The number of sheep producers is growing in Maine and beyond. The Maine Sheep Breeders Association, in partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has developed a 30-month long project known as the “Outreach to Emerging Maine Sheep Entrepreneurs”. The project’s purpose is to equip new sheep producers with knowledge and skills for a successful sheep enterprise. Leah Hoenen is a participant and has volunteered to write about her experiences and share them with the UMaine Extension Community. In this installment she writes about attending UMaine Extension Beginner Shearing School 2013 at Wolfsneck Farm in Freeport:
A sheared sheep wears a certain look of confusion and shame. His companions don’t recognize him, he’s a little cold and a little dazed. The shearing process is quick and efficient; demonstrating it is slightly less so. The unfortunate sheep chosen as the demo sheep on a recent rainy Saturday morning bemoaned his bad luck. Made to topple over a few times just to show the technique of unbalancing a sheep, he sat stiff-legged and stoically through a slow shear, only to suffer the indignity of being written on with a thick, green crayon (to remind prospective shearers of the direction in which a sheep is shorn). Then, they took his picture, digitally preserving his embarrassment for all time.
Watching the first of dozens of sheep to be shorn for the day, I felt pity. Reliably, I’m a bleeding heart, but I’m a practical one. I felt sorry for the sheep in the same way I feel sorry for my Beagle when she reeks of old gym sock and I plop her in the kitchen sink for a bath. She whines, cries and otherwise oozes misery, but I still wash her. Sheep have to be shorn and I get that. But, they do have a very sad countenance. They played me, and I bit.
Standing in the barn at Wolfe’s Neck Farm on a painfully damp and cold morning, I told Karl I was halfway to a David Foster Wallace moment. He thought it was poetic and weird. Sheep after sheep skidded its way across the wet concrete and was ingloriously plopped onto its rump, sitting awkwardly on its bottom like a changeling bear. Some laid limply, others quivered, from cold or muscle stiffness, who knows.
The methodology of controlling the sheep and manipulating its body for maximum effectiveness remains hazy to me; having recently been separated from my wisdom teeth, I was instructed to avoid “exerting” myself, so I didn’t practice. Figuring that wrestling an animal which weighs more than me would be on my surgeon’s list of things to avoid, and taking into serious account the relentless throbbing in my jaw, I decided it was Karl’s turn to shear a sheep and I shamelessly egged him on. Sometimes living vicariously is the best a girl can do.
Out walked the sheep, a lovely brown sheep. The instructor asked, “Whose sheep is this?” Karl raised his hand, and walked over. She was on her bottom before I knew what was happening. I read this as a good sign. But, it pretty much went downhill from there. She didn’t want to be on her bottom and she certainly did not want to be sheared. It takes a while to shear when you’re not a pro. This animal did not look kindly upon the learning curve. At every turn she was kicking, thrashing and twisting, on her feet as much as she was off of them and she and Karl were quickly bloodied in the process (no permanent damage to either party). Standing back and appreciating the show from a safe, uninvolved distance, I found it fascinating. She worked him over like any wry five-year-old would a substitute teacher, seeking every possible opening and taking each one. It was genius. And impressive. So often, people accuse sheep of being stupid. That is not true. I’m never in favor of someone hurting or frustrating my husband, but I admired her tenacity. She knew what she was in for and she said, “No, thank you.”
The exercise is not simply to rid the sheep of its fleece. You do need to do that, but the trick is to take the fleece off such that the majority of it is in a sellable, solid piece – easier said than done, especially when the critter in that coat of wool is wriggling for all it’s worth. The shearer’s goal is to keep the sheep off balance so he can’t get back on his feet: you’ll see shearers tuck their toes under the sheep’s hips or shoulders and squeeze the animals between their knees to help keep them still. The shearing all done in a specific order, moving the sheep’s body around the shearer so that the undesirable wool (the belly wool) is eliminated first and the good stuff comes off in a contiguous mass. After the belly, one shears down the right side of the animal, down the back and then diagonally across the left side, remaining still while moving the sheep and positioning the animal so that its mass presses against its skin, filling out and stretching the skin for easier shaving. Thankfully, there’s a chart.
Shearing is a skill to have in your back pocket for the spring when the shearer can’t come to you or you can’t get to him or her. If you’re raising sheep for fiber, however, like we hope to, it’s probably a job for the pros. There is the fear of skinning the sheep instead of shearing it and the concern about trashing the fleece. You might also consider the health of your back. This is not a task for the faint-hearted or the unfit, but it’s one of those off-the-radar skills that is fun to try on a lark, says the girl who didn’t shear.