My husband and I have only ever sheared three animals in our time as farmers. Usually, we schedule a sheep shearer to come out to the farm in the early spring time. With the dwindling of winter, fleeces hang heavy on the sheep, hiding rounding bellies beneath them as lambing draws near. Shearing takes skill and practice. I watch in amazement as our shearer handles each sheep with care, giving attention to the areas of loose skin and nipples bulging on udders. Within a matter of a few minutes, the fleece lays in one large blanket on the floor with steam rising from it in the cold air. The sheep stands, hurries back to its friends waiting their turn, and then finds a post to back against for a good scratch.
One time, I asked my shearer how many sheep he had to shear before he felt he was a skilled sheep shearer. Bent over one of my ewes, clippers buzzing, ewe totally relaxed in his hold, he lifted his head and said, “a thousand”. I decided at that moment that I would not learn to shear. I figured that in my lifetime, I would not shear one thousand sheep, and besides, I enjoyed having the shearer come once a year, and I would never shear.
I could not imagine what might ever prompt me to shear a sheep myself. My shearer walked with his back slightly bent, and I could see the toll it took on him. I never asked how many animals he sheared in a year, but I knew the number must be way over a thousand. No, I was sure, I never wanted to shear sheep.
A couple of years ago, we sheared our first sheep all by ourselves. It was a cold February morning, when the snow and winter seems to never end, and the wind blows relentlessly. I went out to do chores in the morning and saw a mound laying in the snow. One of our ewe lambs, born just 9 months earlier, had cast in the night. She laid down with her back to the downhill and in the dark, she rolled just enough that she could not get her feet under her again. For hours she laid there, until death crept upon her, and left her lifeless in the snow. My husband sheared her before we buried her. Her soft locks of creamy white wool fell into my hands as I caught them, and put them into a bag.
Then, last winter, we sheared our second animal, when the night-time took one of our llamas. For no apparent reason, the life was snuffed out of him in the quiet hours of the night. He lay in the morning in his shelter, with legs outstretched. Just 12 hours earlier, he was alert, active, following me as I did chores. Now he lay with sheep encircling him, their heads hung low, trying to make sense of his silence. I pulled out my clippers, and sheared him with the sheep watching. I talked to the sheep, asking them what happened, in the cold and dark of the night. But they stood in silence. His soft fiber of chestnut brown fell into my hands as I caught it, and put it into a bag.
Only a couple of weeks ago, we sheared our third sheep, a lamb, born this past April, named “Hero”. This time, we snuffed out her life. She had fallen ill, the vet supposing she had contracted meningitis, me supposing she had contracted meningeal worm.The cause did not seem to matter, the treatments and prognosis were all the same, regardless of the cause. She suffered from paralysis. We put her and her mama in the barn, where we could treat her, and try to nurse her back to health. How many days do you let an animal suffer? How long do you let the disease have its way? At what point do you admit defeat, and allow the animal to rest? All questions I asked myself, as I stood over her. My husband sheared her in the quiet of the barn, clippers buzzing. Her soft locks of white wool fell into my hands as I caught them, and put them into a bag.
That’s the way they would have it. They would want us to shear them, to spin their fiber into yarn, and to knit it into something we can wear. Wrapped in their warmth, we can remember, and think about how we never wanted to shear a sheep.