Warning Sheep!

Image details: ‘Warning Sheep!’, by pearsongraphics, via Flickr

Sheep shearing and wool production has been an important part of the UK’s sheep industry for the past 6000 years. Sheep are usually sheared at the beginning of the summer months, as they no longer naturally moult, to prevent them overheating in the warm weather. For many centuries, wool was the UK’s most important export and the cloth trade led to the development of many of the nation’s industrial towns. Today, the UK is the 7th largest producer of wool in the world, exporting around a third of its annual clip, however with wool prices around 50p per kg, the value of the wool for most farmers does not cover the cost of shearing.

Most wool in the UK is marketed through The British Wool Marketing Board which co-ordinates the collection and sale of wool from around 70,000 registered producers. Wool is graded, pooled and sold throughout the year at public auctions, some of which are live online.

Sheepy madness

So now onto the super-exciting post, or rather series of posts that I am planning. As you may have guessed by the title, I am planning on charting the journey of wool from ewe to yarn, aided and abetted by my lovely friend Cath. I met Cath via Ravelry and the Ninja Nanas Knitting Club (she is one of the very few other ladies who isn’t of Nana vintage) and she very kindly offered to teach me how to spin. Cath already produces some beautiful hand-spun yarn, which I have ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed at in spades this afternoon, which can be found at her Etsy shop. This post is about the first step in our sheepy journey – shearing the sheep.

I have another friend who is a Vet and has her own small flock of sheep, Texel crosses and Badger Face Torwen, which is a Welsh breed, with ‘torwen’ meaning ‘white belly’. This makes for pretty interesting looking sheep. I was familiar with Texels, as I used to help my Grandad on a farm where he worked when I was little (and which incidentally started the whole sheepy conversation off) but had never heard of Badger Face. Anyway, she offered to let me take the fleeces off her hands for free! Due to the small size of her flock, she could not get any of the traders to buy the fleeces as they are normally sold in bundles of 50, and did not want to see them go in the skip. One lady’s waste wool is another couple of ladies’ thief of time!

Ear lowering

I asked to go and watch the grand de-fuzzing as I had planned to blog all about it and I wasn’t disappointed. I knew the shearer was a pro when he put on a little pair of leather moccassins: I tend to judge someone’s competence based on their choice of footwear! Here is the step by step process.

Texel cross in the holding pen

The sheep were penned in the barn and they are put one-by-one into the holding area ready to be sheared. The holding area has a door that is opened onto the shearing platform, where the buzz-cut takes place.

Cropping the belly hair

The first area that is cut is the belly. This has to be done very carefully, as there is an artery which runs down the abdomen to the udders, and if that is nicked accidentally, the sheep will bleed out and die very quickly (eek!)

Bottoms up

Next the back legs are done and the shearer starts working upwards towards the back.

Ear Ere!

The shearer has to contort the sheep a little bit to make sure its skin is pulled taught whilst the trimming takes place. The reason for this is to avoid cutting the sheep on a fold in its skin. The shearer must have had his lucky moccassins on, as he didn’t nick any of the sheep and they were all very calm throughout, which is testament to his sheep handling.

I didn't want that much off!

The shearing continues on the other side…

High and tight!

Then once the sheep is fully trimmed, it is sent off the platform into an adjacent pen to those which have not been sheared.

White belly

Here is a picture of the Badger Face – notice the white belly and below you can see how black the fleece is underneath the sun bleached brown fleece on top.

Wooooaaah Black Betty...

And some cute lambs from this year’s lambing – they weren’t sheared!

Wee ones

So from the shearing, after the very mucky bits were cut off and discarded, we had 3 huge bags of fleeces, which filled the boot of my car entirely, and another couple of smaller bags. Apparently, it can all get a bit tense out in the field post-shearing, as the sheep don’t recognise each other without their fleece on!

The next job will be to wash the fleeces to remove all the grease, which will be covered in the next Ewe to Yarn post.