Local topics of conversation this week include: first sightings of swallows returning from Africa, who's heard a cuckoo call, exactly how many weeks late are the bluebells this year anyway, and the Fodder Situation (capital letters) - who's short of it, and who's not. And my personal obsession: when are you shearing your sheep?
My sheep are enjoying the dry weather too, if not the sun and heat. They've all grown thick, weatherproof wool coats to combat the bad winter. Now the sheep are itchy and hot. When they roll over on their backs to have a good rub, the fattest, woolliest sheep get stuck there. A sheep on its back is eventually a dead sheep. After turning a few right side up on my morning checks, and weighing up the likelihood of the weather staying mild, I decided to get the flock sheared.
Outside of math class, few problems have one right answer. It's a matter of balancing pros and cons. Other people I asked were waiting to shear their flocks, for all different reasons. Then, while helping Mike tray pheasants eggs, I could hear the "clack-clack" noise of the shearer's gate. Our neighbour ran in 500 of his ewes - a thinner, less woolly commercial breed - for a professional shearing team of New Zealanders. As their winter is our summer, these NZ guys can spend the whole year shearing simply by moving hemispheres. Turning one more of my sheep right side up that evening clinched it: I booked in my regular shearer, Steve.
Steve is farmer, and a good one. He enjoys his shearing and has a sideline this time of year shearing small flocks in the area like mine. I have passed my basic shearing course, and helped to shear my own flock for two years running. After two years, I know this about myself: I do not enjoy shearing sheep. Particularly my own sheep.
Eudora, freshly shorn. She was first into the shearing pen, expecting her daily grain ration.
Don't get me wrong, I love my sheep and I enjoying working with them, feeding them, handling them, trimming their feet, helping them lamb. A Dorset sheep is a perfect sheep, until you put her on her back. Then you have exactly 3 minutes - in this case, to get the wool off - before an imaginary bell sounds to start the fight.
And your opponent is above your weight class. Back legs kick, and front legs dig in for leverage. A Dorset sheep will play possum until she feels you relax and drop your concentration, then she explodes and makes a run for it.
Pre- and Post-shorn. Half their weight must be fleece.
One ewe, half her body sheared, double barrelled Steve in the chest with her back legs knocking him off his feet. She shot off to a safe distance where she began running in circles, trying to escape the half of her fleece that remained and unbalanced her, blowing around her as she spun faster and faster. While Steve recovered, I drove her in the corner and rugby tackled her.
When I'd finished and Steve turned him over, he jumped straight out of the pen again.
One fleece, ready to roll
I don't mind my job assisting the shearer: catching the sheep, rolling the fleeces, and filling the wool sheet (bag).
Holds 30 commercial sheep fleeces but only 15 Dorsets.
This year the ewes' fleeces were such good quality that I sold them to our neighbours at Simply Dorset who have their own Polled Dorset wool milled and hand-woven into fabulous scarves and blankets to sell. Only our shearling fleeces have been sent to the British Wool Board.
I only sheared one ewe and we- the ewes and me - were all happy with that arrangement. But I wasn't excused from lamb shearing duties.
Steve was determined to help me improve my shearing, in much the same way as a drill sergeant is there to improve you from being a worthless maggot your first day at Boot Camp. Lots of "What are you doing there?!?" "Why is your other hand not working?!" "Get those feet in position!" He means well and he's helping me in the way he knows how. I don't perform my best under that type of motivation, but I powered through.
I made that my final shearing job.
Next year, when those commercial shearers come, I will book them for my flock. They don't like doing Dorsets either but I will ask kindly, smile, offer a premium price per head, and produce a plate of warm brownies from the oven. I think in motivational terms that's called Incentivising. I will pen up my flock and watch the shearers set up. Then I will rejoice as I hear the "clack clack" of the shearing gates receding in the distance as I drive away.
I'm glad I took the shearing course, and I'm glad that I know enough of the basics to get the wool off a sheep. I even enjoyed lending my neighbour a hand a few days ago, while he got the hang of using a new pair of electric clippers on his flock. I don't feel like a failure, or less of a shepherd for handing over that part of the job to professionals. To practice acceptance is to grow. I accept that I'm no shearer. Those New Zealand guys can shear my whole flock in the time it takes me to bake a pan of brownies. That's a division of labour that we - the ewes, the shearers and me - can all be happy with.