WITH a swift sweep and a final dramatic flourish, the shearer is done.
It’s taken little over a minute to transform what was essentially a shaggy coat of wool on legs into a slicker, streamlined animal which is now skipping out into an adjoining field to meet its friends.
I’m in Wark, Northumberland, with Simon Chomse, chief steward of the Shearing Section for the Northumberland County Show, and today he and colleague Simon Murray have a mammoth task on their hands.
With the show just days away, they are preparing 823 mule hoggs which will be sheared by scores of shearers from all corners of the globe when the competition gets under way, and, it seems, there is a lot more to this malarkey than meets the eye.
“In competition you are judged on speed as well as the end finish,” explains Simon Chomse. “The top shearers will do a sheep in about 40 seconds.”
It’s hard to imagine how this task can possibly be performed in such little time. But, as I soon discover, it’s not something that can be learnt in a few minutes.
It generally takes around five years of shearing to reach the top of the game, and that will involve going abroad. “Usually shearers go to places like New Zealand to train,” says Simon. “You won’t make it to the top in England if you haven’t been away. There is one person in the UK at the moment I think who has a natural talent at it and hasn’t been abroad, but he is the exception.” So, armed with this knowledge, I decided to give it a whirl. A pen with four large mule hoggs in it was waiting for me, and the first thing I had to master was how to hold the sheep down.
The idea is that you sit it in front of you, in between your legs, and then tuck its right leg inside your own, while holding the sheep with your left hand. This frees up the right hand for the clippers. It sounds hard, but the actual handling of the sheep wasn’t too bad. They will naturally sit there quite happily in this position, and certainly had no concerns when I was trying to tuck the legs under mine.
“I’m scared I’m going to snap it’s legs!” I wailed to Simon, who was stood behind me, but he reassured me that it wasn’t remotely likely and to stop worrying.
The reason for this position is so you can move the sheep around using your legs. This keeps your hands free for the clipping and other movements.
So far so good. The sheep didn’t seem to mind sitting propped up against me, and it seemed relaxed and happy as I couldn’t resist giving it a little bit of a tickle around its chin.
But picking up the clippers was a whole different story. I’m sure it is just like a big set of beard trimmers, but it’s hard to relax when you have livestock between your knees and the potential to cause damage in your hand.
To shear correctly, you must follow a set pattern. This starts down the belly of the sheep, before you turn it over and do the back. “You keep it as smooth as possible, clean sweeps,” says Simon. “The hardest part is coming up the neck. Once you’ve mastered that then you’re fine.”
It looks easy, but sheep shearing is far from it. Once I’d found the courage to move the clippers close to the sheep, I became terrified. I wasn’t scared of the sheep kicking me – despite the fact I’d seen them kicking and squirming when Simon had been shearing some earlier – I was scared of hurting the animal.
I feared one careless stroke might cut it, or it would pick up on my nerves and try wriggle free, hurting itself in the progress.
But it didn’t happen. I had a little try at removing a small patch, and that was enough for me – and the sheep. Holding a kicking sheep down while shearing it is a skill, and I can appreciate why it takes so long to master. I think I was probably more useful helping fold up the newly-cut fleeces.
Even something as simple as folding the fleece has to be done a set way before it goes off to be used for wool, and I was struck by the softness of it. Obviously, the wool is a bit dirty on the sheep, but underneath it is clean. Laid out on the floor to be folded, it already looked like a sheepskin rug.
As for my attempts, well, I don’t imagine any of the competitors at this year’s County Show have anything to worry about. I had a go, I escaped unscathed and more importantly the sheep were unharmed.