Monday, 27 June 2011

The one that nearly got away

Wool sacks filled with fleece and in the background the shorn sheep

The rain has finally stopped and I have been out shearing.  The first day I did three Southdowns, the second day I did five Southdowns and the third day I managed six Southdowns.  Then over the weekend I broke the ten barrier, shearing 12 Mules in one day.  These are tiny numbers compared to professional shearers but it’s my personal battle and each time I do more I get a real buzz.

The advantage of Southdowns is they are quite small sheep so I found them easy enough to turn and get out of the pen now that I am getting fitter – I wouldn’t have found it easy a few weeks ago!  The disadvantage is they have wool growing in every conceivable nook and cranny.  These Southdowns were short and chubby, little barrels on legs.  Fat sheep are easier to shear, there are less lumps and bumps.  You can read more about shearing Southdowns here.  

While moving the Southdowns I put my hand on a ram’s back to push him, as I did so there was a terrible sound of crunching bones.  My stomach turned over.  ‘I’ve broken his spine.’  I thought, which was crazy because I hadn’t pushed him very hard.  ‘What was that?’  I asked.  ‘His teeth.’  The shearer said.  His teeth?  The sound came again, I could see the ram was grinding his teeth.  He must have happened to grind them just as I pushed him.  

When we switched to shearing North of England Mules the sheep felt completely different.  Mules are tall elegant sheep with long bodies, long necks and long legs, unlike the short necked Southdowns.  

A North of England Mule ewe

The squat Southdowns always felt stiff between my legs and when sat up they tended to keep their heads up.  The Mules felt much more floppy and hung their heads when sat up.  Except for one sheep whose head was hanging down relaxed then she suddenly threw her head in the air and smacked me in the face – ouch.

When I had the Southdowns sat between my legs their shoulders came to my knees but the Mules seemed to fill the space between my legs so I felt that if the sheep pushed against me I would take off.  The Mules were also more bony, their hip bones protruded and on some the back bone was prominent.  This meant I was shearing up and down hill, trying not to leave wool in the hollows.  The sheep weren’t in bad condition, it’s just different breeds have different body shapes and these sheep were still feeding their lambs so they were on the slim side.

At the Mule job I started using a Warrie Back Aid.  You can see the Back Aid in this picture.  Isn’t it a beautiful setting?  

I haven’t used one before as I thought it was another piece of equipment to master and I had enough to think about.  However the Back Aid didn’t get in my way or restrict me at all as I had feared.  A Back Aid is a gadget which takes some of your weight while you are bent over shearing, it eases the strain on the back.  The Back Aid is basically a wide sheep skin strap suspended on springs, the springs allow plenty of flexibility, as I found out.  Unfortunately, the chestbelt sits across the chest under the arms, for me that means right across the bosom.  I thought this would be uncomfortable but actually it wasn’t and I found the chest belt tended to work its way down below my bust.

At first  I felt as though the Back Aid was pulling me up and I was fighting it to get down to the sheep’s tail.  There are three springs so I disconnected one then it didn’t pull me as much.  As the day went on, I put the Back Aid through an unexpected tough test.

I went into the pen for a sheep and they were all massive.  ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘I’ll just have to manage.’  I got the sheep out of the pen onto the shearing board and everyone was ribbing me, shouting, ‘Couldn’t you have found a bigger one?’  ‘Have you been putting your ewes to a stallion?’  I countered.  Fortunately, the sheep relaxed and didn’t struggle.  ‘We’re going to get along just fine.’  I thought.  I did the belly and the first leg and stepped up the neck. 

I think perhaps part of the problem was I hadn’t allowed for the Mule’s long legs, she got her front feet down on the board and that was it.  She pushed up under me, the springs of the Back Aid contracted and I went up in the air.  We were working in a large field so if the sheep escaped half shorn it would mean an exhausting chase round the field in the heat.  Much less stress for the sheep and less hassle for us to hang on to her.  So hang on I did.  But I was completely at the ewe’s mercy, unable to get my feet down properly.  We shot across my board onto the next shearer’s board, cannoned into him and his sheep, I had a nanosecond to hope his handpiece didn’t cut me and to shout an apology as we bounced off and continued onto the tarpaulin where the fleeces were being rolled.  I was squealing the whole way and yelled extra loudly as I felt myself falling.  I think the sheep must have slipped on the tarpaulin, we fell together in a heap.  As we went down the sheep’s head hit me in the face and I bit my tongue.  

