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.