Yesterday was a long day that actually started the night before. Well, if I’m being completely honest, it started last year at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival. David Kier, a professional shearer, was there doing demos and my friend Kendra started talking to him. It is not an unusual thing for Kendra to start up a conversation with someone that is doing something that she finds interesting and in this case it was David’s shearing. She watched him do a private shearing and had a good long chat with the man that I joined intermittently as I was talking to other people. However, from the parts of the conversation that I was part of and from what Kendra told me later, I knew that I liked the guy and his shearing.
I previously have liked to get my sheep sheared before they lamb in May and I had a shearer set-up for that. However, plans changed and they weren’t able to do my sheep anymore. This left me in a bit of a quandary. I no longer had a shearer and I didn’t really want to use the shearer that I had used the year before (he’s not used to Shetlands). So I was reminded of David by Kendra after I told her about my issue and I gave him a call. I knew it would be quite a drive for him from his home in Wisconsin, but it never hurts to ask. He kinda agreed to do it but really wanted me to come to the shearing school that he taught at near his home in Wisconsin, which I was good with as I had taken a shearing course previously and it hadn’t really stuck except that my respect for shearers strength and skills went through the roof. Anyway, he stated correctly, that I needed a sustainable way to get my shearing done and since Shetland sheep aren’t always ready all at the same time it would probably be a good idea to learn how to do it myself. I wasn’t able to go to the shearing school the weekend that it was on, so it was back to the drawing board for me.
In the past I had used my dad’s ancient shearing handset and machine and it was a bitch to use. The handset is literally an antique, and was one of the original ones ever made. You literally cannot get parts for them outside of antique specialists anymore. It would also get insanely hot very quickly which made it so that you would have to allow it to cool down between sheep in order to just hold it (and for all the shearers out there, no the blade wasn’t too tight, it had always been that way due to the design). David suggested that I purchase an electric shearer and as fate would have it a friend of mine was selling one. Yay! It’s a Premier unit similar to this one.
So now I have the equipment, but I still need the shearer. After a number of calls between David and I, mostly figuring-out when would be the best time to shear my flock, we hit on Wednesday. My flock had started the rise and nearly all of them have had their lambs. Typically shearers aren’t keen on shearing really pregnant ewes as it can potentially cause the ewes to abort the lambs. So usually the last month of gestation is off-limits for shearing.
Anyway, I’m telling you all of this so that you understand just some of the factors that go into getting a shearer to the farm, and that’s just my side of the equation. The shearer has other customers and lives of their own to schedule around as well.
The other enemy of shearing is wet. You do not want to shear wet sheep. I had always assumed that this was basic common knowledge, but growing-up with a former sheep shearer for a dad kinda makes it so that your childhood knowledge is a little… unusual. Wool will absorb up to thirty percent of it’s weight in water. The blades and combs that a shearer uses are highly susceptible to rusting and wet sheep are more difficult to shear. You also don’t want to pack a bunch of wet fleeces into a normal fleece bag as they will mildew and just become disgusting and impossible to use for anything. Throw it all together and you just get bad. Plus, nobody wants to work all day both filthy and wet.
Tuesday was sunny, bright and dry. But the forecast called for scattered showers that evening and scattered showers on Wednesday too. But if you are going to shear, let me assure you that there is zero chance that those showers will be scattered anywhere else other than over your flock.
Now my dad is rather hard of hearing and in the best of circumstances this makes for difficult communication. Any time you are moving livestock is not the best of circumstances. My cousin-by-marriage, Sam of A Whimsical Wood Yarns, has promised to make a colorway called Incandescent Rage after my description of moving sheep for shearing last year. *ahem* I’m not proud to admit that I completely and utterly lost my shit. I even threw things. This is so unlike me, that you can get a feel for just how much moving sheep this time of the year sucks. The sheep have been in the pen all winter and this is their chance to see a bit of the world, eat some grass, have a good frolic. Add into the mix thirty lambs who have never really been out of the pen and are confused and scared and wondering why mama isn’t answering because her mouth is stuffed with grass. You end-up with a lot of sheep very reluctant to go anywhere you are taking them cause right here is awesome! This year I didn’t rage so much as hurt. I fell badly into a batch of sheep over some sharp equipment and literally got trampled. My glasses fell-off and got stepped-on, and I am probably going to have a massive, very ugly, bruise on my leg for sometime.
If you think that shepherding is all Little Bo Peep, you are SO wrong.
I finally rolled into the house around 10:30pm, after having finally gotten all the stragglers in, with lightning and thunder in the near distance.
On Wednesday I awake at 5:30am and start working on things that still needed done, like preparing the foods for lunch that day. I figured that I had a few hours as the shearer is quite a ways away.
He rolls into the driveway at 7am on the dot.