I lay looking up at the sky and saw to my horror the springs of my Back Aid impossibly stretched out. Bother!  I’d forgotten I was still in the Back Aid but I couldn’t have got out of it without letting go of the sheep.  I was terrified the springs would snap and injure somebody.  Amazingly, they held.  I was a long way from my workstation.  Another shearer came to my rescue and with a struggle we got the sheep back to the shearing board where I finished shearing her with no further adventures.  Well done Warrie for making a Back Aid robust enough to cope with the mistakes of an idiot amateur! 

  Gathering up the sheep for shearing

Monday, 20 June 2011

Rain Stopped Shearing

Well here in the UK Wimbledon has just started.  So far it seems to be dry for the players.  When it rains and the players have to stop we say ‘rain stopped play’.  This last week the weather has played havoc with sheep shearing.  It has been raining hard.  

It is inadvisable to shear wet sheep.  Sheep are like sponges, when they get wet their fleece holds so much water.  If you then try to shear the sheep all that water soaks into your clothes, it’s miserable.  The shearing board also gets wet and a wet shearing board is like an ice rink.  Good grip on the shearing board is critical so a wet slippery board makes a hard job harder.  Of course if it is actually raining during shearing and you are plugged into the mains then there is the worrying combination of electricity and water.  Another problem with shearing wet sheep is storing the wool.  The wet fleeces will rot if they do not dry out.  Now wool may not be very valuable at the moment but rotting fleeces are a sorry prospect.  

The trouble with cancelling shearing jobs is they still have to be fitted into the diary somewhere, you can’t just not shear the sheep.  Some owners are able to bring their sheep in so they are dry for shearing but not everyone has enough space.  For the time being, rain has stopped shearing.   

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Couple More Videos For You

I thought I would show you a couple more of Phil's videos.  This first video shows you what happens to a fleece when it has just been shorn.  If you are a handspinner and you buy raw fleece, the fleece will normally come rolled in this way.    

The second video gives a close up view of the shearing equipment, Phil explains how the handpiece works.

I hope you enjoy this insight into the world of sheep shearing!  If you haven't seen the first two videos please click here.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Sheep Shearing Videos

Although I can't tell you too much here about the sheep shearing course I did, I can show you some videos of the instructor.  After all, you can't print a video!  The instructor was Phil Hart, a Gold Seal shearer, Wool Board Shearing Instructor and Competition Judge.  He stars in seven videos made by FarmingAds about sheep shearing.  I just hope I manage to embed the videos OK, I'm not that good with all this technical stuff!

In this video Phil demonstrates how to dag and shear a sheep.  See this lively Suffolk Mule do a handstand!

This is my favourite film.  In this film Phil takes a sheep he has already shorn and 'shears' it with a wax crayon so that you can see the shearing pattern without all the wool in the way:

Apparently on one course Phil did this with a red crayon.  Later, once the sheep had been turned out in the field, the farm had a visit from the RSPCA, someone had reported the shearers had slashed a sheep to bits!  Now Phil never does this exercise with a red crayon.

If you feel inspired to try sheep shearing I strongly suggest you go on a proper course, sheep shearing is not something you can learn from scratch by watching a YouTube video.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Sheep Shearing Course Article

I’m absolutely pooped.  Just completed a three day sheep shearing course.  My back feels fine, strangely my feet ache more than any other part of my body.  My muscles feel harder than they’ve ever been.  I’ve learned a great deal, met some lovely people and made new friends.  There was a considerable age range on the course, from mid teens to over sixty, it was really encouraging to see other people like me who aren’t strapping young men getting stuck in.

I can’t say too much about the course because I’m writing an exclusive article for YarnMaker magazine.  If you wish to read the full story of the course you will need to beg, borrow or buy a copy of YarnMaker.  YarnMaker is a new UK magazine for handspinners, first published in August 2010.  The publishers will ship internationally and you can order individual copies or subscribe.  

I have written one article for YarnMaker but I wasn’t sure if it would be accepted, I heard yesterday that the article is going to be in the July issue!  The deadline for the July issue is in May then the next issue comes out in September.  I really wanted to write a sheep shearing article for publication during the shearing season, but I knew the May deadline was too early in the season for me to have fresh material so I wrote an article about my first experiences of learning to shear three years ago.  Now that article has been accepted I’m good to go with the second article.  Subject to acceptance, the full story of my sheep shearing course will be in the September issue of YarnMaker.

Just to prove I did actually shear a sheep today:

 You can visit the YarnMaker website here.