Ok.  So back in October we got these sheep  (wow, soon they’ll have been here a year!  Maybe they will hold a contest!)  and I made it through stable-building and lambing and hoof trimming (Blackface are susceptible to foot problems.  Not horribly contagious freak you out things, utterly not contagious but very uncomfortable spots between their toes that can easily get infected.  Think infected corns or something.  So they get quite regular pedicures.)

And of course the next challenge was shearing.  I was really kind of nervous about this.  Do not ask me why I was perfectly ok with helping to deliver a lamb, but nervous about giving a haircut.  Basically it comes down to:  Sheep are big (well, mine are) and I am not, and they have a LOT of wool and there’s no way I’m getting it off them in the less-than-two minutes that competitive shearers can do (Competitive shearers?  There’s something wrong with that somewhere, too.) Or even five.  Or a million.

The “proper” (i.e. fast and efficient, which is in fact good for everyone involved) way to shear a sheep is to flop the sheep on the ground, do all the hard fiddly bits (legs, neck, belly) and then sort of roll the sheep so you can get the sides and back.  If you can do this quickly enough, the sheep will barely have had time to think “hey!  How did I get down here!?’ when they’ll be up shaking their head and wondering why the breeze feels so cool on their butt.  It does not hurt a sheep to lie on its back, they can breath fine, but you don’t want to make them do it too long because they do feel kind of vulnerable that way, not having a way to run away from the wolf that could possibly jump out at them at any time, so it’s psychologically better to be as quick as possible.

Also, sheep are generally ‘alone’ when being sheared, because it isn’t easy (ask me how I know) to give a sheep a haircut when the others are ‘helping’, and sheep don’t like to be alone, see note about wolves.  By ‘alone’, a sheep means “can’t see at least four other sheep”.

Well, there was no bloody way I was going to be able to do this quickly.  I had manual clippers, no experience at all, and Blackie and Freyja both outweigh me by a lot.  So I discussed it with the sheep, and we all agreed that since I didn’t know what I was doing, and they didn’t know what I was doing, we’d just take it slow the first time, I wouldn’t shoot for an intact fleece, I would just concentrate on getting the wool off, and when they got bored or mad we would stop for a bit.  I did not make them be alone, and I talked to them and sang to them and told them how pretty they would look with their new summer styles.

Blackie was wonderful.  I gave her some hay, and she just stood there and ate hay and let me clip away.  Still took forever, as I was learning to manipulate these big shears, and also Monster and Linton wanted to ‘help’ and they kept trying to chew on the big shears and shove their heads in my lap.  But generally it was pretty smooth, and she even stood very still (very, very still) while I sheared around her ‘dainty bits’.

But Blackie is a people sheep, in many ways more like a dog than a typical sheep.  Freyja was less into the whole thing.  And Freyja’s wool is VERY dense – I’d clip and clip and clip and feel like I was really getting somewhere and then there’d be like two inches of naked sheep.  I don’t have a scale that can weigh a whole fleece, but Freyja’s was heavy, and her wool wasn’t even all that long.  So she got impatient sooner and avoided me for longer, and that is why Freyja walked around for a week last spring with big puffy pants.

Finally, I bethought myself “hey dummy, try the halter”.  I’d been introducing the sheep to the halter as a means of bringing them somewhere, should I need to – mostly what I do is bring ’em outside the fence and let them cut the grass for me.  So I put the halter on Freyja and she stood patiently still and let me finish her butt all in one session while she ate grass, and then she got treats for being such a good and patient ewe.

A couple of weeks ago I was picking up hay from a neighbor and he has sheep.  He actually has cattle, the sheep were kind of an accident, because his dad was interested in sheep, and they got some, and I guess the lambing didn’t go especially well because they didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t really know sheep, so they lost a couple of lambs.  (NB, they probably would have lost the lambs anyway, there were from triplets which gives you bad odds on all of them making it, especially if you’re not willing or able to turn yourself into an ewe for several weeks.)  Anyway, the loss of the lambs mad his dad very sad and dispirited and turned off on the whole sheep thing, so the sheep came to live at the son’s house.  So he hasn’t had sheep any longer than I have, and he also has things like a job and a life and a family.  His sheep need shearing, and he was going to get the local shearing-guy to come over the same day as his next door neighbor, who also has sheep.  I asked what he was going to do with the wool, because NOBODY within miles of here seems to have a clue that wool is good for anything.  This attitude is I suspect encouraged by the shearer and the mills, ‘cos then they get it really cheap or free.  He said if I wanted the wool I could have it, I just had to get it off the sheep first.

