The ground is still firm in the mornings — ice crystals shimmering on the bare garden soil as the morning light bedazzles off their edges. But the crystals don’t last long as the sun climbs and warms the early spring air. The first of the robins bob about in the lawn, and the little peaking tops of rhubarb leaves have pierced through their compost cover, waiting for just a little warmer weather before bursting forth.
Another right of spring comes today — sheep shearing. One of the first animals to be domesticated (after dogs), wild sheep’s wool naturally sheds in the springtime. The itchy sensation encourages the animals to rub on trees, bushes, and stone, leaving behind little tufts that are favored by the birds of the area for nest building.
Some livestock, like angora goats and rabbits, still shed this way, and their fleece has to be harvested either by combing the tufts off the animals or gathering it up from fences and pastures.
But the process of domestication and selective breeding can change so much in an animal — from temperament, to build, to even coat structure. Sheep fleeces changed from the natural shedding to needing to be clipped off by human intervention.
We’ve done this with our dog breeding as well. Some dogs, like their predecessor wolves, shed their winter undercoats in the spring. Our sheep dog Lena does this in fully “poofing” force, with fuzzy bits sticking to the furniture and carpet or blowing off in the breeze on a windy day. But other dog breeds, like Steve’s Cockapoo named Bo, has to go in for a haircut. In the wild, this would be completely unpractical! But with human caretakers, it’s part of the process of having these animals.
Bo goes to the dog groomer when he starts looking like a buff-colored mop with legs, but when to shear the wool from the sheep is a little more exacting science. The sheep need the wool through the winter to keep warm, but during lambing season, a heavy, wool coat can be messy and makes it difficult for the lambs to find the udder. The little ones are remarkably cute but also rather clueless.
So, after winter but before lambing is the ideal time to give that sheepy coat a trim. But it’s even more precise than that. Because ewes (female sheep) often have multiple babies at one time, there’s a cutoff for an acrobatically involved process like shearing before it threatens to tangle or turn the babies inside, causing birthing complications. That cutoff is four weeks, no later.
With lambs expected to start arriving in mid-April, it was one of those sunny March mornings that Chris’ rattly blue truck arrived in the barnyard for his 13th season shearing at our farm. Two Golden Retrievers lounged in the cab, watching me haul water to the chicken and turkey coop.
Kara had corralled the flock into a smaller pen inside the barn so they were easier to catch, leaving the rest of the space open for returning the ewes whose haircut was complete. The older ewes have been through this before, though it isn’t their favorite day. Sheep are quite pleased when everything goes according to routine — and shearing day is certainly not part of their idea of the routine!
Kara leads a ewe off the bedding pack and into the entry area, which is swept cement to keep the fleeces clean (instead of working on the bedding). Chris holds one leg and curls the ewe’s neck, easing her onto her rump with her legs sticking out (a “seated” position you don’t see sheep doing on their own!).
Then begins the whirring electric shears and off comes the belly wool, which is short and usually a bit dirty, so that is discarded. He flicks it to the side, and I scoop it up into a bag.
Then he starts with one back leg, almost like a sculptor revealing the sheep hidden beneath the thick wool coat. Then there’s the blind cut up the chest and neck, and he peels the fleece open to work along the shoulder. Next he lays the ewe on her side and works in rows to expose her flank, back to the spine. Sometimes the sheep baas in protest, while others lick their lips — a reaction of appreciation for a good back scratch.
Then the ewe is turned onto her other side, and the rest of the coat is removed in one big sheet, ending with her tail wool. Chris lets her up and Kara directs the ewe into the open pen before catching the next in line.
Meanwhile, I kneel down and pick up the huge armload of fleece and take it to the back wall, where I have big garbage bags ready to stuff them into. The rich and tangy smell of lanoline is on my gloves, my coat, my pants, my hat.
All week, I’ve been networking with our three woolen mills, preparing for the raw fleece shipment. All woman-owned small businesses, Northern Woolen Mill in Minnesota will be making sport and rug weight yarns (some of them dyed in our barn quilt colors), Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill in Mt. Horeb will be making sock, sport, and bulky weight yarns in a variety of variegated colors, and Hidden Valley Woolen Mill in eastern Wisconsin will be making colorful roving that I braid into wool coil rugs.
On go the shears for the next sheep. By the end of the day all 45 pregnant ewes and our 4 rams are clean and pretty — amazingly white beneath that thick coat — and I have 400 pounds of wool to pack into boxes and ship off to the mills.
I can see Kara taking stock of the condition of her flock now that she can see their shapes more clearly. This ewe looks like she is carrying a lot of babies. That aging ram is starting to lose some condition. This yearling may or may not be pregnant — we’ll have to watch to see if she was bred late.
With 400 pounds less of bulk in the barn, it actually looks like there’s fewer sheep! But they’re all still there, and the pregnancies are certainly showing. Mid-April will be here before we know it, and with it the next big episode of the sheep season — lambing!
But for now, I have a baffled Speedee Delivery man on my porch trying to sort out which overstuffed box goes to which address on his label sticker list. Looks like we’ll fill up his truck with fleece! See you down on the farm sometime.
Shearing photos by Amy Coffman-Phillips, taken during a farm visit.
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