Shearing day is a strange time on the farm. It’s characterized by tense planning conversations (about the sheep, about meals, about where everyone will sleep), by long periods of waiting punctuated by short bursts of harried activity, and by grime and sweat and sometimes blood. But it’s also something of a holiday. For us it’s something different, a significant change in schedule and activity. All the rules change when it’s time to shear. For the sheep, it’s also a change–over the course of a few short minutes at the shearers’ feet they’re freed of a year’s worth of hot, heavy wool. I think both parties–humans and animals–feel a great deal of relief once the job is done.
While there are over 200 recognized breeds of domestic sheep, they all fit into one of two categories: hair sheep and wool sheep. The former look rather like goats, bearing coats composed of coarse hairs that are shed on a regular basis and require no shearing. The latter fit the image of a stereotypical sheep, with fluffy fleeces that can be harvested once or twice a year and transformed into a variety of wool goods. We raise Tunis sheep, a fat-tailed breed that is good for both meat and wool production. Here in the South, shearing typically occurs between mid-April and mid-June; the weather must be warm enough for the lanolin in the fleeces to be more liquid than solid (to avoid gumming up the shears) and the hope is to be done with shearing before the truly hot weather settles in for the summer. Sheep can survive a summer with a full fleece, but the added weight puts a lot of stress on their bodies; it’s best for them to be fleece-free during our hottest months so they stay healthy and fit.
Scheduling shearing is the trickiest part of the entire operation. We employ a father-son shearing duo, Jonathan and Ben Hearne, who live outside of Asheville, North Carolina but shear all throughout the Southeast. They start the season in Florida and then work their way northward, so the first piece of the puzzle is figuring out when they’ll be servicing the flocks in South Carolina. Once we have a general idea of when shearing will occur, my dad starts rotating the sheep through the paddocks towards the corral, where we eventually load the flock onto a stock trailer and transport them to the barn right before shearing. We used to try to lead the flock to the barn on foot through one of our largest paddocks but that was always a logistical nightmare. We eventually got smarter about it, but it took a while.
In the meantime, I’m responsible for cleaning up the barn. Some years it’s a monumental task–although it’s done annually, the sheer amount of stuff that accumulates in there over the course of the growing season is amazing. I managed to get it cleaned up by myself in just a day this year, which might have set a record. I’m also responsible for accommodations for the shearers while they’re here, while my mom produces prodigious amounts of food to feed us all.
Late last week we got the word that the shearers were planning on being here on the Monday the 26th, which was Memorial Day–neither farmers nor shearers have holidays off! On Sunday afternoon we were deep in the midst of making our preparations when dark clouds started rumbling in from the west. The forecast said we had a 30% chance of storms, which on an ordinary day would mean a 0% chance. But on the day before shearing, Murphy’s Law is in full effect: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. So just after we got the first load of sheep (about 20 out of 65) safely into the barn, the skies opened up and drenched the rest that were still out in the corral and exposed to the elements. It was a good storm, dumping an inch and a half of much-needed rain in about 45 minutes, but it was definitely a bit of a speed bump.
A few years ago that sort of thing would have sent us all into a tizzy–you can’t shear wet sheep, after all. But we rolled with the punches quite nicely. The shearers arrived just as the storm started, spent the night, and then headed out on Monday morning to shear some small flocks in the area while our sheep dried out. When they returned around 3 p.m., we had all the sheep dry and in the barn, and it was showtime.
According to the shearers, every farm is different in terms of setup, organization, and assistance provided. They’ve been to some farms that have simply pointed out to the wide open pasture and said, “The sheep are out there,” when they arrived and left everything up to them. We’re pretty much the opposite: all the shearers have to do when they arrive is set up their equipment and stations and shear the sheep. We take care of bringing the sheep to them one by one, removing each fleece from the shearing stations as soon as it’s fully detached from the sheep, bagging the fleeces, and sweeping the shearing mats between sheep. It’s a lot of work, but not as much as the shearers have to do, and it makes the process go quickly.
The first few times I participated in shearing day, it was beyond stressful trying to keep track of all those moving pieces. Shearing was something I dreaded, and couldn’t wait to be done with–though I have always enjoyed the tangible benefits of using our wool. But this year’s shearing found me in a very zen frame of mind. Despite the delays, and despite a panoply of unrelated things going wrong on the farm in the past week, we all functioned like a well-oiled machine once those clippers buzzed to life. I’ve seen so many sheep sheared now that it’s easy to notice exactly when the shearers are down to the last few passes on an individual sheep and I need to get ready to grab the fleece out of the way. And I’ve wrangled enough runaway sheep over the years that I no longer feel a sharp spike of panic when a freshly-shorn sheep decides to make a break for the great outdoors instead of heading back through the barn door to the flock. (Though I had to laugh at myself yesterday when I was trying to grab a runaway while clutching a broom, all the while chanting, “No, no, no, no, no,” as if that sheep was going to listen to me. I eventually ditched the broom and caught the sheep.)
It went so quickly this year–just under three hours from start to finish to shear 65 sheep. But we were all feeling it by the time we cleaned up the barn and headed up to the house for a shower and then dinner: salad, homemade lasagna, French bread, and three choices of dessert (I went for the banana pudding). Ned told us tales of Australia while Jonathan and Ben talked sheep with my dad. They got up this morning to head to the next farm, and will do it all over again day after day. Between the three of them they’ve no doubt sheared thousands of sheep. For us, shearing is over for another year, and we (and the sheep) couldn’t be happier.