The country is odd. Everywhere you go, there are animals. You do not walk down a city street to find it teeming with wild dogs. Not unless you are very unlucky. Here, however, fields are pocked with sheep or cows while the roads hop with hares. The animals though are never left to enjoy their bucolic peace. Someone always wants something from them; their meat, their milk, their young. Yesterday, it was their wool.
I went to watch a gang of New Zealand shearers in operation. Five hunky men with big biceps, torn vests and distressed jeans, sweating to the sounds of the eighties. I may not be a gay man, but, I could appreciate what they were offering. Any relationship, however, you could just tell, would be abusive.
The shearer tumbles a fat, woolly sheep over a wooden gate. Whoomph! He is not going to buy her dinner and a red rose. His buzzing machine shears hang from the metal gallows above him. "Time to leave," thinks the sheep. Too late. She should not have answered that internet lonely hearts ad. It was never going to end well. Pop rock from a dangling boombox belts out in time to a bleating beat. The sheep is sitting on her back end, black hooves waving in the air when our macho shearer hero shoves her foreleg between his own ragged, muscular legs. She grits her teeth and wonders where she put her mobile. Hunched over her body, he starts to strip her.
Down the belly and into the lower reaches, down the inside of a hind leg and then up and around her tail end. One hand moves with the machine, the other stretching the skin; it is beginning to get chilly down there. Up and along her side to the spine; the flesh showing tremble pink underneath striped white fuzz. Down the foreleg and shoulder. He tilts back her head and holds it against his six-pack, pressing the vibrating tool up and around the throat; he throws the loose noose of fleece around and over her head and pushes her onto her back to reach round her bared shoulder better. Suddenly, her head is between his legs as he works down the second shoulder to the last leg. She is thinking: "I am never drinking Tequila slammers again."
It takes a minute and a half, maybe two, to strip a sheep of her dignity. The shearers straighten, only to haul out another sheep, clicking a counter to show they have a new squeeze between their knees. I cannot believe they do not dream of sheep at night. I do not want to know the details. I am certain that sheep dream of them; an electric barbers' shop from hell with kiwi demons.
The gang spends around six weeks in Northumberland and Scotland, with each man expecting to shear around 250 sheep in a day. At this farm, on this day, they were shearing Beulahs and Texel crosses. They shear twice a year in New Zealand and most of this group have recently arrived from Canada. Belly wool is taken off first and discarded. Aside from that, the fleece comes off in one piece. The "gang" also includes two "wrappers" who throw the fleece on to the floor, clean side down, tuck in the neck end, fold first one side then the other and roll it into a bundle. The bundles are then tossed into a large plastic bag for one of the wrappers to stomp down, much as grape pickers stamp on grapes. The wool pack is then sewn up with cord threaded through by a large nail hammered into a needle.
Each fleece will bring around £1 from the British Wool Marketing Board; each sheep sheared costs the farmer around £1. Traditionally, the belly fleece and the little tufts of wool that come off during the shearing were all sold. Even muck on the tufts was cut off to allow those tufts to be sold as well. Now, the price of wool is low enough to mean the tufts are left where they lie. As the farmer said: "Cash wise, it is a useless exercise. We do it for welfare reasons or they are eaten alive by maggots." I saw a maggotty sheep. Not pretty. He went on: "The other reason is they get heavy with the dew, and they roll over on to their back and can't get up. Then a crow will come and peck their eyes out." I did not see that, thank God. Nor do I want to, even if I am trying to get to the heart of Northumberland.
The "ganger" in charge, shouted me over to him as I folded and rolled a fleece, grease on my hands. I thought: "Lucky me". It has been a long time since a rugged New Zealander showed an interest in me. In truth, thinking about it, a rugged New Zealander has never shown any interest in me. He was called something indisputable male. It might have been "Dave". Perhaps, it was Gnasher. I walked across and looked down. He had a sheep between his legs. I thought: "Should I be here?" He gestured me to throw a leg over. I thought: "I am never going to get an offer like this again." I used my knees to hold the sheep in place, holding the shears in one hand and a leg in the other. I think it was the sheep's leg. I was tense. It might have been Gnasher's. In which case, he should drink less and eat more. As Gnasher helped me push her head between my legs, I thought: "I hope sheep don't bite." This is not the thought you want to be having as a sheep stares balefully at your backside and you give her the worst haircut of her life. They don't; at least, she didn't. She would have had good reason. She was definitely having a bad hair day. The only good thing to be said about my shearing was that I did not actually kill her. That and the fact it brought me closer to Gnasher. I do not know which of us was the more traumatised by the end of my shearing; me or the sheep. Me, I think. Strangely, he did not ask me to run away and join his gang. I could learn.
Some transferable skills there to help in dressing a young child. Is that what's known as an 'activity holiday'?!
LOL - I love all the references - very good - and a great way to come back to us...
As a spinner - I envy you your experience - not only with Gnasher - but with the sheep....
Those shearers are so inconsiderate - they don't even hold up a little mirror for the sheep to get a view of the back!
Fantastic, you're back, and by the sound of it you've been doing far more exciting things than we imagined! Dealing with the builders should be a piece of cake now you've been exposed to sheep-shearers, it will now be impossible for them to fleece you (sorry, couldn't resist).
