Shearing the sheep, May 2007
Yesterday was shearing day. The sheep have all had their haircuts and now they look like a flock of strange goats.
Every year, Jim McCrae and Liz Willis come sometime during the month of May or early June to shear our sheep. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but Art has seen a number of shearers do their work – none, he says, as expertly as these two.
It was a beautiful day– the first sunny day after days of rain. The lilacs and apple blossoms have passed, the roses are in full bloom, and the grass has already gone to seed. The sheep were corralled in the barn when the shearers arrived. Jim looked them over, counted them, and then said, “I think we’ll do it right in here.” They squeezed through the gate with all their tools, changed into their shearer’s booties, plugged in their electric razors, and went right to work.
We are often asked why we don’t shear our own sheep. The answer is that we have seen it done clumsily. Sheep shearing done by apprentice hands is torture all around – but especially for the animals. It is uncomfortable for them; the only blessing is that it is fast. Or – it should be.
The first time I ever saw it done was in 2005, when Art’s regular shearer showed up on crutches. We knew he was in recovery from cancer treatments – but the crutches were a result of a car accident, not his cancer. He pulled up in a beat-up blue van with his son– a big blond young man in a ball cap, who held his arm to his chest as if it were broken– and a friend whom they’d enlisted to help them out. The son had been knocked over by a ram earlier in the day and hurt his arm, he told us. The old man emerged slowly from the van with his crutches, stood himself upright, then inched his way towards the paddock. He had been completely paralyzed after the accident, he told us. “I’ve been getting my movement back little by little.”
Standing in the paddock, the son lit a cigarette and held it in his left hand while he held his right arm against his chest.
“Go get that one,” he said to the friend, who slipped into the corral and grabbed a ewe by her wool.
“Ride her,” the son said, and the friend climbed onto the ewe’s back and rode her like she were a bucking colt in a rodeo. Then he jumped off her, grabbed one of her legs, and flipped her onto her back. The son wrapped his good arm around her neck and held her against him as he worked the electric razor down her belly with his injured arm. He winced with pain, then stopped.
“You hold her,” he said to his friend. The old man stood by, muttering advice with his head downcast as if he were unable to lift it up. He held himself still as a stone, leaning on his crutches. The ewe writhed and kicked as the friend held her down, while the son made repeated stabs at her with the razor. Finally the ewe settled down, stretched out on her side, while the son winced and clenched his teeth as he worked. When he had finished the one side they turned the ewe onto her other side. The son worked slowly, using his left hand, the wool peeling away and dropping to the ground like wood shavings. After about a half an hour, they released the poor girl, who went limping off towards the corral to join her family, covered with red nicks and gashes.
It took them three hours to shear six ewes. We paid them eighty dollars to split between them for their efforts, and we never saw them again.
The following spring, it was our neighbor, Jennifer Gilligan, who recommended Jim McRae to us, who has been shearing our sheep ever since.
The two of them work side by side, each of them shearing their own ewe. Working in concert, they dove into the flock, who were massed together in the back of the barn, grabbed the first two ewes they could get a hold of, and swiftly, using a few expert Judo moves, had them sitting quietly on their rumps. First, they peel away the belly wool, which is discarded, working carefully around their udders and sensitive parts. Then they cut away the fleece in a single piece, carving it as if it were soft butter. The underside of the fleece is astonishingly clean, soft, and beautiful, piling up in folds like whipped cream.
The sheep sit like humans sit in chairs while they have their haircuts, with their backs upright and their legs in front of them. They look a little stunned as they are forced to sit in a position that they would never get themselves into on their own. They seem helpless and vulnerable, with their pink udders exposed. They don’t like it – they dislike being handled, they are uncomfortable, and they seem spooked by the buzz of the electric razor. But I have a feeling that they like the sensation of the razor against their skin. They love to scratch themselves against trees or fence posts, and for the duration, they are calm – until the razor is switched off and they get their toenails clipped, whereupon they resume kicking and writhing.
It was Liz who sheared our ram – a 275 behemoth– dressed in his big black coat, Oliver has the bulk of a black bear. Liz is probably half his size. Jim looked over his shoulder with his eyebrows raised as she wrassled with him. “You need some help with that guy?” he asked. “I’m good,” she said, calmly. She grabbed him by one leg, twisted his head slightly, and had him down on his rump. He writhed and kicked for a moment or two, then he settled down.
Not everyone likes shearing day as I do. An old-timer interviewed in the Foxfire books says he “despises” sheep shearing. I can see why – he recounts how the sheep were laid out on a table with their feet tied together. Using traditional shears, it took half an hour to shear a single sheep. Recently I talked with a friend who said he and his wife tried their hands at raising sheep. They read books, took workshops, built a barn– it was the shearing that did it for them. “We hated it,” he said.
But I have always liked this rite of spring. It is true, the sheep are not as attractive without their wool: freshly sheared, they look like naked old men, with their knobby knees and their various lumps. In their wool coats, they’re each of them individual and identifiable – Ewelysses and Euphrates, EweTwo and Ewekelele – each of them has a distinctive shape, shade, and personality. But sheared, not even the lambs can recognize their own mothers, and for the rest of the day, they cry out to them like lost orphans. Still, I like to watch the practice of a skill well done, especially a skill as ancient and relatively unchanged as sheep shearing. To witness the magical metamorphosis of nothing but grass into the most useful fiber humans have ever known. I like to watch the sheep step away from their robes as if they were stepping out of the shower, naked to their toes and a touch embarrassed. I love it that we can reap a harvest from our flock without harming them, year after year.
All in all, Jim and Liz sheared ten ewes and Oliver and were finished in less than an hour. They left us with about twenty-five to thirty pounds of wool, which will be scoured, carded, drafted, spun, felted, and woven into sweaters, mittens, hats, scarves, blankets, purses, and novelties, each one of them handmade and unique.
Liz Willis preparing to shear Ewedora