Monday 26 July 2010

'Shear hell'

Have any of you ever seen a sheep being shorn? I'm guessing many probably haven't and those that have have probably seen a demonstration or competition at an agricultural show.

The competitions can be well worth watching, shearers competing against one another to see who can clip a sheep in the fastest time. It isn't actually that simple, the quickest to get the wool off is not going to be quaranteed to be the winner. Technique, style and the appearance of the finished article (both fleece and sheep)as well as speed all contribute towards the final score. There is far more to shearing a sheep than meets the eye. As any novice shearer will tell you.
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As the above blackfaced ewes show there can be a fair fleece on a sheep. The wool would naturally drop off if the sheep were in the wild and left to get lean in the winter months. 'Domesticated' sheep are less likely to naturally lose their fleeces and so it is clipped off, either with the electric machines or by hand shears.

If left on the sheeps back the wool would continue to grow and you would eventually be left with a big ball of wool with a little sheep in the middle of it. By shearing the sheep problems such as fly strike can be kept to a minimum and also the fear of sheep getting cast onto their backs (known as kessing in these areas) is less likely.

Many years ago the wool cheque would pay the farm rents, nowadays it takes the wool cheque all its time to pay for the shearers! How times change.
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So, from being plump woolly creatures the ewes suddenly become naked, skinnier beings - just like that! So simple!

It sounds simple really. Grab yourself a sheep, sit it on it's backside, turn on the electric machine and take the wool off, let the sheep away - job done - easy (not)!

You may recall a few months back I mentioned the apprenticeship scheme run by Northumberland National Park who's aim was to encourage some young blood into the hills of Northumberland and give them all a basic grounding in hill shepherding and all that that entails. As the apprentices have found themselves working through the seasons they've naturally arrived at the shearing season and after a two day course run by shearing instructors they were let loose on the farms they are working on and given the opportunity to hone their skills a bit further.

There could well be nothing more soul destroying than learning to clip. With out a doubt you may well find it's a trip to hell and back and maybe even more so for some of these kids, many of whom had never handled a sheep until the start of this year, never mind thought they might ever attempt to clip one.

When attending the shearing course they were faced with mule ewes. This in-bye breed has no horns, fairly short wool and will probably be an average weight of 70 - 80kgs.

First job........ wrestle your sheep to the ground and get it to sit quietly on it's backside. I was flabbergasted to learn that these youngsters attending the course weren't shown how to turn a sheep onto it's backside with the result that it would seem many of them were worn out by the time they had quite literally wrestled with the offending article and got it into the sitting position. Not a good start!
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Anyhow, I was not in attendance so will keep any views of the reported proceedings to myself. Fortunately many of them had the opportunity to go a step further on the farms they were working on and were given the chance to keep practicing. As in the above picture, helpful tips were given in handling the sheep, correcting the stance of the shearer to enable them to control the sheep and from then on it is practice, practice and yet more practice.

Anyone who has ever clipped a sheep will know the feeling, almost heart breaking at times. You just think you're getting the hang of it when with a quick twist or wriggle she's up on her feet and if you're unlucky she's out of the shed in a flash, half a fleece trailing behind her and you in hot persuit. Shearing is not for the faint hearted, a determination and will to succeed is an essential ingredient if you ever wish to become a shearer.

I well recall learning to clip. My boss was 67 years old and I was 18. He possessed the patience of a saint as he taught me to handle the sheep, follow the countours of the body and all the essentials necessary to succeed in getting the wool off her back. I first learnt on hoggs as hogg clipping is the start of the season.

Hoggs are a year old, it is the first time they have been shorn, they have wool all over, and I mean all over, and although lighter than a ewe they are wilder too and there was I, like these apprentices, a total novice, trying my hardest to master the art of clipping (shearing). Should one manage to escape my grip the boss would quietly say "Ye'd better go catch her" no offer of help to run around the yard and pounce on her, just an utterance of "ye'll larn to keep a hold". None of this was made any easier by the fact that my boss, whom I thought was ancient, clipped away merrily beside me making the job look so simple.....

I recall one day a visitor appeared in the clipping shed to have a crack with the boss. I tried to knuckle down and master what seemed like an almost impossible art of removing wool from sheep, sure enough one got away, trailing her fleece behind her with me once again in hot pursuit. I returned to the shed, weary from dragging the beast across the yard, plonked her onto her backside and finally removed the remainder of the offending fleece. On letting her away and turning off the machine the visitor turned to me and said "y'know, that's nae job for a lassie, you ought to stick to wrapping wool"

That remark (quite obviously) has stuck in my head. That day was a turning point for me and my future as a shearer. I saw red. A determination overtook me, a determination to prove the visitor wrong.

Unfortunately the shearing season is a short one, when a full time shepherd there would be the 800 sheep on the farm to clip and that was it until the next year. My first year I would be lucky to clip 50, my second year I could hardly remember where to start and how to do it, by my third year I took part in a sponsored clip and managed to clip just over 40 in an hour - on that note though the machine was hardly ever turned off, there were people catching the sheep and as I let one go another was sat down in exactly the right spot for me to commence clipping it, we changed combs and cutters every 15 minutes so were always running sharp and it is not a true reflection of a clipping day. But I did it, I had proved the visitor wrong!
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And so, back to the apprentices, or for that matter anyone who is attempting to clip a sheep - it looks easy and it does get easier, perseverance, concentration and a will to succeed is all that is required. Taking the wool off is the easy bit, controlling the creature is the challenge. Your legs are important, the sheep is actually held and controlled with the legs, one hand is using the machine, the other hand is not hanging on to the sheep but it is working as hard as the one holding the hand piece as it is keeping the loose skin tight on the sheeps body. At all times the sheep has to be sitting comfortably, if she's not you'll know about it.
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I have always claimed that the ability to shear is in the head. A degree of physical fitness is with out a doubt necessary but there will be times when a mental strength is equally important. As when learning to clip a sheep, the determination and perseverance learnt at the same time will carry many a shearer through in future years. I also believe it is a job you have to enjoy. I personally enjoy the challenge. Every sheep is a challenge, every one you clip you want to turn it out in a respectable manner, try hard not to cut or nick the beast, leave her looking tidy and respectable and be able to stand back at the end of the day and marvel at the naked creatures which only hours ago were all woolly.

In the early days my challenge was to keep a hold of the sheep from start to finish, once mastered the challenge grew to leaving them looking tidy and respectable, it would then progress to clipping 10 an hour, 20 an hour, 30 an hour, 200 a day. And now? Well, my challenge is to keep clipping - simple!