Why don't the sheep struggle? I always thought this when I watched the shearing in Gloucestershire; maybe the manly hands brook no opposition - mmm
I think to have strapping New Zealanders it would make the experience so much more interesting. The local lads that shear our sheep must be such a disappointment to the poor woollies. I tend to keep out of the way but you're welcome to join in if you so wish!
Hilarious. Puts any bad hair day I've ever had into harsh perspective. Poor sheep. Perhaps they'll learn to enjoy alcohol responsibly in future.
Read somewhere last night that trendy knitting wools are saving the lives of hundreds of Kiwi sheep, who'd otherwise be slaughtered for their meat. Perhaps the same's true of the ones in Northumberland.
You're very brave to do these things.
Wonderful description of my countrymen at work Wife! (I thought for a minute you must have been down to NZ in your week and a half! Can be done of course - but at what cost?)
I have just one thing to add to your obvious enjoyment of Kiwi sheep shearers - try going to be a party made up entirely of NZ All Blacks next, oh my!
I must be very unlucky then. I go down my city street and it IS teeming with wild dogs. Mangy, mongrel-y, stray and usually 3-legged dogs. There are animals everywhere, and this is a city. I meet a herd of 15 or so water buffalo every time I collect my son from school. As for the cows, they wander at will all over the road. Somehow it's not quite the same as seeing a herd of lovely Fresians in the green fields though. There I go eulogising my homeland again. On Sunday I had to swerve to avoid a pig ambling down the road. And this is the capital of the country I live in, I hasten to add. I worry about my daughter. elephants and buffalo she's fine with, but until recently she was very shaky on sheep and horses. Had no idea what a fox was. What will her grandparents think when they point out the 'sweet fluffy things' in the field in England and she stares blankly at them? I guess it doesn't matter, but I want her to know....
Why would anyone want to go near a sheep shearing shed if they're not being paid for doing so? They stink almost as bad as dairy cows - there speaks the daughter of a farmer
It doesn't sound like you enjoyed the experience much. Having grown up on a ranch, there was much I found interesting that I didn't really enjoy. I know that feeling well. One of the many reasons I now reside in the largest city in Oklahoma. Not that it's that large, mind you.
Most animals in the country are there for a purpose... even the wild ones are left alone cuz someone wants them for something. Then they kill them.
I wonder if it is possible to shear large hairy dogs for "dog wool" I mean things like St Bernards and that one in the dulux advert?
Has anyone ever tried? Ms WITN - you are in a category for the Blog power awards - your are up for being entertaining - I am in the same awards - but I am up for bad taste. (Categories 1 & 14) That hurts a little - but I have swallowed my pride. If you want to vote you can follow the link under the picture on the right hand side of my blog. If anybody wants I can post the link....
I think that's known as a riggwelter wifey, well, it is around here anyway, a sheep that died because it rolled onto it's back and couldn't get up. I don't know the term for when they get their horns stuck in a gate though. Hope you had a lovely holiday by the way.
Welcome back. I shouldn't worry too much, I don't think sheep are vengeful creatures.
Sounds like all the fresh air helped you come back fresh and hilarious, you made my day.
Fantastic post, enjoyed it from start to wooly finish. Thank you.
Is that damn hound still pimping his blog? I'd shear something more than his wool if he says one more thing about those Blogpower Awards (and yes I did vote - for you both)
How fun to find another Okie reading this post. From my town too!
I'll send you an e-mail.
Hooray. You're back!
Before I moved to the country I always thought sheep were dozy, docile creatures. WRONG! Far from it – they’re resourceful, athletic and stop at nothing to get what they want. They were so desperate to get their teeth into our pathetic-looking lawn that they used to shin up a five-foot rampart, trot bold as brass along the top of the garden wall and jump down the other side.
They were the noisiest neighbours imaginable too. They were so rowdy one night that my daughter shrieked loud enough to wake the neighbours half a mile away. Rural peace and quiet? No way.
Seems they do their clipping a bit early in your neck of the woods. July-August is plenty soon enough on Alston Moor. Maybe its about that time before those kiwis get TO Alston, who knows?
Thank you for missing me.
re Mutley, I have of course voted for you and expect the world to do likewise. I see I am also in the category of "Most over rated blog of all time" or some such. As my mother says: "If you cannot say something nice, say nothing at all..."
That was not me....no really it was not!! I suspect they are jealous of your success...
"I wonder if it is possible to shear large hairy dogs for "dog wool" I mean things like St Bernards..."
When I was a little kid in Virginia, we had a collie. Collies have a lot of good press from all of the Lassie movies and tv shows. Lassie is always portrayed as a gorgeous, beautiful, dignified, and stately dog, a real dog's dog, a giant of a dog, a whale of a dog. Everyone loves Lassie.
But our poor old collie never looked as good as Lassie. In the summer, Jenny's fur (yes, her name was Jenny) came out in great clumps, because it was thick and wooly; she just naturally shed in the summer, to stay cool. So there was Jenny, in the back yard, running and frolicking with great ugly masses of matted fur and wool, dragging off her tail, and down below her belly. My Mom was always after us boys to brush her.
To keep the wooly matted fur under control, she needed to be brushed with a WIRE brush, EVERY day. Mostly my mother did it.
So, I am quite sure that you could shear a collie's summer fur, and it would probably make pretty good wool. And I know from the experience of my own overheated and panting collie, that if we would have sheared off all her her fur in the summer, she would have been cooler and more comfortable.
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