Sunday, May 10, 2009

Learning how to shear sheep: Part 2 I was impressed how well we all did on our first go and, following my own stumbling previous experiences, I was chuffed to get the fleece off in a single piece, leaving a fairly clean sheep with not a nick anywhere. It was all down to the technique and some good instruction by Paul and the college’s resident shepherd, Pete. The technique is called the Bowen method, developed in the 1950s by a New Zealand chap called Godfrey Bowen and it’s a precise dance of feet, knees and clippers around a sheep. After cleaning the belly and rear end of wool, the shearer starts with the left rear leg, then opens up the wool under the neck and clears the front left leg before laying the sheep on her back and shearing up the left side of the sheep, ending up with delightfully satisfying long blows from the tail to the neck. A step-over and the shearer begins to sit the sheep up again, shearing down the other side of the neck and the right front leg as he does, moving down the right side of the body to the right left leg, leaving the fleece in one piece. These are then rolled up and stuffed into a huge woolsack for despatch to The British Wool Marketing Board

The Saturday was “Sheep Shearing for Beginners” and most of us returned on Sunday for the “Improvers” course. Ken (see the video on the previous blog) couldn’t join us, which is a shame as I think it’s fair to say he produced the cleanest sheep with the best technique at the end of Saturday and he would have got his qualification on the Sunday. Jon was there again though, a big strong chap with the lightest of Irish accents who teaches philosophy for a living. I couldn’t resist teasing him with “why shear?” He said that his six-form students looked at him blankly on Friday afternoon when he announced what he was going to do for the weekend. Pete agreed with me that there are probably many more shepherds who are philosophers than philosophers who can shear sheep, making Jon somewhat unique.

Paul started the second day showing us how the comb and cutters are sharpened, leaving two slightly concave surfaces, which flatten as the clipper head is tightened up. Another new experience next as the sheep were still in the field where we joined Pete and his collie dog to help round them up. I’ve never seen a sheep dog work in the flesh (only on TV) and it’s fabulously impressive: quick as a rocket but stops dead at Pete’s whistle. Once corralled up, there was a system of moving barriers and ever smaller pens to allow us first to sort lambs from ewes and then to put them in holding pens near to our shearing stations.

The second day was great for consolidating our new skill and, after lunch we had the opportunity of going for the first qualification. There are four levels: blue (why blue, I don’t know) then the usual bronze, silver and gold. For the gold standard, I think you have to provide proof of being a Kiwi through three generations of your family and then shear a thousand sheep in a day, blindfolded, with one arm behind your back. For us mortals, shearing three sheep within half an hour, using the correct technique and leaving the sheep looking reasonably clean, would give us our blue badge. I’m extremely proud to say that I managed it although I needed to lie on the floor in between the second and third sheep to put my back back into shape and ended up soaked in sweat. We also ended the day covered in lanolin (from the wool) and, slightly less agreeably, sheep poo and I also have a couple of wounds on each elbow, where I’d been towed across the concrete floor by a couple of ewes who made a break for freedom before I’d finished with them.

A big thank you to Paul Attard and Pete Smith of Moulton Agricultural College for a fabulous weekend. The video at the top is Pete showing us how it should be done. There is a real lack of sheep shearers in the UK (not sure about here in France) and, although physical, I think it’d be a great job but just not for 48-year-old me, with a bad back. We’ll be shearing our own sheep later this month.