Notes from Windward: #57

Shearing by Moonlight

Joyce and the shearer
discuss each fleece
At Windward, we're working hard and steadily to learn all the things that go with living close to the land in a self-reliant, sustainable manner. One of the most critical things to learn is when not to try to do something yourself. While there's nothing magical or unlearnable about repetitive tasks such as shearing sheep or shoeing a horse, these tasks require specialized equipment and more than that, long hours of practice.

It's very hard to become good at something you only do once or twice a year. While we're willing to take our time and walk the learning curve when we're dealing with inanimate things like the tractor, we approach the care and maintenance of living creatures differently. If you mess up shoeing a horse, you can ruin that animal for life. At Windward, we're committed to using our animals, but we also strive to insure that they're not abused. This is one of the places we draw that line. Since we're not willing, at this point, to put in the time needed to be able to do the job right, we're happy to hire someone who does.

Unless you're shearing sheep on a regular basis, there isn't much likelihood that you'll do a good job. Shearing is an interactive process between the shearer and the sheep. If done well, a quality fleece is produced and the ewe just has a bad hair day. If done wrong, a ewe can bleed to death before anything can be done to save her. Know that, and lacking the skill to proceed confidently, it would take me an hour to do what a competent shearer can do in three minutes.

There's nothing dignified
about gettin' sheared
We've been fortunate to make contact with a fellow who not only shears his own flock, but travels to shear many of the larger herds in the region. He's well trained, well equiped and we feel fortunate that he's willing to do our flock when he's in the area. Since he lives 150 miles away, and that's too far for him to drive just to do our small flock, he lets us know when he's going to be in the area. This year, the timing was such that we found ourselves shearing by the light of the full moon.

Joyce is in charge of Windward's wool crop, so she pays close attention to what the shearer has to say about each fleece. He sees thousands of sheep a year, and has a practiced eye when it comes to the commercial qualities of the wool. His critique of each fleece forms a large part of the data we use to determine which ewe's lambs will stay to increase the herd and which will go to market. That a calculus that is emotionally charged for those who raised the lambs from birth, and it's very helpful to have the benefit of a trained, analytical eye.

Joyce skirts a fleece
One thing Joyce did differently this year was to immediately skirt the fleece. Skirting involves the removal of the useless bits around the edges, and getting rid of them right off the bat helps to insure that the premium portions of the fleece don't get contaminated with short hairs and muck. By getting this chore done right away, the wool can be packaged away without further attention until it's ready to be used.

All in all, it was a strange and remarkable shearing. As we started the moon was full and bright, but this was the night of a lunar eclipse. As the shearing when forward, the moon was steadily covered up by the earth's shadow, an erie sight at any time. I'm not sure why, but for me the lunar eclipse hightened the sense of ancient ritual that goes with shearing. For millinea, shepherds have gathered to shear their flocks, and one of the reasons we do this is to keep faith with that ancient line. Shearing at night under a bitten moon made me feel very close to those ancient souls.

Tiffanie, Patrick and Anthony

My first sheep shearing experience

Hi! I'm Tiffanie Tobe (that's pronounced Toe-b). Since I'm only 200 hours short of getting my liscense as a cosmetoligist, I was excited to hear that the sheep were about to "have their hair cut!" My first thought about shearing sheep was, "Well, how hard can it be? You just take some clippers, and cut away."

Well, it turned out that it's not quite that simple.

I was first amazed, and then impressed, as I got to watch a master at work. Roger, our shearer, was very quick, very precise .... in short, very skilled. He was very instructive as well, and didn't mind my getting in there to see just what it was that he was doing.

First he sheared the wool up the left side, from back to front, and then down the right side. Regardless of the anatomy, he kept curving always to the right making broad, singular strokes. Short on the sides, long on the top, all make for the purpose of taking off the wool in a single piece. Once sheared, the wool is skirted, which means that the short, edgy pieces are removed, something which would be hard to do if the fleece was removed in several small pieces.

Anthony, my eight year old son, was fascinated by the process, and commented that it reminded him of when his nanna peals an apple in a single, unbroken strip. Patrick, my three year old, didn't know what to think, there was so much going on between the shearing and the lunar eclipse that was happening at the same time. Both of them had a great time and got to see something they'll remember for a long time to come.

Patrick is fascinated by it all
Having worked some 1,400 hours as a cosmetician, I was very impressed with the handwork of the shearer as he skillfully managed the cutter with a single hand. At the same time, he controled and maneuvered the sheep with his legs, body and his other hand. When your "customers" weigh in at over 200 pounds, you want them to be as "comfortable" as possible.

I especially recall one comment he made about our professions being not all that different. While it is true that there are many similarities, there are lots of differences as well. For one thing, sheep shearers need to know a lot about the physical structure of the sheep so as not to nip any major arteries or muscles, whereas cosmetoligists need less knowledge of human anatomy. If he makes a wrong move, he could kill a ewe. If I mess up, the customer is more likely to want to kill me!

At least when he's done, he doesn't have to listen to his clients complain about a "bad haircut." For sheep, everyday is a good hair day, and any haircut you survive, is a good haircut. Another difference is that when my customers leave, they look pretty good. The sheep, on the other hand, look really sad, which is understandable since the point of shearing sheep is to get a good fleece, not a pretty flock. Oh well, for sheep as well as humans, a good haircut is never more than a couple of weeks away.

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