So I’ve been going over there and using my halter trick to shear his sheep too.   It’s a pretty good setup – I shear them in the barn asle, so they can eat hay and oats and they can still see lots of other sheep, because the older lambs and the ewes with young lambs are out there in stalls, but because they are in stalls they do not ‘help’ me.  It still takes me far too long, but the sheep are not stressed and not upside down, and the farmer doesn’t mind that I whisper sweet nothings to his sheep and sing to them.  The only problem I can foresee is the ram – he’s the only one so far who’s had a real problem with my halter trick.  I got the halter on him one day, and he planted his (big) hooves and said “I will crush you, little girl” and that was pretty much the end of it.  I’m hoping that the ewes will all tell him how much more comfortable they are with all that heavy wool gone, and I’m leaving him until last because I’m getting faster every time, so by the time I get to him at least maybe I will be able to bother him for as little time as possible.  But I think there may be “help”, because I have no idea how I’m going to get him out into the asle if he doesn’t want to go.  Oats might work.

So anyway, that is where I’m getting my fleeces – my sheep and other very local sheep, who I have met and sheared myself.  I know their living conditions and what they eat and how comfortable they are with people.  They are not jacketed, see note about ‘wool isn’t good for anything’, so of course I’m pulling out simply astonishing amounts of stuff.  Mine aren’t so bad, but these other sheep are fine wool, and so of course they attract and trap everything.

Oh, spiralling off from some of the comments yesterday… you may or may not have noticed that I was able to give Chloe her stylish poodle tail because she has a tail.  I did a bunch of research about docking when the lambs came.  Freyja hadn’t been docked but Blackie had.  Generally, sheep’s tails are docked, no questions asked.  It is only just starting to be even questioned, and the older farmers will still say it’s better to do so.  The guy whose sheep I’m shearing has decided that he’s not going to either, which I’m really happy about.

The reasons given for docking are, in any order:  It’s easier to shear them without the tail in the way.  The tail traps poo.  The tail makes it harder for the ram to knock up a ewe, and the tail makes it harder for a human to help, if necessary, with lambing.

Most of those reasons, you will notice, have nothing to do with the sheep.  The only one that does really is the one about the ram, and that’s just silly.  Sheep’s tails look big because of the wool (which is less wooly and more hairy) but they’re really skinny and not at all ‘in the way’, and why on earth would they be, most animals have tails, and seem to reproduce themselves just fine, thank you very much.

As far as helping with the lambing, docking the sheep helps up the odds that you’re going to have to help with the lambing.  Docking can cause prolapses, and it messes with the butt muscles of the sheep, which are designed to control and lift the tail (like when they poo, it does NOT trap more poo).  I read this, but it was coincidentally supported by my own experience, when Freyja who had never lambed before dropped two so fast I almost missed it and needed no help at all, and Blackie had a horrible awful time and lost one lamb.

There isn’t any wool at all on the underside of  the tail until the very end, so there isn’t anything to shear (or trap poo) and no sheep so far has ever complained when I sheared their tail.  It is a little rough on the clippers, because of the harsh hairy wool.

But docking HURTS.  A lot.  And there’s a huge risk of infection, which yes you can vaccinate against, but there isn’t any risk if you don’t randomly chop off significant bits of sheep!

My final thought, which came up when neighbor-guy and I were talking about it, is that given the amount of controlled breeding that has gone on for centuries (ref yesterday’s post) controlling the appearance, shape and size of sheep, if there were really any benefit to sheep having short or no tails, shorter tails could and would have been bred for.  But since it’s a human convenience thing, nobody has bothered, they just chop ’em off.  It’s easier.  So my babies will continue ‘wagging their tails behind them’ thank you very much.

“Shut up!  Enough with the sheep and chicks, talk about important things like geese and cats!  And go spin something, your cat is bored.”