Monday, February 16, 2009

I always feel like my shepherding year begins with shearing.

We sheared the sheep on Saturday. It was a beautiful to day. The sun was shining. At 7:30 there were flat plates of snow crystals drifting in the air, glinting rainbow reflections.

Inside the barn, the breathing sheep had created a fog of water vapor. When we opened the door cold air poured in the open windows and set up swirls of clear air through the fog.

It was warm enough so that I worked without my gloves on.

We were trying out a new shearer, always a nervous business. What if he sheared carelessly and cut the sheep? What if he didn't understand how clean the wool needed to be for hand spinners, and kicked each fleece out of the way with his boots, as shearers are wont to do? What if he handled the sheep to aggressively and the moms, only a week away from lambing, went into premature labor? What if... What ever he did, we would deal with it.

While Tom, the shearer, attached his shearing motor to the wall and oiled the shearing head, we turned on lights and filled syringes with worming medication and the overeating vaccine. Then we opened the gate and moved half a dozen sheep into the shearing area. Katy, the sheep dog, worked along the fence line, encouraging the sheep.

Dave, my husband, and Glen, a friend, grabbed a sheep, Apple Blossom I think, set her on her bottom, pulled off her coat, and began trimming her hooves with their hoof shears. Richard, a graduate student in chemistry on his first visit to a sheep farm, gave her two shots. I recorded her tag number and the date on the big plastic bag that we would fill with her wool.

Then Tom took over. Using a shearing head on a log jointed arm, he began on the sheep's abdomen. He sheared up her belly, around to her right side, and up and down both right legs. He swung her around to her other side and a beautiful shiny white blanket of wool fell away from her body. Then he sheared her head, carefully skirting her ears, and finished with the left side of her body, running the shear off above her tail.

Tom stood up and Apple Blossom surged to her feet and raced away, anxious to put as much distance as possible between herself and that whirring motor. Her skin shown pink and healthy through the one quarter inch wool left on her body. She was obviously pregnant. Wonderful!

Behind her, a glistening white fleece lay on the plywood floor. I gathered it into my arms and handed it to Terrill, Tom's wife. She threw the fleece onto our shearing table, a hanging wire platform as big as the biggest fleece. Dirt, hay, manure all fell through the holes in the wire platform, while a rotating crew of volunteers skirted the fleeece, pulling off the dirty locks and throwing them aside to be used later for mulch around our orchard trees.
Then they rolled the clean fleece up and stuffed it into it's bag to be weighed.

In a few days, I will skirt the fleece one more time and grade it, determining a price by cleanliness and quality of the fleece.

As the skirters worked, they taught each other about fleeces.
"See the crimp, the tiny waves in this fiber?" Athena said. "This will sin up into a wonderful knitting yarn."
"I love this warm brown," Katy said, "I think I have to take this one home."
"Do you want to dye some wool?" Meg asked Lizabeth. "This white will dye beautifully."
"Look at how fine this fiber is," Gail said. "This will make a really fine yarn."
Laura, Camille and Zaida added their questions and coments. The barn was full of the sound of happy women and moderately unhappy animals.

Callie, our single alpaca, hummed her distress, unsure if she should be protecting her flock or not. The angora goats bleated occassionally, afraid that their turn was coming. Ten degree temperatures are really hard on the goats - they just don't tolerate the cold as well as the sheep - so we'll wait to shear them until spring. They can relax.

But the sheep need to be shorn now. They need to feel the cold so that they will lamb in the relative warmth of the barn. Then Dave an I won't have trouble finding their babies when they lamb in the middle of the night. And the babies will be able to find their mom's udders to nurse, not get side tracked sucking on a lock of unshorn wool instead of a nipple.

By evening, all 52 sheep are shorn and the barn is bedded in fresh golden straw for the sheep to nestle into during the cold night. The bags of wool are stacked in the wool shed, waiting for a final skirting and then transition to carded roving, yarn or felt. And the workers? We're all collapsed on the floor and the sofa, warm, well fed, and exhausted by a good days work. Best shearing we've ever had.