Tuesday 7 July 2009


Well here I am again and still on the shearing vein. We've had some very hot weather of late, humidity levels have been high and believe you me on occasions sweat has been dripping off every bit of the body that gravity would allow it to drip from, I must say though last Wednesday was a true sauna, not a dry stick on my back all day. Being slightly vain I couldn't wait to jump on the bathroom scales after the evenings soak and was dismayed to find I'd gained 2lb! Life is grossly unfair at times! I do believe they say muscle weighs heavier than fat, I'm willing to believe that!

The above photo shows the scrow in a shearing shed - my scrow actually, always have been an untidy person! The picture ought to give you an idea of what is actually going on. The sheep were gathered early in the morning, easier when the day is cooler but also the forecast was for rain coming in mid morning, so the lambs were run off and ewes housed by breakfast time. Half of the shed is out of the picture to the left of the scrow, this is where most of the flock is housed, they then move to a holding pen where they filter into the clipping race. They are tipped out of the race onto their backsides and the wool taken off them with an electric shearing machine. In this instance the fleeces are stacked to be wrapped when someone is available as the lambs in the pens were receiving a worm dose and no one can be everywhere at once.

The fleeces have to be cleaned of any dirty daggings, sheep don't use toilet roll and can sometimes be lazy at lifting their tails. If the wool is packed without the daggs being removed money will be docked from the wool cheque. Once cleaned, either by using hand shears or the muck may pull off, the wool is wrapped - sides thrown into middle then rolled from backside to neck. The wrapped wool is placed into the wool sheets which once full are stitched and a label attached with the producers name, address and type of wool.

Once the farmer has all his sheep clipped and the wool packed he can book it into the wool board to deliver it himself or have it collected. A producer has to be registered with the british wool board to have them accept his wool (www.britishwool.org.uk). Prior to the shearing season the producer receives wool sheets, labels and string delivered to the farm, he will also receive a price list of the price per kg offered that year. The price per kg for blackface wool this year has a top price of 43p per kg going to below 10p per kg for grey, black or discoloured wool.

We weighed one of these fleeces today, in the lamb weigh crate I may add so its not scientific to the last gram but a good ewe fleece came out at 2kg, there won't be many heavier than that and there'll be many lighter. So at the top price offered by the wool board that fleece is worth 86p, the shearer (me) charges 90p per sheep.......

Gone are the days when the wool cheque used to pay the rent, we are to the point where it doesn't even pay the shearer. So why take it off? Welfare as much as anything. Wool did used to be a crop, and viable at that, but today shearing is very much a welfare issue and nothing else. Sheep get maggots especially in the hot humid conditions we've been getting of late. Dirt on their tails can be all the blow fly requires to lay its eggs but even sheep that have been cowed out (dagged) - all dirty wool removed from the back end - they can still get struck, bird shit on the back, dirty feet marks from being in the pens or a lamb that likes to nestle on its mothers back or even for no obvious reason at all. The flies lay their eggs and if conditions are favourable those hatch within 24 hours, by two days the sheep can be in an awful mess, nature can be very cruel and in severe cases the stress of maggots burrowing into the flesh can result in death. I know I've joked before that sheep can find a way to die but I'm sure this one isn't by choice.

So, there's the problem of maggots if the sheep aren't shorn. There is also the problem of them getting woollier, coz the stuff doesn't stop growing by next year they would look like great balls of wool and so on, imagine not having your hair cut, or combed for years...... Bet you would be itchy if nowt else, yep! you're right sheep get external parasites as well as internal ones, although shearing doesn't eradicate these it does give the nasty critters less cover to hide in.

In the good old days shearing was a true social event to the point a shearling wether (last years male lamb) would be killed to feed the many shearers which came from the neighbouring farms, either on foot or by pony, carrying their hand shears ready to clip away all day and often dance the night away in the loft to some accordion or fiddle which would also have been transported along with the shears. Today it remains sociable to a point but the noise of the electric machine droning away and the radio (when I get it mended) knocks the crack ( conversation/banter) on the head other than when stopping for breaks.

So shearing is hard work and none profitable for the farmer( as Willie Weatherson said in the Hexham Courant this week a small cheque is better than paying to have the wool disposed of). The farmer knows his sheep are a lot safer from the damage the blow fly can cause and hopefully he wont have to worry about them getting cast on their backs any more, giving him some relief from the twice daily herding he has been doing since lambing time. And the shearer? having got one farm clipped out he/she can move on to the next farm.


Maria Robertson said...

Really interesting to read, thanks for posting. The pics are great too.

Tarset Shepherd said...

Thanks for that Maria, scary to think folks actually read this blog but great to know it's of interest.