- Written by Maria McDonald
All about Shearing…
Many of you probably know that in my single days I worked as a sheep shearer.
I started when I was not quite 18 years old, with a single wether. I remember that sheep. It took me about twenty minutes to shear it and when I was done I could barely stand up my legs were so shaky from the strain; and I left a ridge of wool on the wether’s backbone making him look like he was terribly skinny even though he wasn’t which lead me to always shear the backbone carefully on every sheep I shore after that one!
For some reason I felt completely empowered when I sheared; almost like I was on some kind of high. After that first wether, it was like I was hooked. I never thought I could do it the first time I watched Cliff Metheral peel a ewe out of her coat, and when my Dad wanted us to shear our own sheep the next year I thought it was a bad idea. But when I watched the ‘How to Shear a Sheep’ video he bought, I was inspired by the fact that the instructor was a lady…and she sheared amazingly well, and I thought to myself that if she could do it, I could do it! And that’s when I tried and that was the beginning of my shearing journey!
At first I was so proud of myself when I managed 4 sheep in one hour; I remember the day I set a new record, 12 sheep in one day! Then my hourly average climbed to 6 and hour…then 8, and then one day I was at 10. Cliff was my hero, mentor, and buddy. He took me under his wing and taught me the trade. We teamed up and shore sheep all through Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It was with him that I did 121 sheep in one day which was the most I ever did in one day. It was with him that I sheared 25 sheep in one hour; my best in one hour. I met a ton of farmers, asked a bunch of questions about sheep and learned about a lot of different management practices. I was just soaking up all the info; it was such an awesome opportunity to learn about sheep!
One of the big highlights of the shearing world was the Calgary Stampede shearing competition, in which Cliff and I participated as well as top shearers from Australia, USA, and New Zealand! Shearing competitions are judged on four points:
- 1.Speed; that’s a big one. If you are too slow it pretty much doesn’t matter how good you do in the other parts, you are not going to score well.
- 2.Not nicking the sheep’s skin; sheep shearing clippers are not quite like the kind we use for our hair or for our pets either. They are designed to move through wool easily and efficiently with the smallest amount of resistance and the largest amount of wool cut per swipe or blow. This different design is the reason why it’s very easy to nick the sheep if you don’t know what you’re doing or if you are sloppy.
- 3.No second cuts; this means that the wool has to be cut right close to the sheep’s skin with the first blow, so you can’t cut the wool an inch off the skin and then go back and clean up that part because this causes short little pieces of wool that is essentially waste because not much can be done with tiny short pieces and therefore it downgrades the wool.
- 4.Appearance of sheep after shearing; this is an easy one…the sheep has to look good. No funny tufts or ridges, no blood, just smooth and clean.
I remember the first time I won the Intermediate Sheep Shearing Contest…it was the finals and I was shearing against two other men. I looked into my pen of three lambs before we started and decided to shear the toughest shearing sheep first and save the easiest one for last. I had my hands resting on the spring loaded gate, breathed deeply and tried to pretend I was shearing in a barn on some ordinary job.
On your marks, get set, GO! And off we went. Cliff was in my pen with the sheep; every shearer was allowed a man in his pen to line up the sheep for fast gripping and for verbal support. I pulled out my first sheep and it was (as I thought) tougher, I couldn’t get my moves in completely smoothly and I knew I was losing time, but Cliff kept telling me how good I was doing and that helped me keep sort of cool.
Then I pulled out the next sheep and it was better, but I still was behind the other two shearers. I badly wanted to finish first as speed is not my strength and for once I wanted to be first.
The third sheep was indeed the easiest! It sheared like a beauty and I felt like I was dancing, it was just me and the sheep, the clippers an extension of my own fingers as if it was a living thing. There was this odd moment, like there was suddenly a quiet bubble around us, with nothing but the sheep and me in slow motion…but then I heard it…the crowd! They had started to make some noise, and they were making noise for me! As I sheared they began to roar and I knew I was catching up. Blow followed blow and the wool was falling away from the sheep like a sweater unbuttoned. And then I was done! I pulled the stop cord and the audience erupted! The other two shearers were still shearing! I was first and I had won because I could already tell that my quality was better than the other two. It was an awesome moment!!
