The Why, When and How of Sheep Shearing
“Doesn’t shearing hurt the sheep?”
You’d be surprised by how often I see and get asked this question! To be fair, before I had my flock, the whole concept of shearing was somewhat of a mystery to me too. I wouldn’t have guessed back then that someday I would be doing it by hand with a giant pair of scissors (more on this later!).
I still have a lot more to learn, but I do know that there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to shearing. I hope that this blog post can shed some important light on the history of sheep shearing, why it’s important and how it’s done. Oh and spoiler alert: It doesn’t hurt them.
WHY WE SHEAR
Before answering this question, it’s important to understand the origins of today’s domesticated sheep. Modern sheep breeds are thought to all be descended from the wild mouflon, domesticated around 10,500 years ago in what’s sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent (what’s now considered southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and sections of Turkey and Iran). They were later brought to Europe and the Americas through trade.
A mouflon sheep
Photo: Michael Mayer
At that time, sheep were used for meat and milk, not for wool, while hides may have been used as rustic forms of clothing or insulation. Evidence suggests that selective breeding of sheep for wool started around 6000 BC, with the beginnings of shearing coinciding with the spinning of wool around 3500 BC. The first known articles of woolen clothing appear around 400-500 BC.
Initially, sheep were able to naturally shed their coats in the spring and didn’t require shearing. As selective breeding for wool continued in earnest, coats grew fuller and larger, and sheep were unable to shed them on their own. As a result, the need for shearing was born!
So why do we shear? Above all, we do it for the sheep! Their comfort is our priority, which is why we shear them annually so that their fleece doesn’t get too thick or heavy. Fleece can weigh 3-20+ lbs and shearing allows the sheep to cool off, especially during the summer when heat stroke can occur. When fleece is thick and heavy, manure and urine tends to also build up and cause parasitic infections. During lambing season this can be a huge problem, as a lamb nursing near dirty fleece becomes susceptible to that infection. Something called wool blindness can also happen where the sheep can’t see and can become susceptible to predators because the fleece is so overgrown on their face! All of these issues can be avoided with regular shearing.
An example of wool blindness
Photo: Toby Bradbury
WHEN WE SHEAR
Shearing is commonly done in the Spring and/or Fall. Before lambing, we will often do something called crutching, where we partially shear our ewes around the tail and rear legs but leave the rest of the fleece. Crutching helps keep things nice and clean for the lambs to prevent infection and also allows them to access the teat easier for nursing. Meanwhile, the fleece that isn’t shorn helps keep them warm since we don’t currently have a barn.
HOW WE SHEAR
When it comes to shearing there are two main options: You can use electric clippers or do it by hand. With either option, there are a set number of steps (six) and many shearers follow the exact same process with the ultimate goal of getting the fleece off in as close to one piece as possible. The process is painless (like getting a haircut!) and sheep are kept off of their tailbones as much as possible throughout.
- Shearers start by sitting the sheep on its rump and shearing the breastbone and belly, inside and between the legs, and around the teats.
- Next, the shearer moves the sheep so it’s sitting back on its right hip, which allows for them to shear the left rear leg, from the hip to the tail and all the way up to the spine.
- Then the sheep is sat up straight on its rump again to allow for the neck, head and left shoulder to be sheared.
- The shearer then lays the sheep on its right side so its feet or legs aren’t touching the floor. Long cuts are made along the side and back.
- The sheep is then put on its right hip with the head bent across the left shoulder so that any remaining wool on the head can be sheared as well as the right shoulder.
- Lastly, the sheep is positioned on its left hip and the right leg, hip and rump are sheared. Done!
Fun fact: The world record for the fastest shearing of one sheep is currently 37.90 seconds!
In our case, we generally have a regular sheep shearer who comes to help with our flock, but he has a pretty busy schedule so recently we purchased sheep shears and did it by hand! This method requires a careful hand (literally!), but all the same rules/steps apply.
WHAT WE DO WITH OUR FLEECE
This is another question I get asked frequently! Typically when we shear our flock, the fleece we’re left with is either what would be considered high quality or low quality. The high quality fleece is either sold to hand spinners or stored to be made into yarn one day. Meanwhile the low quality fleece (which is often dirty) is composted or used for other miscellaneous projects.
While we would love to consistently sell our fleece, the reality is that when it comes to shearing, we don’t make enough money from the fleece to compensate for the overhead costs (paying for the shearer, processing, etc). I can’t overstate it: We shear for the sheep. Their health is our priority, and we do it for their comfort and not for our monetary gain.
I know that the topic of sheep shearing can be controversial, but I hope this blog post can serve as a good introduction and maybe dispel some myths surrounding it.
Feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments below!