Frequently, folks passing by mistake our horned sheep for goats. I guess the assumption is that only goats have horns. I am always quick to defend the honor of the ovine kind and correct the mistake when it is brought to my attention. We do not have any hairy, fence-smashing clothing-nibblers, only sheep. And most domesticated sheep need to be shorn each year.
Contrary to urban legend, the shearer isn't "fleecing" the sheep the way one person may fleece another. They are unhappy with being held off feed overnight (helps the sheep and shearer be more comfortable during the yoga-like contortions of shearing), and always look a bit surprised to be suddenly naked. But the benefit of having less insulation in the summer is nothing to sneeze at. For the shepherd, it means being able to see how thin or fat each sheep really is, something challenging to figure out when they are covered in 3-5 inches of wool.
Preperations start almost a week before, and planning starts as soon as we find out when our shearer is available. Each year we try to make our set up a little better to make the shearing go smoothly. 47 sheep take around 3-4 hours to shear, including short breaks in between groups of sheep. Lambs keep their fleeces until next year. Usually I spend some time earlier in the morning or the day before, ear tagging lambs, but I was too sick (morning sickness, nothing catchy) to get it done at shearing this year, so I will tag everyone later on. Bad shepherd!
To be completely honest, after shearing the sheep do look a bit like goats. Just a bit.
Do the sheep end up the bloody, abused mess that PETA has advertized they do? Nope. They do ocasionally get nicks, as well you would with a full body shave done in record time, but a good shearer avoids it with all his effort. Everyone's goal is a slick-looking sheep ready to get back on pasture, and a clean fleece on the skirting table.
Skirting table? To skirt a fleece means to take all the poopy bits off, and make sure the fleece is ready to go to the mill. A special table that allows all the junk in the fleece to fall off is very handy. The initial skirting of the fleece must be done very quickly, before the next fleece is off the sheep, and it helps to have a good crew. We had an excellent crew this year!
After one skirting, most sheep operations will put the fleeces into large bales, where they are compacted down and then trucked out to wool warehouses to await purchase. Our set up is more direct, so most fleeces go into individual clear plastic bags to be sorted and skirted again later. Some of them will be purchased individually by hand spinners and crafters, and most will be checked over again for burrs and dung, and then shipped to a wool mill to come home as yarn. A few may end up in the county fair wool show.
The bagged wool also makes a handy fort, until the pile gets too big. (Note--if you put your fleece in a plastic bag, keep it in the shade, otherwise condensation will make it damp).
The sheep will grow some fleece through the summer, but I feel like more growth will happen as the days shorten. For now they are enjoying being able to reach all those itchy spots, and I am enjoying the pile of beautiful wool they've given us. In a couple months it will come home as yarn, and by next spring, some of it will be a blanket for a new little human. Life--what a thing!
P.S. A big thanks to Mike M. for taking these pics!!