But life as a shearer was not all rosy. It was hard, HARD work and by the end of an 8 hour day of shearing I was beat…like totally beat. I would sort of ‘be’ on a chair like a damp rag, every muscle in my body feeling sort of buzzed.
And then I started developing wrist trouble. After about a week of shearing my wrists would feel kind of tight and in the night I would wake with my arms totally asleep, tingling, and a sharp pain going from my wrists, through my elbow and into my armpit. I thought that my body would adjust, so I just kept shearing. When it was at its worst, I had to fall asleep with my hands in fists because when I woke up in the morning I could just open my fingers far enough to slip the handpiece in my hand. If I accidentally fell asleep with my hand open, I couldn’t shear in the morning because my fingers wouldn’t close at all. But that was when I knew that it wasn’t getting better. My body was not adjusting and I had to take it easy. And that was kind of hard for me to do…
And so time went by and I lived out of my little pink backpack. Sleeping in a different bed every night, guest at a different farmers’ house. I enjoyed it. I was free. It felt like all of western Canada was my home! Who needs roots anyways? Every day shearing in a different barn, shearing different sheep. Some things started blending together in my mind…when you’re bent over a sheep, things look pretty much the same wherever you are. You get to know who is helping push sheep up the chute and picking up wool by what their shoes look like. And even though our Canadian sheep are extremely varied compared to sheep in other countries, all sheep have the same anatomy to shear around, make the same noises, and smell mostly the same (you’d be surprised though what you can tell by the smell of a sheep; I could tell if they were grain or grass fed, if they just lambed, and Cliff can even smell if they have lice or not!)
Then one day Cliff wanted me to come do this job with him in Cartwright…this farmer did things totally different, apparently, and he figured I would enjoy picking his brain.
Well, I DID enjoy picking his brain!! And then one day I lost the urge to roam the prairies and I married that farmer from Cartwright!
I knew that I just started a new chapter of my life, and I was happy about it! I felt like the ‘roaming around shearing’ chapter had been long enough. Slowly and sometimes very quickly, my life changed. The most drastic change came when I got pregnant and then gave birth to our daughter! Exciting times!
This year when shearing time came around, I was completely on the other end of the ‘shearing day stick’! And I learned (yet again) to never underestimate what other people do. If the shearer is the star on shearing day, the people pushing sheep and picking up wool are co-stars and the shepherd’s wife is the support crew. Holy Dina, they wore me right out!!
Here’s what shearing day was like for me this year!
6:30; wake up in the morning. Check on Emma, who is still sleeping (thank goodness!) after I nursed her at 4:00am. Sneak out of the bedroom and start fixing breakfast. (one thing I learned shearing is that shearers need nourishment and a good breakfast is important) Cook tea, fry eggs and bacon, toast bread, set the table. As I’m doing this shearers wake up and Wayne comes out of the bedroom with Emma on his arm (thank goodness, she’s still happy and doesn’t need food right this instant)
7:00; everybody sits down and has a relaxed breakfast, Emma sits in her little lounger watching everything.
7:45; shearers get up and head to the farm. Wayne is in a super rush to be out the door too since they can’t really start without him. I push the table against the wall to make more space for people to walk in our tiny house and hurry to fix the ‘coffee breaks’ in a medium sized Rubbermaid tote (thank goodness, Emma’s still happy); teabags, cookies, mugs, milk, sugar, teaspoons, etc. Close the lid. Wayne snatches it quick and runs out the door.
8:00; everybody is gone and I can finally tend to Emma. Then I do the dishes and see if Emma is ready for a nap. YES! She sleeps and I set the frozen soup on the stove to thaw and warm for lunch. It will be pork chops for supper so I pull them out of the freezer so they can start to thaw. Then I put the laundry in the washer (have to wash ours now since the shearers get the washing machine in the evening) As the washer is going I quickly clean the house; sweep up, vacuum (it’s amazing how many little wool balls I find; must have been caught in the shearers’ clothes and shoes) Oh good, the washer is done, hang the clothes on the line (I do have a dryer but it’s slow and I love the scent of air dried laundry!) Ahhh…a few moments of peace…
11:00; I hope Emma wakes up soon because we need to head out to the farm with lunch. I prepare everything and then Emma wakes up. Pack her in the car seat. Carry everything to the car; diaper bag, car seat, soup. Head to the farmhouse (where Wayne’s parents live). Good, I’m there in good time. Help set the table, cut sandwiches, pickles in a bowl, ice tea made. While we are waiting for the shearing crew to come in I feed Emma.
