How to shear a sheep — and why

On the satisfaction of back-breaking labor.

 

In a 2000 study, researchers at the University of Southern Australia found that by every measurement taken, from sustained heart rate to oxygen consumption to calories burned, sheep shearing was tougher on the human body than any other work measured. More energy is burned shearing sheep for a day than running a marathon. The study leader called it “the hardest work in the world.”

The second day of a new shearing season is worse than the first. By the end of the first day, I’m at about that stage of tiredness where a child would start to cry, but at least it’s the end of the day. The next morning I’m marginally less tired, but I have a day’s shearing in front of me. My handpiece has raised a blister on my ring finger that’s almost the size of my ring finger, and the parts of me that I know will hurt all day — legs, back, hands — already hurt.

It usually takes a professional one to five minutes to shear a sheep, yielding anywhere from a heavy, 14-pound fine wool fleece to a lighter coarse wool fleece around 5 pounds.
Kristian Buus

The last time I sheared a sheep, eight months ago, was the last time I did any kind of heavy physical work. Because my muscles have half-forgotten shearing’s intricate pattern of handwork and footwork, and because I’m already sore, I’m getting through fewer sheep than I did the day before and making less money. When I pause to ask myself what I’m doing here, 500 miles from my wife and my bed, up to my neck in sheep shit and grease, I find no ready answer.

My friend Robert says that the problem with shearing is you get addicted to the money. You end up shearing when you’d be better off doing something else. This is true about the money — in the spring in California, good shearers can make $700, $800 a day. But it’s not the whole story. Only after you’ve invested a few grand in your gear — which includes but is not limited to the handpiece mentioned above and the cutters and combs it runs, a grinder to sharpen them, and the shearer’s uniform, which looks like a bro tank and skinny jeans but costs more — then suffered like a dog through a season or two, do you start to shear at a lucrative speed. The work is also intensely migratory, so if you want to do it full time, you’ll spend most of that time living in motels or your truck. You’ll also have to reckon with the possibility that your body will be wrecked by the time you’re 50, maybe 40. There are easier ways to make money.

One way to make sense of it is to think of shearing as a sport, a contest of skill and stamina in which shearers compete among themselves. When you finish a sheep, you click your pitch counter to keep score. If you’re not doing it right, shearing can also be a contest between you and the sheep. It says something about the work that a lot of the guys I shear with are former high-school wrestlers, but the better the shearer, the less wrestling goes on. The goal is to keep the sheep balanced like a beetle on its hips, with nothing to leverage against and no choice but to sit still as you drive your handpiece through the wool. A good shearer takes the wool off at the first pass without breaking the sheep’s skin, quickly, with no fuss or struggle.

When it’s going well, the pleasures of shearing are comparable to the pleasures of surfing. A rhythm moves through you, and the sheep shears itself like the wave rides itself. This doesn’t happen to me often — I’ve been shearing for years, but now and again and never for long enough to get all that good. Still, just like a little surfing sharpens your appreciation for what a good surfer does, watching great shearers work gives me a sense of how good it must feel.

But even that is not what it’s really about.

To stop shearing at the end of the second day, to step out into the sun, bury your arms to the shoulder in a trough of cold water, then sit for a minute with a shook-up can of light beer — the sensory enjoyment of these things borders on the obscene. Emerson said, “Every ship is romantic, except that we sail in.” Shearing sheep is a temporary release from this bind: It makes things like sitting down, putting on clean clothes, even the simple act of not shearing into impossibly romantic activities.

When your wildest dream is to sit on the floor and drink a half-gallon of water, and every day this dream comes true, it creates a habit of satisfaction in your life that you have to experience in order to understand. There are easier ways to make money than shearing, certainly, but that may be the point.

Brian Kearney was born in Ireland, lives in Oregon, and shears in California.

