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The way of the shearer

Studying, honouring and preserving the ancient art of sheep-shearing

By RAY FORD

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From May/June 2014

By the second day of shearing school, you feel it in your bones. Elbows ache from wrestling recalcitrant ewes. Sweat spatters the shears. Middle aged backs feel as if they’ve been double-shifted through an old-timers’ hockey tournament.

And then, in the midst of the aches and pains and muttered curses, there’s a moment when the shears seem to glide. The fleece unfurls in soft, white swaths that pile up like snow. Maybe, you think to yourself, you can master this after all.

True mastery is still a long way off — probably years, and thousands of sheep. Even then, you never really master a craft that demands continual improvement. “I started shearing when I was 33. I didn’t learn until I was 43,” says our chief instructor, Ontario shearer Peter Kudelka. A more realistic goal for the seven students at this introductory course is half-arsed competence, the kind that leaves sheep, shearer and fleece intact when the clippers are switched off.

“We’ll let you advance as fast as you can do it, as fast as your body will let you, as fast as you can accept the information,” Kudelka tells the class at our first session at Dean and Ellen Cottrells’ farm near Alliston, north of Toronto. “Mostly,” he adds, “It’s going to be fun. That’s how we do it.”

Shearing might not qualify as fun for most folks, but the students — Sheri-Lee, William, Scott, Matt, Malcolm, Tyler and me — are willing to give it a try. Like most of the class, “We have sheep to shear at home, so I’d like to learn the technique properly,” says William McIntosh, 16, of Kirkfield, Ont.

Could he see himself shearing other flocks?? “Potentially. But if not, I’ve got this experience. Once you figure out the technique, it’s a lot of fun.”

This enthusiasm is welcomed by Kudelka and fellow instructors Doug Kennedy and Randy Coulas. “A lot of us shearers are getting long in the tooth,” says Kudelka, a 33-year veteran of the trade.

Kennedy — now 74 and augmented with a new heart valve and two titanium knee joints — used to shear up to 6,000 sheep a year on top of teaching and running a small farm. “The demand is out there,” he tells the class. “Old guys like me who were shearing large numbers aren’t shearing any more, or aren’t shearing as many.”

Despite its homespun reputation, wool is a complex product, often going through many hands (and sometimes several continents) on the journey from sheep to sweater, sock or suit. Scientists have developed laser-guided shearing robots and injections that make sheep shed wool and breeders promote “hair sheep” that shed their coats, but the sweat-drenched shearer remains the pivotal figure in an industry that harvests about 2.5 million pounds of wool in Canada, with a farm-gate value of about $1 million.

At the same time, no one knows exactly how many shearers are out there. The Canadian Wool Growers Co-operative (CCWG), the country’s main wool marketer, lists almost 90 shearers in its directory. Kudelka suspects many of those are easing into semi-retirement.

A barrier to recruiting new shearers is the job’s part-time and seasonal nature. Even at $3-$7 per head — depending on flock size, travel and facilities — only a handful make shearing a full-time gig. The rest shear for supplementary income or spend part of the year working in the U.S. or overseas. “The problem for Canadian shearers has always been small flocks, big distances,” says CCWG general manager, Eric Bjergso.

In New Zealand, where 30 million sheep are packed onto 260,000 square kilometres, shearers work in gangs clipping hundreds of sheep day after day. “You can make a tidy income out of it,” says Brian Greaves, a New Zealand native who now farms and runs a shearing school near Miniota, Manitoba.

Because Canada has less than a million sheep scattered across almost 10 million square kilometres, Canadian shearers spend more time on the road, deal with smaller flocks and often work in barns without the catch pens and handling systems that save backs. Farmers tend to want shearers in a few peak times, typically during mild weather. The result, Greaves says, is shearers complain there’s not enough work to make the job a full-time trade. Farmers grouse they can’t get shearers when they want them.

Another factor is the meagre return for wool. Doug Kennedy remembers his dad selling wool to a local mill in the late 1940s for a dollar a pound — real money, considering a township snow plough operator of the day earned 85 cents per hour. These days, the same sort of wool receives 60-70 cents a pound. Even the best stuff, fine wool from a western range flock, comes in around $2. Try hiring a snow plough driver for that.

With most wool exported to textile mills in China and India, “there’s no forecast for a big uptick in prices at this stage,” says Bjergso. “Our commodity is so sensitive to global economic conditions and there’s so much competition from other fibres, that if wool prices go up, (textile makers) reduce the amount of wool in the blend.”

