Once upon a time, sheep were self-shedding. As the weather warmed in spring the sheep would start rubbing against everything they could find to loosen their heavy wool coats. The fleeces would then grow back as the seasons progressed to keep them warm during the colder months. Once humans discovered that wool could be used to make cozy clothing, they started to follow the flocks, collecting the bits of wool clinging to rocks and trees. Apparently, some clever person decided that this process was tedious, and started breeding the self-shedding trait out of sheep.
And so the practice of shearing began. On most sheep farms, shearing is an annual event to “harvest” the fleeces. In addition collecting a valuable commodity, it contributes to the welfare of the animals – it keeps them cool as the weather warms and keeps the continually growing wool from getting too dirty or matted.
Our Black Welsh Mountain sheep have retained the shedding gene; our Tunis sheep haven’t. Each spring the BWM start rubbing on everything from barns and fence posts, to feeders and trees. I actually caught Mollie trying to corner a cow that stood still too long the other day. That’s usually my cue to call the shearer in before the fleeces become unusable dreadlocks. Sheep, like cows, generate a lot of heat as hay and grass are processed in their rumens. While it seems to us that April is still pretty chilly to be outside without a coat, the sheep are ready to have them off!
While there are a number of options, we’re happy to have a friend who shears professionally to come in to do our flock. (It’s also a great excuse for a social get together!) If I were just interested in keeping the sheep comfortable, I might take a stab at shearing my own sheep. However, shearing to create a usable, salable fleece is a bit of an art form and definitely a skill. If shearing is not carried out skillfully, it can be stressful to the sheep, cause injuries to the animal or shearer, and will result in a poor quality fleece.
Leg, belly and crotch wool is clipped from the sheep first. This wool is the dirtiest and is simply discarded. What happens next is, I admit, a bit of a mystery to me. The clippers whir and the shearer shifts, twists and maneuvers animals that sometimes outweigh him by more than 100 pounds. Two or three minutes later there’s a waterfall of glorious fleece in seemingly a single piece. It’s pretty amazing to watch.
I usually sell the raw fleeces. However, this year I decided to try my hand at processing the wool into roving. We saved three creamy white Tunis fleeces, a coarser Black Welsh fleece and one from a cross between the two. I’m excited to give it a try. I saved more of the Tunis fleece because I’m interested in doing some natural plant dyeing as well. We’ll see how it turns out. Regardless, the flock is pretty happy to be shorn!