Storm Baynes-Ryan
Storm Baynes-Ryan
Nov 01, 2016 12:58 AM
Brian, what a great article showing people the why and how of this amazing industry, I love your wonderful way with words and your great explanations of shearing, I'm going to share this with my shearing tribe, thanks so much for sharing this. Storm, www.shearpace.com
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Nov 04, 2016 01:59 PM
some of us who read the high country news occasionally stray from hugging trees and hugging cactus and get attracted to a somewhat harmful livelihood. that is a livelihood that is not too good for the public landscape. here in Arizona, up until about 2 years ago we had a couple of sheep ranchers that were still driving sheep from the valley of the sun (phoenix valley) up north to the white mountains, or near Williams, Arizona. these driveways go back over 100 years on the public domain. the sheep were driven by borregeros (herders) on foot, with herd dogs. a long the trail they would camp each night and prepare their meals with food still being hauled by burros. accompanying the foot herders was a "campero" a camp tender, who would travel the driveway on horseback. his job was meal prep, and if needed, he could make a quick exit to get emergency help. in prior times most of the borregeros were vascos (basques), of late, usually mexicanos or peruanos were the herders. once they arrive to the winter pasture, or summer pasture, the shearers, as mentioned in this article, were in employ!
Jessica Neuwerth
Jessica Neuwerth Subscriber
Nov 04, 2016 02:59 PM
I really enjoyed this piece. Beautiful and evocative writing--keep it up, HCN.
David Linn
David Linn Subscriber
Nov 05, 2016 12:15 AM
Unfortunately, this story doesn't mention (except the brief reference to "breaking the sheep's skin) the incredible abuse that sheep suffer from rough handling, being cut and hit with shears and being kicked and stepped upon. PETA has done a number of investigation into this cruel industry. Paying people based upon production output is a guaranty of abuse.
peter  connelly
peter connelly
Nov 05, 2016 04:38 PM
Hi David. I can't think you have ever shorn and animal before. Please take a few minutes to sharpen up on your ideas and realize that PETA's pieces on shearing are horrible but they are the exception not the norm. As a shearer and a shearing contractor I would never treat an animal the way the guys on PETA's videos do nor would I employ anyone abusing animals the same goes with my colleagues in both the US. and Australia and New Zealand. The author has chosen his words carefully and presented us with a good piece that does not speak or insinuate abuse of any kind. As a matter of fact it is well written and deliberate as I am sure his shearing is. Please understand none of us want to hurt an animal in any way so we take the measures and the time to treat each animal with respect and dignity and if we don't then the farmer or rancher will not ask us back next season.

Peter Connelly
Storm Baynes-Ryan
Storm Baynes-Ryan
Nov 06, 2016 12:56 AM
Thanks for writing your comment so well Peter, there are of course the exceptions to the rule, but sometimes people take notice of the exception (without seeing the amazing people whose skill makes the rule an amazing artform), make the exception the rule then proceed to try and eliminate whole areas of legitimate practice without understanding the situation.

Please visit a shearing shed David and see what kind of skill is required to shear a sheep. If you are capable, have a go, and understand that abusing a sheep while shearing it is futile, because the work is so demanding that hurting something on purpose makes the day so much harder. There are no jobs that have an energy requirement day in and day out of at least two and up to four marathons per day. Shearing is an honourable profession, and this article epitomises this. I'm sure that someone will be able to arrange a day in the shed for you.
David Linn
David Linn Subscriber
Nov 10, 2016 12:03 AM
Peter and Storm, thanks for the information. You are correct that I have never shorn a sheep and probably don't have the physical strength to do so. It is good to hear that there are responsible people who can do this work properly and without harm to the animals. I don't have any first-hand knowledge of the process and have just been appalled by what I have seen in the PETA videos. A personal visit to a shearing operation would probably be a good idea.

Is there any way to determine if a clothing manufacturer is using wool that has been humanely produced? I have asked on a couple of occasions and the only answer that I have received is that their producers don't employ mulesing. But they don't seem to have any other information about the treatment of the sheep. Is country of origin a good indicator? Some of the worst abuses seem to have been in Argentina and Australia.
peter  connelly
peter connelly
Nov 10, 2016 03:11 PM
Hi David. After the PETA expose Patagonia completely redesigned their wool standard. They used input from experts spanning the entire spectrum of animal husbandry including Temple Grandin. It offers complete transparency from farm to consumer. I will include a link below. You should read it. Patagonia's wool standard offers input and standards on every aspect of husbandry. Even though I mainly shear alpacas I have applied some of their standards (many of their requirements we were already using) to my business as well as taking the time to begin writing down standards and guidelines for my company as well as anyone within my industry. I could arrange an opportunity for you to visit a shearing day so feel free to let me know if you would like to participate. I appreciate your dialogue.

Peter

http://eu.patagonia.com/[…]/PAT_2016_Wool_Standard_r4b.pdf
Storm Baynes-Ryan
Storm Baynes-Ryan
Nov 10, 2016 04:01 PM
Thanks David for being so open minded. I really appreciate it.

If you can't make it to a shed- here is a video of a competition shearing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8eka1upTbk), these are the best of the best and while the speed is astounding, they are attaining quality at these speeds that most shearers aim for in the sheds (but mostly they go slower, it's not sustainable at this pace).

In addition, I think you may be interested, that while shearers and contractors are paid per sheep, I have a friend who is a shearing contractor who has made her shearers slow down so that they have better quality - it's better for the sheep, the shearer, the contractor, the farmer, and the wool and therefore the end user.

Please believe us that there are people out there who are as passionate the shearing industry as they are about animals.

Here is a link to a world record for shearing also - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD_sPi8F5Po and a day in a shed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9zbFZVCrm8 (I could go on, please ask if you want more information) Have a great day.

Storm