Wild and woolly day on farm

Sheep: Beginners struggle as they learn how to shear ewes' coats at a clinic in Carroll.

March 29, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

At a farm in Uniontown, newly shorn ewes, all clean and white, grazed tranquilly in a sunny meadow. In a nearby shed, an altogether different scene played out. Electric shears whirred, instructors coached novices on holds and stances, and dozens of bleating sheep were relieved of their heavy, mostly dirty, winter coats.

Jean Marie McFadden, who raises about two dozen sheep at a farm in Round Hill, Va., enrolled in a two-day shearing school this year rather than hire a shearer. After one round with a hefty ewe, she was red-faced, panting and sweating.

"I didn't pay the shearer enough last year," she said.

McFadden and about 25 other beginners paid $50 to learn sheep shearing and wool handling at the school held every spring at the Thompson farm, a few miles outside Westminster in Carroll County.

Several shearings later, an exhausted McFadden let a half-shorn ewe slip from her grasp. The animal raced from the shed and around the barnyard, dragging her fleece. The ewe tried to jump a fence and make for the meadow, until McFadden got a firm hold around her neck and dragged her back to the shed.

"Now I have learned sheep wrestling, too," she said.

Instructor David Greene, a White Hall sheep farmer clad in striped overalls, remained calm. "We don't release them until they are done," he said.

McFadden ultimately managed to get the fleece off "all in one blanket," the way that makes the wool most valuable.

Greene, a retired agent with the Maryland Cooperative Extension, moved among the beginners Friday, offering advice and stepping in to shear when necessary. "It's all in the wrist," he said, adding that a professional can shear in 48 strokes or less. Greene recommends long, slow strokes and lots of practice.

All Anne Shroeder of Boyds could say after her first try was "poor sheep." Greene had to finish trimming the animal.

"She's probably afraid to go out in public," said Shroeder of the ewe. "It looks like I cut her hair with dull scissors. She was not hard to hold. She just rested her head on me. But I was so afraid of hurting her that I kept chickening out."

Richard A. Barczewski, animal science professor at Delaware State University, shared instructing chores with Greene. He called Shroeder's reaction typical.

"The newcomers tend to poke and that makes the sheep more tentative," he said.

He watched several shearers work. "See that spot of wool, go back and get it," he said to one. To another, he said, "Get the wool off the head. Hinder her vision as much as possible."

Before the instructors passed out the shears, Greene gave a brief overview of shearing New Zealand-style, where the average shearer can do 300 to 400 sheep a day.

It's a 22-step process that cannot be learned in one session, he said. Serious shearers have to practice and improve their technique. He posted pictures around the shed so students could refer to them - while holding a ewe in one hand and shears in the other.

The best wool is on the sides of the animal; the poorest is on the head and belly. But to make the animal comfortable in the summer months, all the wool has to come off, said Linda Shane, a wool classer who raises sheep in Garrett County. She piled the newly shorn wool into a cart.

"The idea is to get it all off in one piece," she said. "You should be able to throw it off like a blanket. The animal is better off when you are done. Eight pounds of fleece would be a lot to carry around in the summer."

The shearer supports the sheep between his knees with the animal's head resting against him.

"A sheep can work you something terribly," said Myron Horst of Dickerson. "But if you know how to hold them, shearing is a piece of cake."

Sheep are docile by nature and do not normally kick or bite, but they will fidget and squirm.

"All you have to do is catch one and it just quits," said John Murphy, who raises alpacas in Jackson, N.J.

For many students, culling a ewe from the flock proved the most difficult step. Joy Shreck fell in the pen as she attempted to coax a ewe to the shearing floor. The Bunker Hill, W.Va., farmer picked herself up and grabbed the heftiest animal she could find. By mid-afternoon, she had lost count of how many sheep she had sheared - at least five - and she had the process down to less than 20 minutes per animal. She planned on returning for the advanced class Saturday.

"I am self-taught and I want to learn the right way," Shreck said. "It is easy to pick up bad habits."

Aaron Geiman of Reisterstown reads up on the technique every night before he shears and he wears wrestling shoes because they don't skid.

"It's like basketball," he said. "You have to visualize your shots and know your positions."

Jennifer Reynolds, who works with the Carroll County 4H, compared the process to a dance.

"You support the lamb's weight and then do the dance," she said. "Learn the steps and you won't hurt the lamb or yourself. But these are big girls and it's hard to support their whole body."

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