I've had a bit of a break from shearing. The weather has played havoc with bookings since you can't shear wet sheep, also I've been busy dyeing for Fibre East and working on the new website. Still, I managed to sneak away at the weekend and shear a few sheep.
I was a bit worried I would have forgotten how to do it. Or that my fitness levels would have dropped. I'm sure my fitness levels have dropped but not as much as I feared. Despite the initial trepidation, I decided the best thing to do was just get stuck in.
Working with another shearer out of a pen I had the luxury of choosing which sheep to shear. It is always a debate, do I choose the smaller ones which weigh less but are either more wriggly or older and bonier or the big fat ones which are easier to shear but so heavy?
Fat or chunky sheep are all smooth curves and well filled firm flesh with large flat surface areas for the handpiece. Small sheep are more fiddly, there's less room for the handpiece, especially around the crutch area. Skinny sheep are all lumps and bumps. It's like shaving your legs, which is easier, running the razor over firm curved calf muscle or struggling with all the different planes and loose skin on your knees? Shearing skinny sheep is just like shaving a whole lot of knees.
I went for the smaller sheep. More fiddling, less weight. When a sheep which weighs at least as much as I do pushes back into my legs it is hard not to fall over, I have to stop shearing to get my balance back and regain control. Big and fat may be easier to shear but not when you are lying on your back with the sheep stood on top of you.
Currently I am working on getting to grips with one particular stage of shearing. It is when you step up the neck. This is a really hard manoeuvre. When you've finished the belly and first hind leg you take a big step with your left foot followed by a smaller step with your right foot at the same time switching the sheep from resting on her right hip to resting on her left hip.
I remember when I was first learning the instructor put a bit of wool on the board and said: 'That's where your left foot needs to be.' The distance looked impossible. I had enough trouble holding the sheep with both feet on the floor. Ask me to stand on one foot and at the same time roll 80kg of wriggling muscle between my legs one handed while the other hand holds a running handpiece? You've got to be joking.
These pictures, taken at the South of England Show, show just before and after stepping up the neck:
I fell over a lot at this stage, or hung onto the front of the pen for dear life. I found it impossible to keep my balance and keep hold of the sheep. Eventually I managed the manoeuvre without falling over, hanging onto other people or losing the sheep. But for a long time I've been switching off the shearing machine and putting down the handpiece at this point. It seemed safer than either poking myself in the face or cutting the sheep's ears.
However, when the handpiece is on the floor it can be kicked by the sheep. Once a sheep kicked my handpiece and I couldn't see where it had gone until another the next shearer along found my handpiece tangled up in his sheep's fleece. Fortunately the flying handpiece hadn't hurt anyone and wasn't damaged.
So I am trying to get the hang of stepping up the neck while holding onto the handpiece and rolling the sheep one handed. The sheep always puts her penny's worth in by having a good wriggle. A few times at the weekend the sheep got on her feet as I tried to settle her into the new position. This is nasty as it means the sheep is on her feet with me straddling her. To get her back on her bottom I've got to unstraddle the sheep. Yep, once again I'm trying to stand on one foot, control a sheep one handed and deal with the running handpiece with the other hand. Still, with practice I am getting better. Shearing sheep is not easy. But the sense of achievement when another shorn sheep trots way is well worth the effort.