It is lightly raining still with occasional thunder in the distance. By the time I get him set-up with everything he needed (plywood, electricity, and a light) it’s around 7:30am and I am rather damp. He starts by showing me some footwork. One of the things that you don’t realize watching a shearer demonstrate shearing is how much of the work the shearers feet and legs are doing. Holding the sheep is almost entirely done by the shearers knees and thighs. Where you move, when you move, and how you move are as important as the shearing equipment. It’s a tightly choreographed dance between shearer and the sheared. The bodies involved make unnatural contortions and use a wide variety of muscles that aren’t normally used unless you are Xenia Onatopp. He shows me the movements shearing a couple of the sheep that are ready and then has me do it. Both the sheep and I are deeply unsure about this. The sheep is Greyson and I have never sheared a male sheep before and I manage to nick his pizzle really well, and it bleeds like a son-of-a-gun. I feel terrible, he’s not super happy. It’s raining in earnest now and I am covered in pizzle blood, little bits of cut wool, dirt, sweat, poop, and lanolin. He does a few more sheep to let me recover, then I do another. I ask if he would do Charlotte as she is one of the sheep that is ready and I tell him that she is due any day. I trust him to not stress her unduly and he shears her in less that two minutes and she seems surprised when it’s done so suddenly. I also ask him to do Homer and Marge, the Jacobs that came to me at Christmastime, as they are coated in cockle burrs. They are also well-armed with an assortment of intense horns. I do a few more sheep, he does a few more sheep, I am getting used to the mantra of, “…knees together, bottom of the comb down, knees together, bottom of the comb down…” I’m sweating so hard by this time that I am dripping onto the sheep. I can distinctly smell myself. My thighs are burning, my leg that I injured the evening before is one large pain with extra side orders of more pain whenever a sheep kicks or bumps me there.
And then it’s lunchtime. Hallelujah! We all sit down for a bit and have sandwiches and berry salad and hard-boiled eggs. I have very seldom been so grateful for a hard, plastic lawn chair in my entire life. I wasn’t alone by this point. My friend Ellen and her son Patrick had come to help skirt, sort, and ID fleeces for me. Elise was a general dogs body, running around feeding the bottle babies and helping wherever needed. She took this photo of me while I was shearing.
Herbert was one of the first sheep sheared and he was all up in everyone’s business while they were getting sheared.
Towards the middle of the afternoon I started asking questions. Mainly, why are we shearing them this way? He explained how the technique was developed and then showed me another way to shear that didn’t involve Pilates with a live, annoyed, and often horned, animal. The alternate method of shearing was done standing up with either someone holding the animal or tying the animal in a halter to something. The fleece ends-up split in two, but honestly, I did SUCH a better job this way that the fleece was in much better condition by the time I was done than doing it the more typical New Zealand style of shearing. I was also in better condition. You still have to do the belly in about the same way, but the amount of time that you are shearing using your legs and thighs is greatly reduced. My father kind-of rolled his eyes at me when I told him all this, but I’m not going to be a professional shearer, I just need to be able to get the fleeces from my flock off when they need to come off of them. If I’m able to do that in a manner that is less stressful for me and for the sheep (cause trust me, if I’m stressed, they’re stressed) then so be it if it isn’t the “typical” way of shearing. I’m not flying off tomorrow and joining a shearing crew in Australia (except maybe as a skirter) so shearing them “properly” maybe isn’t my biggest concern.
After the shearer left, Elise and I gave a few CDT shots to specific sheep. Mostly the Jacobs (because I don’t know their history), little Lisa (because she should have gotten one a few weeks ago actually). The orphan lambs each got one even though it’s a tad early for them, but since they are being bottle fed, I don’t want to take any chances. We also moved the sheep back into the pen. I was going to move them onto grass but they were way to hyped-up to do that so I wanted to move them back to the pen so that they could calm down, get hydrated, match-up with lambs and generally chill. Moving the sheep back went a little better than moving them out as Elise has the bulk of her hearing still and trusts me to know what works with my sheep.
Afterwards, we went to Dairy Queen and got big ice cream treats. We went through the drive though to save the other customers the smell. We deserved it.
Some things that I learned from shearing class and from the shearer:
-My Shetlands are far more calm than the average Shetlands. And I quote, “Most Shetlands would be bouncing off the walls right about now.” Most of them were snoozing or quietly hanging-out at the time.
-I learned a quick trick to figure-out an animals body condition when they are in full fleece that is pretty easy to remember.
-I realized just how good Elise has gotten at catching sheep. Really, she’s a pro at it.
-I think that I may need a herding dog sooner than later. If for no other reason than my own personal health. This has been sort-of a maybe-in-the-future kinda thing, but the flock has gotten large enough that I need help.
-I learned about the rise in Shetland sheep and how to identify it before (attempting) shearing them.
-The Jacob Sheep look about four years younger without the load of crappy, burdock-riddled fleece on their backs.
-The Duluth Trading No-Yank Tank really lives up to it’s name. I wasn’t constantly pulling the shirt down despite bending over a LOT.
-Lambs will sleep wherever the hell they want to.
-Don’t wear pants with holes in the thigh (AKA farm pants) as some of those little suckers will manage to get a horn stuck in them requiring a delicate and embarrassing extraction.
*** Editing May 25*** I’m adding this onto the end here as I was informed by someone whom I trust to know what she is talking about, that shearing later in the ewe’s pregnancy will not cause abortions if done properly. It may be more uncomfortable for all involved, but it should not cause any issues. That being said, this is something that you should discuss with your shearer and decide what you and they are comfortable with. Most of the shearers in this area that I have talked to in the past were not comfortable shearing in the last month. This may have been because of sheep owners blaming them for something that wasn’t their fault or they were simply working with outdated information. Either way, this is a judgement call that each person would need to make with their own flock. I personally wouldn’t use a shearer that I have never had shear before (or had seen them shear) with animals close to birthing. I, however, had no qualms whatsoever having David shear Charlotte who is very close to done, after seeing how easy he was on the animals.