July 12, 2022 4 min read 1 Comment

Shearing is arguably the most important day of the year for us as fibre growers, it's the day that marks the ticking along of the farming calendar. We're writing a series of blog posts on all things shearing, in this first instalment we focus on the calm, chaos and calm of the shearing day.

 

The day starts like any other - up with the birds singing, the sun rising over the Cambrian Mountains, steadily burning off the dew across the paddocks. It was obvious it was going to be a scorcher - and dry - luckily. Shearing can’t be done in the wet, so a rain-free day is essential. Warm is good too, it helps soften the shock of losing the fleece for the sheep, but shearing day 2022 was in the baking July sunshine, maybe a bit too warm.

Bob the Border Collie is invaluable, and makes light work of gathering the entire flock. Understanding the heat, she works steadily, not pushing the sheep too hard, just gently keeping them moving towards the barn. Mary, the matriarch of the flock leads the way - she’s done this route hundreds of times before, she knows the way.

It’s a balance to get them in at the right time. In a perfect world, we’d take them off the pasture the evening before shearing, to give them a chance to empty their bellies - it not only helps keep the shearing area clean, but makes things more comfortable for the sheep too. In this case though, given the hot, humid conditions on the farm we opted for just a couple of hours ahead. They aren’t packed in tight in the barn, but there’s not a whole load of airflow on a calm day, and we didn’t want them overheating.

Morlais has shorn the flock here for us for a decade or more. He’s experienced, and has shorn hundreds of thousands of sheep through the years. As usual, he had a couple of other shearers with him - less experienced, but almost as skilful. These days, they fit our small flock in at the end of the day, so whilst a trio of shearers is a little overkill for a flock of fifty, it does make quick work.

The setup is quick, but methodical. The trailer is unloaded of the handling pen, shearing machines and boards. For us, the generator stays on the trailer - it’s only used when they’re far up in the mountains, gathering and shearing the wild roaming sheep of Wales. After the pen is assembled, the machines hung, and the moccasins laced up, the radio is plugged in. It’s as essential as the other equipment, and I’ve not met a shearing gang that work without the radio blaring!

I usually sort the sheep as we go, working in a gradient from lightest to darkest. When spinning, a few light fibres in a dark blend rarely make a difference, but dark fibres in a white yarn can show up easily - which we’d like to avoid!

The White Ryelands come first, they’re the biggest, heaviest and slowest of our sheep and it’s good to get them out of the way. They’re also covered head to toe in wool, so need a rather extensive trim! Next, the paler Shetlands come through, and you’d be hard pushed to find a bigger contrast in breeds. Small, wriggly and angular, the Shetlands are a change from the big commercial breeds our shearers are used to handling, and will invariably require a change in combs on the shearing machines.

Once the shearers get going, it’s a flurry of momentum. They all get into a rhythm, working through the sheep in a well practiced, skilled series of sweeps or “blows”. Each time a shearer finishes a sheep, a quick click of their tally counter and they’re on to the next one. Sally is on wool clearing duty, swiftly taking each finished fleece off the board as the shearer reaches into the pen for the next one, keeping a steady rhythm of shearing, handling, moving, sweating. It’s back breaking, and requires an innate understanding of sheep, wool and the machines.

Watching a shearer at work can be mesmerising. At first, it looks chaotic and without reason, but the more you watch, the more you see the sweep of a leg, the bend of a knee or the specific movement of the shearing head, the more you understand the skill involved. The handpiece becomes an extension of their arm, rhythmically moving across the skin, deftly separating the fleece from the sheep.

Just as quickly as they’re underway, the job is done. Between the three shearers it took just over twenty minutes to shear all fifty of our flock. The lambs are let out from the shed, and there’s great laughter as they completely fail to recognise their mothers - relying solely on the sounds and scents to find their way. The rams look a lot less intimidating too now, their magnificent horns hiding some of their embarrassment at the sudden de-robing.

As the shearers pack up, we chat about all things wool - the state of the industry, how things are going with setting up Wales’s first new spinning mill in a generation, and what farmers can do to get a better price. Aside from that, we also talk about our own flock. After all, the shearers are experienced herdsmen, Morlais especially has decades of knowledge, so his insight into their condition, how they sheared, and the overall health of the flock is a welcome one.

Bob is finally off the lead now too - she’s been tied up during shearing, so there’s no risk of her getting in the way, or worrying the sheep. She never would intentionally, but shearing is a chaotic, exciting and hectic day, and we don’t want to risk her getting over excited! One of the perks of being let loose (aside from plenty of fuss) is the arrival of food for the shearing crew. It was a modest spread, but the chance to set the farming world to rights over sausage rolls and cold drinks.

Given how quickly the trio of shearers work, we don’t grade the wool whilst they’re around, preferring to wait until it’s a little calmer and the hot afternoon sun has abated slightly. Keep an eye out for the blog post on grading our wool.


1 Response

Patricia
Patricia

July 15, 2022

Lots of terrific and interesting imagery here – thank you! And if I’ve worked out the numbers correctly, 3 shearers, 50 sheep and 20 minutes total = not much over a minute per sheep and it is done. Having never had the pleasure of actually seeing sheep sheared, I’m stunned by that!

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