Monday, 16 May 2011

The Blue Seal Club

For the past two seasons I've had to get a contract shearer in to shear my small flock of sheep, because I don't have the skills or machinery required. What I have got is a can-do attitude and access to the Internet, where I found the British Wool Marketing Board website. The BWMB sponsors shearing courses and if you're a farmer (the government says we qualify) the cost is minimal. I had visions of shearing my own sheep this time next year.

Two days on a course has corrected my vision.

This was not a shearing course for hobby farmers with backyard flocks - a group I'm firmly a member of. The course was set up to train the would-be professional shearer. To pass this first level and earn my Blue Seal, I had to prove I could set up and maintain the equipment, and shear to a memorised pattern of cuts called the Bowen technique:

courtesy of 

Along with seven other students, I set about learning a complicated dance of arm movements and foot placement with an unwilling partner that wriggled, kicked, and pooped on me. All while wielding a set of sharp oscillating blades. The aim was to get the wool off efficiently, in saleable condition, leaving you and the sheep with as few bleeding cuts as possible. 

We practiced on a commercial flock of Romneys, a large breed with a heavy fleece. The staple length is phenomenal. Compare a length of fiber from Romney sheep with my own Dorset's -

Dorset (l) and Romney (r)

The farm has a purpose-built shearing area with 4 stations - 

The dogs run sheep into holding pens behind each station -

hardworking Huntaway x Kelpie sheep dogs - suitable for big flocks and long work days

The shearer catches her sheep, drags it out through the pen door, shears it -

then pokes it into a pop hole with a slide, where it drops down under the pens and ends up back in the yard. Our group finished these ewes the first day -

And bagged this much wool, to be graded and sold -

Minus the two fleeces I was given for hand spinning!

A good contract shearer can shear up to 300 sheep in a day. How many did I manage to shear the first day? Five. Five sheep. I am sixty times slower than a commercial shearer. I wasn't much quicker the second day, but I sheared nine and my technique improved. I remembered most of the dance steps.

And terms. There's a whole language involved in shearing. Hand pieces, cutters, combs. Elbows, heels. Worm drives and pin drives. "Firing a blow" means taking one pass with your clippers over the sheep. The fewer blows you use to "clean a sheep" (remove the wool), the quicker you are. Ten extra blows per sheep x 300 sheep per day = 3,000 unnecessary and tiring arm movements. Multiplied by a shearing season = a limited career as a shearer, or at the very least an operation to repair the tendon in your wrist.

There is a uniform that comes with the job too: reinforced trousers able to withstand punishment from hooves and horns, and special moccasins -

I looked like a Middle-earth Hobbit shearer. By the end of the day, I smelled like it too. I didn't have the trousers so I had to make do with jeans, old ones I'd repaired by patching the crotch and knees with an old t-shirt and Copydex glue (Tremendously successful! Email me for details.)

All the students were struggling with their own shortcomings: some had problems remembering the foot placement, others couldn't hold the sheep securely. I had to concentrate on keeping my cutting edge on the sheep to prevent second cuts. My neighbor was just the opposite. He cut too deeply, and twice I saw blood squirt out of his sheep. At one point there was so much blood that I wasn't sure if he was shearing it or sacrificing it to his god.

Because it's a commercial farm, we got experience with a variety of sheep: plain (i.e. thin) ones, fat ones, young ones, ones with scabs and injuries. When taking a break between sheep, I got a chance to stitch up a cut (my neighbor's "squirter"), using dental floss and a curved needle. I learned how to invert a prolapse and stitch that up too.

The tutor taught me another method of catching a sheep with minimal effort, and how to tie the legs to the head to immobilise a sheep if, for example, you're out in a field and need to stitch in a prolapse without a second pair of hands. It was a valuable lesson in general and emergency sheep care. You can't over value the gift of someone else's years of experience.

My own two-day experience taught me that I could shear my own flock over a period of a couple days if I invested in the machine. More importantly, it taught me that I don't want to. I will continue to get a contract shearer in, but I'll do a few alongside him, enough to enjoy the process. 

I earned my Blue Seal badge. And I'm going to take the course again next year, to improve on my knowledge. I might even go for the Bronze Seal. But if you want my help shearing your flock, I think I'm washing my hair that day.


Paula said...

On the other side of the coin, you now have a new skill from which you can earn some coin. And I imagine there's a demand for that skill where you live. But I can't imagine being expected to shear 300 sheep in a day. You may as well ask me to spin straw into gold in one night....

Pomona said...

I admire you for your courage in going along at all! Every year I see the shepherd in the field next door set up his shearing stall for several days, and we swap our power for a joint of lamb - it seems to me a feat of superhuman strength and endurance to shear a flock.

Pomona x

Poppy Cottage said...

My friend cliff, rund shearing courses for 'back yard' farmers if your interested.

How was your back after your two days?

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - I'd take my chances with the straw into gold scenario too over 300 sheep in a day.

Pomona - I have honestly never done anything so physically demanding. Even after learning a more efficient technique, it takes every ounce of determination to push through the pain and keep shearing. I'm starting to see the benefits in keeping pigs.

PC - It's not the instruction that was a problem, just the stamina of the student. My muscles are a bit sore but fine. My body held up OK. 9 sheep were harder than a whole day's chainsawing. Those kiwis have my ultimate respect.

Hazel said...

Wiltshire horns next?!

I'm exhausted just thinking about it...

Jennifer Montero said...

Hazel - Have you got Wiltshire horns? My hat's off to you. I looked at the Dorset horns but thought 'Why am I buying sheep with in-built weaponry?' The horns look so handsome though.

Hazel said...

No, unfortunately. I volunteer at a living history site that has a (right) mixture of sheep breeds though.

They have a lovely WH ram, who is very docile, but he's also self- shearing!

But I agree; the pointy-ness of the horns seem to outweigh the benefit of having a 'handle' to grab hold of IMO!

If I had sheep, my favourite (at the moment) would be Swartbles, it's just a shame they're not a native breed. Oh well, maybe one day...

Anonymous said...

I regularly read your blog and always enjoy the antics of the Dogs! Thank you! Since you are a New England ex-pat, perhaps you've heard of Katahdin Sheep?

No shearing, excellent meat. Or Alpacas? Can't eat those, too expensive!

Kate said...

Jennifer, I think it's great that you went out for this class. It's something I might think about doing for a lark, if my schedule weren't completely booked, it wasn't too far away, and wasn't too expensive. (I'm tough, I know.) But having read your account, I suspect I would have wimped out after the first day. It sounds daunting, and worth every penny paid to the professionals.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

What I think I like about sheep-shearing is that it's a job that doesn't seem like it can be done by machine. You need an actual human, who's had a ton of actual practice on actual sheep. It feels old-fashioned that way.

Of course, it's a lot easier to like sheep-shearing when you don't have to do it. Lucky for me that chickens, ducks, and cats don't need to be sheared.

"Built-in weaponry" made me laugh.