Some consolation comes from the expanding number of home-based knitters, weavers and spinners flocking to events such as last October’s Woodstock Fleece Festival in Ontario. “A lot of our crowd is younger, in their 20s, 30s, 40s and super-creative,” says co-ordinator Catherine Stark. “People want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know where their clothing is from, too.”

Savvy wool producers are targeting this niche. Shearing student Malcolm Duffie is raising Shetland sheep near Carter’s Point, New Brunswick, and hopes to sell the rovings (the step before yarn) to spinners.? “With practice, I’m going to be shearing my own sheep instead of hiring someone, and getting a better clip.”

Kudelka likens shearing to a dance, but there are 14 times more professional dancers in Canada’s ballet troupes and dance companies than there are shearers listed by the CCWG. Would-be dancers can join local clubs, enroll in dance schools, take high school courses or earn university degrees. Shearers, on the other hand, lack a formal education system. For years, you either learned on your own, picked up the skill from a relative or willing shearer or enrolled in one of the occasional schools for novices or advanced shearers.

It is possible to learn on your own, although Canada’s new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Sheep recommends students learn under the supervision of an experienced shearer or take a course, in part to ensure the welfare of the sheep. After his father’s death Doug Kennedy inherited 125 ewes in need of shearing. He developed his own style, switching the shears from one hand to the other midway through each ewe. “The first sheep took two hours. I didn’t know there was a right way or a wrong way to shear.”

For every Kennedy, there must be a dozen farmers who try and give up.? I taught myself to use the hand blades (the traditional shears styled like old-fashioned scissors) from a book called Raising Sheep the Modern Way.? After 10 years of shearing a 40-ewe flock with the blades, I took Kudelka’s course and “went electric.” In a few days of hands-on training, the course offered experience tough to learn by book or video and pricey to absorb through trial and error.

A basic example is setting up the shears. The class uses professional-style handpieces, connected to a driveline hanging from an overhead motor. The actual shearing is done by the comb and cutter — metal pieces that need to be installed, adjusted, lubricated and tensioned properly. Get it right and the shearing is smooth and comfortable. Mess up and the comb and cutter won’t cut properly or will overheat and wear, annoying the sheep in the process. With practice you learn to hear the hum (not clatter) of the shears, and feel the way sharp combs and cutters slide through wool. “It’s like driving a tractor: you’re monitoring things with your ears and with your feel,” Kudelka says.

Kudelka offers additional tips: Clothing should be snug and hard-wearing, not restrictive.

Never drop the shears when they’re turned on because they’ll jump and snap like a rabid Chihuahua.

Buy Fiona Nettleton’s Shearing Techniques video as a refresher. “Worth every penny,” he says. “Watch that seven, eight, nine times. Shear some sheep, then do it again.”

Our classroom session over, we’re ready for shearing.

“That’s when you find out Manual Labour isn’t a Mexican,” Kennedy grins.

***

New Zealanders Ivan and Godfrey Bowen were shearers during the Second World War. With wool at a premium and shearers in short supply, the brothers worked seven days a week, shearing “until we saw stars and literally, until we bled from the nose,” Godfrey recalled.

To ease the job, the Bowens rethought traditional approaches. They held most of the sheep’s weight with their legs, using a free hand to pull the skin tight for fewer nicks. They found shortcuts to reduce the number of “blows,” or strokes of the shears. In the process, the “Bowen method” became the backbone of modern shearing. “You shear a sheep with roughly 65 blows,” Kudelka explains. Like the Bowens, “you’re always looking to do the next sheep with one less blow.”

During the practical part of Kudelka’s school, students work three at a time, each under the supervision of an instructor. Nearby, a collection of the Cottrells’ animals cluster in a pen behind a swinging, saloon-style gate.

The effort begins with selecting a sheep and backing it onto the platform. With one hand on the jaw, the other holding the animal’s hip against your knee, you drop your knee back and twist the jaw around. The animal falls bum-first onto ground. In a second, she’s sitting, four legs dangling uselessly in the air, head lolling to one side, and the cutters whirr into action.

As the hungry blades disappear into the wool, you can’t help but fret about slicing the ewe. Most cuts are shallow and heal quickly; experienced shearers carry first aid kits, with spray-on disinfectant and even sutures for more severe gashes. Even so, the natural inclination is to pull away from the skin, leading to another common error, the “double cut.” First, you leave an inch or two of wool on the sheep’s back, then you go back to finish the job, slicing the wool into short strands, rather than the long fibres textile makers want.

