Friday, September 16, 2011

Shearing Sheep

Every time I shear our sheep (which is not often), I gain renewed respect for professional sheep shearers. They set a sheep on its rear and have the wool off in ten minutes with their electric shears. I use a hand shears and I most definitely do not set a sheep up on its rear. I do not understand why sheep shearers don't all have broken backs. I would. I tie the sheep and shear her standing. If I'm lucky, she stands. Sometimes she jumps around and if that doesn't make me quit, she lies down. It takes me about an hour per animal. With several rest periods. And the result looks more like they've been moth-eaten than shorn.

Years ago, we had twenty sheep instead of two and a professional zipped through our flock and left them looking sleek (with a few nicks from those electric shears). But after our regular shearer died, we were only able to find one person who would come to our place for as few as twenty sheep. They like big flocks where they can make big money. After the price of gas climbed, even that guy would no longer come. So I bought a hand shears (because I figured I'd scalp the poor things with an electric one, plus I hate the noise) and started doing it myself. But not too regularly.

I sheared today. It was long overdue. At least two years overdue. We now only have two sheep; you'd think I could get them shorn. But I've been busy. And I can't shear when they're wet, which they are 9 months of the year. Nor can I shear when it is blazing hot out because it's a hot job even in cool weather. And when I can't come up with any other excuses for this unfavorite farm activity, I blame their wooliness on my inability to catch the blessed animals.

But I vowed to shear this week... now that the temperatures are in the pleasant 70s and before the fall rains begin. The catch pen is always set up, but the sheep seldom go in there. I've tried to bribe them with apples but the llamas go in and eat the apples while the sheep are still considering it. On the rare occasions they have entered the pen, they exit rapidly as soon as they see me coming. The only things I catch them for are to shear, trim feet or deworm and they don't like any of those.

Today, however, I had success... thanks to our big white goat guardian dog McCoy. I had moved horses to the llama/sheep field next to the riding arena, so I could ride. McCoy, as usual, managed to get through the open gate into that field and was happily roughhousing with our sheep/llama guardian dog Shirley. I was riding Mr. Smith in the arena when I noticed that the sheep had moved into the catch pen to get away from the exuberant, wrestling dogs. And, as luck would have it, one of the llamas was munching away on hay stacked next to the catch pen... and blocking the gate into... and out... of it.

Hah! I leaped off Mr. Smith and told him to stay where he was. ( He did). I snuck over the fence between arena and sheep field in a place where I was not visible from the catch pen. Then I quickly moved next to the gate-blocking llama and darted behind him, grabbed the gate and shut it fast. The sheep saw the trick too late and tried to ram their way through the gate (and me, which they've done in the past) but the gate held and I was safely on the other side. Hah!

I went back to the arena, unsaddled the patient Mr. Smith and put him with the other horses. Then I climbed into the catch pen and looped a rope over the big mama sheep's head, tying her in the corner by the gate where she was trying to escape. That worked beautifully as she was sandwiched between three fences... thanks to her huge coat of wool. I started cutting through the wool to reach her back. Getting started is the hardest part as I have to locate the sheep under all that wool and not cut her in the process. I kept cutting and trying to feel but all I could feel was wool. Amazingly, I went down a good twelve inches before I found her back. Then it was relatively easy to follow her back and gradually cut away the wool on each side. Wool is so heavy it pulls itself down so I can see where to cut.

Of course, she did not stand patiently through the whole ordeal but since she was trapped in a corner she couldn't cause too much trouble, even when she lay down. I just kept cutting. Eventually, I found her legs which I had not seen for nearly two years. She has looked like one of those cartoon sheep, all wool and no legs. I should have taken a before picture but I didn't want to admit how derelict I have been in my sheep tending duties. The picture at the top was taken a year ago. You'll just have to imagine another year's growth of wool.

Pictured is the wool from that one ewe spread out. To give a size comparison, I stuck my foot in the second picture but could not get all the wool in one shot. Spinning friend Velta came by and determined that the ewe's wool was, indeed, twelve inches long.

The younger ewe did not have nearly so much wool. But she put up more of a fight. Both sheep, when turned loose, went straight to their llama friends and tried to hide under them. The llamas sniffed them all over as though to say, "Do I know you?" Both ewes' undercoats are very different colors from what their outer coats were so they look like different animals. Both were brown before shearing. Now one is a mottled gray and white while the other is black. But the llamas apparently knew who they were. Later in the day, all four were grazing together as usual.

Someday, I'll shear the llamas. But that's even more of a hassle. They kick and spit.

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