It has been such a cold and wet summer, but from a sheep farmer’s point of view it hasn’t been all gloom and doom. For a start, the cooler weather has meant there’ve been fewer flies and maggots around – and if there’s one job we all detest, it has to be dealing with fly-strike: there’s something so gross about maggots wriggling out of living flesh. So the first job of shearing weekend is always to take the lambs off their mothers and give them a good dose of wormer, followed by a protective (8-10 week) anti-fly-strike compound. I normally like to keep the lambs in the barn overnight, as this gives the wormer a chance to work and the fly pour-on to get rubbed-in by the general jostling; the fly chemicals can also dry on.
It was just as well the sheep were housed on Friday night, because it rained hard. I got up early, let the lambs out to graze (grass has been plentiful this spring), and prepared the barn for the shearer. Meanwhile our helpers were arriving in time for a quick cup of tea and Maisie returned from a rapid expedition to the village for supplies of home-made rolls, ham and cheese from the baker and butcher. Our shearer Stephen comes with his father-in-law Eddie as an assistant. He also brings with him a large shearers’ trailer which can accommodate two shearers, if needed. We carefully manoeuvred this into the barn and adjusted our hurdles to fit.
Stephen oiled and plugged-in his electric clippers, we assembled the wool sheet (sack) frame and spread a clean tarpaulin on the ground for rolling-up, or winding, the fleeces. The final job was to put a decoy sheep at the head of the run along one side of the trailer. Then shearing started. Most shearers like to start with the rams – and understandably: they’re large and feisty and you need to be feeling pretty fit to deal with them.
Next came the first of the ewes. By now it was getting warmer, but a cool breeze sprung up to cool us all down. By and large it very pleasant, but for some reason the ewes acted stubbornly and it took a good deal of persuasion and pushing to get them onto the trailer. No amount of talking: ‘it’s for your own good, dear… you’ll feel so much better with that heavy fleece off’ seemed to work. So my arms and legs were pretty stiff by the end of the day, when I headed up to our top land to collect the gimmers for Sunday.
Gimmers are last year’s female lambs – in effect they’re this year’s new-season breeding sheep. They have the thickest, finest and best fleeces of all, and the fifty, or so we’d retained over winter were looking very good indeed. The forecast had predicted rain, so we housed the gimmers in the barn over-night. And it was just as well, because it chucked it down in the morning. At one point I reckon we had ten millimetres in as many minutes. The rain continued until at least noon, so we had to rig tarpaulins across one side of the barn, which cut off both air and sunshine, even with a 500 watt overhead floodlight. So it was harder for Stephen, but easier for us on the sheep ‘supply side’, as the frisky young gimmers positively queued-up to climb onto the trailer. After they’d been shorn, they were very lively indeed, and worming them was fun.
Maisie, Rachel and our goat-farmer neighbour Joel, who’d joined us for the day, did most of the fleece-winding and they said the gimmers’ wool was outstanding. In the end we filled a total of 5 wool sheets which we then dragged onto pallets and covered with sheets in case rain blew into the barn. They’ll be collected by Central Wool Growers later in the summer. Most of our wool is of the better quality and goes for carpets. And this year, I’m told, prices are firmer. Isn’t it mad that so much wool – a fine, renewable, natural product – goes into loft insulation, because most people prefer their clothes made from man-made fibres – which ultimately derive from petrochemicals. What a strange world we all now inhabit.
One final point. Yes, like so many other dates in the farming calendar, shearing is a time of hard work, but it’s also when you get to meet old friends and have a very relaxed weekend. I suppose if we’d been thoroughly modern people we’d have got into our nylon jumpsuits and jetted off to sunny Spain, but instead we sat – showered, but exhausted – and ate Maisie’s delicious home-made and home-grown supper, while quaffing far too much beer and wine, secure in the knowledge that the next morning’s hang-over would soon be sweated-out. No, it’s the old-fashioned, simple pleasures of life for me, every time.