Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shearing Other People's Sheep

In May 2010, I went to a sheep shearing school at the University of California's Hopland Field Station in Mendocino County.  Over the course of 5 days, I struggled to learn how to shear sheep - despite my experience with sheep, I found learning to shear to be incredibly challenging, both physically and mentally.  By the last day of the school, however, I finally felt like I was getting the hang of it.  Last spring and summer, I sheared more than 100 sheep - some of our own, and some for other folks.  This year, I've just started shearing again - entirely for others at this point.  As the daylight hours grow longer, my work days lengthen.  I wonder, sometimes, why I make them longer by shearing other people's sheep.  I think there are several reasons.

First, shearing is an incredibly physical activity - world class shearers are said to rival world class marathon runners in terms of their stamina and strength.  While I'm not world class, I do enjoy challenging my physical abilities with real work.  Shearing well requires a combination of muscle memory, physical strength, and choreography - shearing has been referred to as the "90 second dance."

Second, I like learning from other sheep producers and, in turn, sharing my knowledge.  Invariably, we talk about sheep husbandry, ovine nutrition, and grazing management.  Every time I shear, I learn something new; hopefully my customers do the same!

Third, I enjoy working with sheep and wool.  I'm amazed by the thought that every wool garment starts with somebody removing the wool from a sheep (usually with more skill than I have).  In an age of technology and mechanization, the first step in creating woolen fabrics is basically unchanged in the last 75 years.

Finally, I appreciate the culture of sheep production.  Shearing is one of the significant mileposts in the sheep production cycle.  It is a group effort (when it's done well) - each of the "crew" has an important role to play.   The shearer gets the "glory" (if you can call bending over a struggling sheep "glorious"), but an efficient sheep shearing requires a team.  Somebody has to ensure the shearer always has sheep to shear.  Somebody else has to ensure that the wool is gathered from the shearing board.  Yet another person must ensure that the wool is prepared for marketing.  Shearing, in other words, is one of those communal tasks - like a barn raising - that combines hard work with good times.

As a shepherd, I feel like I have a responsibility to know how to do all of the work necessary to raise sheep humanely and successfully.  Shearing is an integral part of this system, and I hope I continue to improve in my abilities.

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