An ode to sheep shearers

sheep shearing

The annual sheep haircuts occurred this week, the earliest we’ve ever done them, and not a moment too soon. With the new miniature flock I brought home recently scheduled to start lambing in just under a month, it was either shear now, or what until after lambing.

Different shepherds have different opinions about shearing as it relates to pregnancy and lambing. Amongst my neighbors, most people chose to shear before they lamb. A few prefer to wait until after the babies arrive. For better or for worse, I don’t usually get to decide. Most flocks around here are HUGE — they number in the hundreds — whereas I’ve never had more than 70 head (and most years, including this one, considerably less than that). For a shearing crew that covers huge swaths of countryside during shearing season, setting aside a day to come to us when it’s only a few hours of work is a money losing proposition. So, we wait until someone has a free morning or afternoon and we are thankful for their time.

Which brings me to the real topic of this column: Sheep shearers. If you’ve ever watched a sheep shearer work, you know it is about as labor intensive a job as exists. These folks work HARD, and it’s not just the physical prowess involved in the shearing, it’s dealing with the varied personalities of individual animals before and after the actual shearing takes place. Some sheep don’t mind being sheared (or at least don’t make a fuss) while others really, really mind, and aren’t afraid to let their feelings be known.

Sheep are also sensitive and easily frightened, so the best shearers need to be strong, nimble and efficient, moving quickly but gently. They also spend most of the procedure bent over, which makes my back hurt just watching from my position on the sidelines.

In truth, the whole process makes me feel more depressed every year. The price of wool is so low some producers don’t even bother to take it to a mill. Shearers can’t really charge what their time is worth, and consequently there are fewer and fewer people willing to do the job and do it well. Similarly, hair breeds are growing in popularity because they don’t need to be shorn at all.

Meanwhile, wool is awesome in the truest sense of the word. It’s biodegradable and it’s renewable for as long as there’s grass to graze and sheep breeds that keep needing haircuts. It’s breathable because of the way the individual fibers create tiny pockets of air that absorb and release moisture. Just as it does for the sheep wearing it, wool reacts to your body to keep you warm when it’s cold and cools you when it’s warm. It’s static and wrinkle and odor resistant. Wool is the result of thousands of years of collaboration between Mother Nature and human experimentation and even the advent of high tech synthetic fabrics hasn’t been able to fully replicate its wonders.

Because of the intricacies of supply chain economics, however, wool is now less desirable than vastly inferior products. And, just like almost everything else, the profit margin later in the supply chain is much larger than it is at the beginning. In other words, the ranchers, the farmers, and the shearers are making very little money, but chain stores do just fine selling you blended wool sweaters.

The detailed politics of the ag economy is hardly the purview of this column. I’ll leave that to those with a deeper knowledge of policy than my own. But I reserve the right to be sad and a little angry when I look at my sheep, the shearer, and those bags of wool lined up by the barn. It’s a darn shame, and I wish I knew how to change it.

For now, I’ll continue to brainstorm about the regional fibershed empire I am someday going to help create, because while I may not know how to solve this yet, I’m not giving up!

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