A Shear Spectacle

As a child with thick curly hair, I viewed the hairbrush as a weapon of torture. So, when my little dog —God rest him— adopted the same view, rather than aggravate him on a weekly basis, I instead opted to let him live a happy, brush-free existence. A decision which subsequently backfired one summer when the dog-groomer informed us that in order for her to give him an even clip, he would essentially need to be sheared.

She wasn’t joking. He was returned to us looking decidedly more “sheep” than “Shep,” albeit with a new-found lightness to his step. That was 15 years ago, and up until recently, was the extent of my “shearing” experience, if it can even be categorised as such.

Nothing to be embarrassed about for most people. For the girlfriend of a farmer, however, in a relationship that’s passed the two-year mark, that’s a situation that requires remedying, and fast. Which is why when this summer, when Jack asked if I’d have any interest in seeing the real thing, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

As Sod’s law would have it, the invite came as I was en route home to Derry to vote in the Brexit referendum, and, I will admit that on waking up to the news that following morning, it did occur to me that my time would have been better spent shearing sheep.

But, I digress.

With Jack’s sheep now shorn, his father put in a call a good friend whose flock he knew had yet to be tackled. Eddie agreed to keep a few of his animals wooly for another day or two, until such time that weather, work schedules, elections, and all the rest, conspired in our favour. It was that following Monday then, that I headed off, looking forward to discovering what I reckoned could well be a hidden talent of mine. After all, given that the current Guinness world record for fastest time to shear a single sheep is held by a Donegal man, as a fellow Ulster native, I had to fancy my chances.

At the farm, Jack and I were greeted by Flor —the man tasked with the shearing, his son, and, somewhat less enthusiastically, by the sheep whose services had been volunteered for the evening’s proceedings. With the niceties out of the way, the farmer and his son got to work, Flor pouring a little oil onto the clippers while the younger man shepherded the first sheep from the pen to his father.

Flor moved with confidence and purpose, seizing the animal firmly by her front legs and manoeuvring as he needed in order to get the fleece off smoothly and quickly. For a creature that was on her back and essentially upside down with her muzzle occasionally held shut, she was surprisingly cooperative. I supposed this was more a testament to the competence of the shearer as opposed to the obliging nature of the sheep. The speed at which she took off the second he released her supported that theory. As did the ewe’s decision to relieve herself as soon as she’d been set free, making a point of staring down her audience while she did so, lest we’d be left in any doubt as to how she really felt about being made a spectacle of on a sunny Monday evening.

Though Flor moved with ease, his son confirmed my suspicions that this was, in fact, a much trickier task than his father made it appear — his deftness the legacy of summers spent working as a contractor, shearing anywhere between 6,000-7,000 sheep per season.

Once each sheep was finished, Jack showed me how to lift and fold the fleece before loading it into what he informed me is known as the woolpack. Who knew that all these years, there was an education to be had from watching Emmerdale?

As it turned out, handling the fleeces was the closest I came to shearing that night. But I wasn’t too put out. Not only were my newly-softened hands a lovely souvenir, I now have an appreciation for how much skill —not to mention brute strength— is required in shearing. I’m definitely looking at a good bit more quality time with the free weights and pilates mat before I’ll be getting to grips with any clippers and sheep. Besides, I reckon those gals know a townie when they see one. Shorn or not, there’s no pulling the wool over their eyes.

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