstate, and head for the shower. Despite the ensuing sore muscles, it feels good to check that one off the springtime-to-do list! See you down on the farm sometime.