Shearing gets easier as you do more of it, but it’s still a tough job, mentally and physically. An Australian study reckons a typical shearer handling 150 sheep a day wrestles with nine tonnes of wool and mutton. Wear and tear on the backs of professional sheep shearers is “off the charts, so much higher than anything else we’ve ever looked at,” says Diane Gregory, a Wilfrid Laurier University kinesiology professor who’s used high-tech video equipment to record and study the movements of shearers, auto assembly workers, health care workers and even baristas slinging expensive coffee.

Herniated discs and sciatic pain are common problems, and Gregory has looked at ways to ease the strain. Ideas include the suspended aluminum “trunk brace” Kudelka uses and a new system in which sheep are sheared waist high, on an elevated stand.? This last idea hasn’t caught on partly because it’s slower than the Bowen method.

Avoiding back injury is one reason Kudelka stresses technique over speed. Competitive shearers may fleece an animal in just 35 seconds. Kudelka’s working pace is 10-14 sheep per hour.? By contrast, the students average about seven sheep a day.

Even so, the Cottrell’s shed is filled with constant noise and motion. Shears clatter. Sheep struggle and thump. Instructors dish out tips and encouragement.

“Be careful you don’t go too deep.”

“Yup. You got it.”

“I’d use my right heel to turn the sheep.”

The Cottrells’ border collie looks in and then saunters off, disappointed at the lack of herding.

As the day wears on it’s apparent we have a ringer in the course. Tyler Armstrong, a 29-year-old from Renfrew, Ont., has already taken a course in New York State and has sheared his own 60-ewe flock for three years.? The first course “left me kind of discouraged, more than anything,” he says. “When you walk into it the first time, it’s really hard.” Now, thanks to additional coaching, the 6’2” 240-pound former University of Guelph football player has advanced to the wider comb favoured by professional shearers.

By ewe number six or seven on my first day my brain is getting foggy, despite Kudelka’s coaching.

“Move your right foot,” he says.

I shift my left.

“Your right. Your other right.”

On day two, things seem easier. The method is more familiar, the shears run more smoothly. When the “long blow” comes, peeling wool off the ewe’s back “from breezer to sneezer,” it’s exhilarating. I feel like a kid learning to skate or working on a slap shot, reveling in something that once seemed impossible.

Back home, I buy a good used set of shears and on the last pleasant days of autumn, I begin shearing. By the fifth ewe, I’ve hit the zone: the blows come smoothly and rhythmically, the ewe stays calm.? The job is done in about five minutes.

“You’ve all been through it once. Now you just have to keep doing it until it becomes second nature to you,” Kudelka told us at the close of the course, in a sort of benediction. “Go home and chew away at your own flock. Do three. Look at the DVD. Go back and do three more.”

“When you learn the pattern and you drop into the Zen, it’s like meditation,” he adds. “You’ll just roll.”

The economics of shearing

Does it make sense to do your own shearing?

If you’ve got a good relationship with your shearer, stick with the status quo. Shepherds typically take up shearing to reduce the dollar outlay required to hire a shearer, gain more control over the timing and quality of their wool clip or as a potential sideline. I started shearing because I had boys in hockey, making it impossible to schedule a shearer between September and April.

The investment

Your costs will vary. My payout so far:

? School: $400 tuition for one evening of classroom instruction and two full days of shearing.

? Clothing: Professionals wear shearing-specific moccasins, singlets and trousers. I forked over $10 at an army surplus for a pair of hard-wearing heavy wool trousers (great for wicking perspiration away and fending off errant shears.) Add tennis shoes, a t-shirt and a long-sleeved wool undershirt for cool days.

? Shears: I bought a barely-used pair of Heiniger Xtra shears for $375 (retail about $550). Owners of larger flocks and professionals prefer overhead-motor units with a slimmer handpiece. The Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers (CCWG) catalogue lists professional-style packages starting at about $1,700 and up.

? Combs and Cutters: Figuring they’ll last for years, I bought top-of-the-line hardware, stocking enough combs and cutters to do the whole flock before sending them out for sharpening. Cost for five combs and 12 cutters: about $250.

Keep your shearer happy

Check with your provincial sheep marketing agency or the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers for advice on making shearing day as efficient as possible. Good ideas include booking shearers months in advance, keeping fleeces as clean as possible, ensuring sheep are dry and holding the flock in a close pen for at least 12 hours without food or water before shearing. (Sheep are more comfortable when sheared on an empty gut.)

Shearing courses

Experienced shearers offer at least four occasional novice shearing schools, in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. For schools in your area, check with your provincial sheep marketing agency or the CCWG.