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Shearing the flock

This day is awaited with eager anticipation every year.  By now, they have been growing their fleeces for a year and they’re pretty thick and heavy.  They are also full of grass seeds, bits of hay, small twigs and brambles - you name it, one of them has probably got it in there. So for the past few weeks, they have been rubbing against every post, tree, and anything else that’s static.  Honestly, if you stand amongst them for even a few moments, they start on you.  

My biggest fear at this time of year with a full fleece is the bugs.  Fly-strike is the most grotesque thing to witness.  Flies lay eggs on the fleece that hatch into maggots and these literally eat the sheep alive.  Usually, this is around the back end of a sheep, but I’ve seen maggots hatch between the toes of a lamb (the lamb went lame, we immediately spotted and treated it), and in the centre on the back of a lamb (again, spotted quickly, and sorted).  With a long fleece, it’s incredibly hard to spot, and the first sign might be a dead ewe.

So, for the health and comfort of the sheep, we always look forward to getting them shorn around now.  

Getting the shearer in is generally the biggest challenge.  They usually have their own flock to shear, and a good shearer is always in high demand, and of course everyone wants their sheep shorn in the same small timeframe.  Some years we have a date to work to, other years we literally await the phonecall which might be “shall I come now” to which the answer is always yes, regardless of what other tasks were in the offing.  In the past, I’ve found myself frantically texting friends to collect children from school, everything gets dropped for shearing.  This year, we had a few days notice PLUS with the coronavirus lockdown, the boys are home.  So no school run in the middle of the job, and lots of hands to help, hurray!

We started mid-afternoon.  It’s the end of a long hot spell, and we brought all the groups into the pens - the youngsters who hadn’t reared sheep, the rams, and the ewes with lambs that lambed in the first group.  There are still a few ewes with lambs back in the smaller paddocks - these aren’t ready to shear yet and will be done in around a month’s time.  Fortunately, the pens are up on the old railway, lined with trees, so everything was standing in shade.  Ben arrived and was quickly set up and ready to go.  

The rams went first.  They’re big heavy beasts, not used to submitting and hard to move around, but they’re quickly done and dispatched back to their field.  They look hilarious, suddenly half their body but still the same large heads!  There’s a bit of argy-bargy as they don’t recognise each other and they need to sort out the pecking order afresh, but they settle down back to grazing pretty quickly with no big dramas.

Next up were the 30 youngsters with no lambs.  It’s their first time being shorn and they’re somewhat surprised by the whole affair, but their fleeces have “risen” well and Ben gets through these quickly.  Many of them gave the biggest leap as they trotted off down the field again, relieved of their itchy weight of fleece.  These have now officially progressed from “ewe lambs” to “shearlings”!

With their fleeces off, it’s also easy to look at the body condition of them and I’m delighted that this group have grown well and come through the winter in fantastic condition.  They will make good ewes for the upcoming breeding season.  

Peter has zipped off home for more petrol for the generator and returns bearing a cool bag of ice-creams, so a welcome break in the heat followed this group. 

The original plan was to just look at the older ewes with lambs to see if they were ready to shear, but having got them in, we all decide to go ahead and get them done.  Some of these are hard going.  It isn’t as simple as just randomly shearing when you feel like it.  Along with the health and comfort of the sheep, the timing of the rising fleece is a consideration.  The old fleece is pushed away from the body by the new fleece growing out, leaving a clear path for the cutter to get through.  This is called the “rise”, and makes the job quicker and neater, thus easier on the sheep being shorn, and much easier on the back of the shearer!  It takes a few weeks after lambing for this rise to be clear, and some are very ready, others are tougher.  The rate of shearing goes down, Ben is getting tired and stretching out his back more frequently, the more reluctant ewes are hanging back and getting harder to get into the pre-shear pen, tempers are fraying.  The sun is moving down towards the horizon, supper time comes and goes, one ewe knocks off a horn spraying blood so we spray her with antibiotic spray and fly-treat the area.

Finally, the last ewe leaves the shearing station.  Sighs of relief all round. The dirty belly wool litters the area, full bags of wrapped fleeces bulge satisfactorily.  Everyone is exhausted.

We get Ben packed up and off, back to see his young family, and clear the area of all our kit.  Three full sacks of wool are loaded onto the flatbed, each weighing around 80kg’s.  Sadly, this wool is all but worthless in the UK. 

It goes to the Wool Board who sell it globally on behalf of farmers, but the price per fleece doesn’t even come close to cover the cost of shearing, or even the cost of fuel to take it to a wool collection farm.  

We arrive back home sometime after 10pm.  A long afternoon but hugely satisfying knowing that the girls are now a great deal more comfortable, and safe as is possible to be from fly-strike.  We’ll do the remaining small group early in July and that will all be done for another year.  Huge thanks as always to Ben.

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Shearing the flock