How to get the best from your sheep shearing

Strangely enough I’ve never sheared a sheep. At this point I’ve no doubt you’re pouring yourself another cup of coffee and muttering, “Well this should be enlightened then.” Also whilst I have your attention I’d just mention that I use the terms ‘clipping’ or ‘shearing’ pretty much at random. Round here we clip sheep but there are doubtless places flush with money where they can afford the extra letter and they’ll shear them.

But yes, I’ve been lucky. We had some sheep when I was a child, but obviously I was too young to clip. Especially given that my father still did them with hand shears. Hand shears have a long history, and haven’t changed a lot over the years. A pair, in a wooden case, were deposited at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, well over two thousand years ago and differ only from modern sets in that they’re blacksmith made, rather that in general design.

Still I missed out on being part of two or more millennia of history, because by the time I was old enough to shear sheep, we’d got rid of them and were all dairy.

Too tall to shear sheep

But time moves on and there were once more sheep. Here I had another advantage. Now I’m too tall and too old. Shearing sheep is for young men who are fit and ideally not too tall. If you’re tall you end up bending a lot and can find yourself with back problems.

On the other hand if you’re too small you’re going to have problems clipping large sheep. I know one young man who’s a good man to have shearing for you, but a big Suffolk Tup will be heavier than him. Unless you’re young, enthusiastic and are desperate to have a go, I’d just hire in a clipping gang to shear my sheep. Indeed if you are young, enthusiastic and desperate to have a go, still hire in a clipping gang, but get them to show you how it’s done.

When you’re shearing, the important thing is to ensure that the shearer always has a sheep to shear. The last thing you want is for your shearer to put their clippers down and have to catch a sheep, drag it back to the clippers and start shearing it.

Managing a shearing team

A lot of clipping teams have their own trailer. They drive it into your yard, back it up to your collecting pens, start up a generator (or plug into your mains supply) and they’re away.

The trailer has several distinctive features. Firstly there’s the race. When the system is working, some muscular muppet (waves cheerfully) pushes sheep into the race The sheep move up the race and get to the horizontal bit that runs the length of the trailer. The horizon race normally has a couple of ‘drop down’ gates. The shearer puts their foot on a bar, the gate drops vertically, and the shearer grabs the sheep, turns it over and starts shearing it. A the front of the horizontal race there’s normally a length of race in front of the foremost ‘drop down’ gate. One shhep will be left here, to encourage the others to make their way along the race to join her.

Next to the horizontal race there will be the shearing floor. THis is where the shearing takes place. Some people will spread a canvas sheet over it, just o give themselves some grip, as surfaces can become slippery with lanolin. Each shearer will have a ‘drop down’ gate each, and each will have a vertical pole. The electric shears will hang from this pole.

So once the shearers have got the trailer backed up to your handling pens ready to start, how many more people do you need?

Well you’ll need one person in a loading pen pushing sheep into the race out of the handling pens. Depending on the size of pens and the number of sheep you’ve got, you might need somebody else moving sheep into the loading pen. You’ll need your two or three shearers, and then you’ll need somebody to take the fleece as the sherer finishes the sheep. They’ll roll the fleece and stuff it into the wool sack. The ideal set up is to have your empty wool sacks hanging open, so it’s easier to get a rolled fleece into them. Also if you have a mixture of breeds of sheep, have several sacks so you can put different grades of woll into them.

The whole thing about clipping is that you really have to get your organisation right. A couple of good shearers on a trailer might clip eighty sheep an hour between them if things are going well. You’ve got to be able to deliver those eighty sheep to them, when they want them, so they’re not waiting. You’ve also got to have somebody who can gather and roll eighty fleeces an hour so that the fresh fleeces aren’t trampled underfoot by the next sheep to be sheared.

Shearing small numbers of sheep

Now this is fine if you’ve got three or four hundred ewes of your own to shear. Just get everything set up and keep going. Sooner or later they’ll get to the last ewe everybody has been waiting for. But what about somebody who only has twenty or thirty ewes? Surely the shearing team are going to spend more time setting up their trailer than they are actually shearing sheep. This rather depends on your area. I know one chap who’ll turn up with his trailer and if there are only thirty or forty to clip he’ll do them himself. If there are more he’ll bring with him more shearers. They’re all farmers sons or have farms of their own. They just organise themselves to ensure that all their customers get their sheep sheared as efficiently as possible.

Another thing to do is to bring flocks together. I’ve helped at clippings where the ‘home farm’ is the one with the best handling facilities. But half way through a big trailer landed with another farm’s tups (rams). It was easier to load them and have them done here than it was to take them home and do them there. Certainly for smallholders with relatively small flocks. working together to get everybody’s sheep clipped in a day makes a lot of sense.

You’ve got your wool sack of fleeces, what are they worth?

Well at the bottom end a Herdwick fleece can weigh up to 2kg and is worth perhaps 25p / kg. So your hard won fleece could be worth a whole 50p.

Jacobs, popular with smallholders and others have a better quality fleece, perhaps worth 45p/ kg. A nice fleece can weigh 2.5kg so you’re in the big money with a fleece worth perhaps £1.12.

If you look at a breed like the Romney, the wool is better again, I’ve seen Ronmey fleeces valued at £1.25/kg and with a 3kg fleece this can bring in the magnificient sum of £3.75. Obviously the prices change year on year, but generally better wool is worth more.

The fly in this particular ointment is that paying somebody to shear your sheep is probably going to cost about £1.20 a head. Things are better than they were. Unless you’re unlucky or have a lot of mountain breeds, your wool cheque has a chance of paying the bill for clipping. The obvious thing to do is to have some nice sheep with nice wool, keep it really clean and consider supplying the hand spinners. Or take up spinning yourself!

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