12:15; everybody gets in from the barn. Anybody that hasn’t washed their hands in the barn, washes them in the kitchen sink. There is people crammed in the house like sardines in a can. Emma is happy watching all the commotion. We eat.
1:00; everybody heads back out to the barn. I help with the dishes, nurse Emma one more time and then head out to the barn myself. (I wanted at least a little bit of time working with the sheep or else shearing would have felt very odd indeed) While I pick up and pack the wool, Wayne heads out to check on things and to do chores. Depending on how Emma is doing, I stay for about an hour to three hours. Wayne gets back and we work together; packing wool, marking sheep, making notes, sewing up full wool bags, and on and on.
By middle afternoon or so, I get called back to the house because Emma is hungry (GOOD! Since my boobs are about to explode anyways!)
4:00; Emma is filled up again and I pack her back in the car seat, collect all my things (diaper bag, baby toys, pot that the soup was in, etc.) and head back home to fix supper. I unload the car, Emma, diaper bag, pot, etc. (it takes me at least two trips). Emma seems happy enough so I put her on the kitchen table, car seat and all and quickly mix up this chocolate cake recipe that I found the other day. Turns out to be super easy and I’m pleased as I shove it in the oven. (better get that done right away so I have room in the oven later for the potatoes) I unbuckle Emma and lay her on the floor to play, while I go out and take the laundry from the line (it’s good and dry by now). Bring it in the house and fold it up and put it away. Pull the chocolate cake from the oven. By now Emma is starting to fuss (she’s getting tired, long day for her too)
5:30; normally I feed Emma some banana a little later but she’s tired so I feed her now. She gets banana everywhere plus she’s pretty sticky from being outside on the warm day so I decide to give her a bath, quick before the shearers get in wanting their showers. Emma’s bathed and I know pretty soon I’ll have to nurse her and put her to bed but I’m covered in sheep grease and sweat so I quickly shower myself, put Emma in her jumper in the meantime. When I’m done, so is Emma. I pull her out of the jumper and we get comfy in the room. Pretty soon she’s out and I put her in her crib for the night. (so cute and peaceful!)
6:30; I start slicing potatoes and onions to go with the pork chops. Shearers come in and start showering. I’m chatting with them as I finish preparing the potatoes, put them (the potatoes, not the shearers) in the oven, set the table, salt and pepper and garlic powder the pork chops (holy moly, there are a lot of them today!)
7:00; I fire up the bbq. Wayne isn’t in yet but I’m sure he’ll be shortly so I start bbqing. Can’t fit all those pork chops on the grill and our bbq is weird, one side is too cold, other side is too hot and only the middle is just right. I keep shifting the chops around the flare-ups and in the end they come out alright. (so happy Emma’s already sleeping or I would have burnt them for sure!) Wayne comes in while I’m still shifting the chops around and showers. I check the potatoes, they are done, put them on the table. Get the chops and put them on the table too. Wayne gets out of the shower. I pull the table away from the wall so we can all sit down.
7:30; we eat. I breathe a small sigh of relief and dig into my chop, but I’m mentally working out how I’ll best serve dessert. We finish, everyone seems to like the food so that’s good. I decided that I would let them help themselves with dessert so I clear the dinner plates and bring smaller plates. I put the cake, ice cream and whipping cream (you know the kind that’s in a can and you press the nozzle and it comes out all whipped) on the table and everyone loads their own plates. After supper everyone lingers at the table chatting. It’s quite nice really.
9:00; I know I have to do the dishes because if I don’t I’ll never get breakfast on the table on time tomorrow so I get up and start clearing the table. It seems that this is some sort of dismissal signal because everyone gets up and goes to the living room, which is just as well with me. I wash all the dishes, clean everything up, get ready for the next day…
9:30; I’m done! Whew! Sit down in the living room for a bit. Before you know it, it’s 10:30 and I HAVE to go to bed. I say good night and crash.
12:00; Emma wakes up for her feed. I nurse her. I am very tired. She goes back to sleep and I pass out again…
Well, my shearing experiences did a 180 and it’s all good! I feel lucky and happy living here with our daughter married to that sheep farmer from Cartwright! I love you, Wayne!