As the cool spring weather gives way to the summer heat, one imperative is to get the sheep sheared. Wool is such a good insulator that sheep often walk around in winter with an inch of snow on their backs; in summer, that much insulation can be deadly.
newly sheared Audie resting in the shade
We shear by hand, and that involves laying the sheep down on its side while the wool is slowly and carefully removed. For most of the ewes, it's an experience that they've been through before, so they know that however uncomfortable getting sheared may be (think of the worst hair day ever), that they're going to feel much better once it's done.
This year, Audie, our youngest ewe, was the last of the ewes to be sheared. I prefer to shear the sheep in order of their age since the older the ewe, the more at risk she is for heat prostration. This year, the weather's been cool and we're getting started early enough that the order of shearing hasn't been critical.
Shearing by hand takes considerably longer than it takes for the pros who use the heavy, commercial shears, but given the potential damage those cutters could do in the hands of someone unskilled in their use (such as myself), I'm happy to take the slower route. It's a task that only comes once a year, and there's value in spending some "quality" time with each sheep.
A stark reality that every shepherd has to face is that you have to cull two thirds of your flock each year. Otherwise, the number of animals would rapidly increase to the point where the ability of one's range land to support them would crash. This is especially true for goats since they prefer to eat the leaves of young trees instead of the blades of grass that sheep prefer. That's the key reason why, during medieval times, the sustainable stocking density for sheep was set at twenty times that of goats.
a closeup of Audie's wool
Audie got her name because she was born on April 15, 2010. This was her first shearing, and part of the mental process one goes through while shearing is to observe the animal's characteristics in anticipation for making the decision in the fall as to who becomes part of the permanent flock and who goes.
On the Plus side of the ledger:
- Audie's wool is white; that's preferred because it can be dyed into all sorts of beautiful colors
- Audie's wool had good length and was fine with a good crimp; it will spin up into yarn nicely
- Audie tolerated the shearing process relatively well; some sheep fight the process which, considering how sharp and pointed the shears are, can be dangerous for both sheep and shearer
- Audie's feet were in good shape; no signs of hoof rot or misshapen hooves.
On the Minus side of the ledger:
- Audie's legs and belly has a lot of wool that is tedious to cut and of little value.
- Audie has a second pair of nipples; since they're small and well separated from her primary nipples, that may not be a problem. If Audie were a dairy goat, this would be a more serious concern, but since we raise sheep for wool instead of for milk, the standards for a sheep's udder aren't as high.
So for Audie, the results of this "preliminary audit" are good. Her real test will come next spring with her first lambing. Our primary criteria for sheep revolve around their mothering ability; if she does a good job raising at least one lamb, she's on track to become part of our long-term flock.
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71