Sheep Shearing School

One of my favorite sounds in the world is the hum of sheep shears.

It’s a murmur and a buzz as the shearers clip wool, a natural, warm fabric, from a sheep’s body. The blade and comb whir back and forth. There’s a clap at the end as the shearer sets the clippers down on the wooden shearing platform and releases a brilliant sheep, which scrambles through a small door to its friends in the holding pen.

And there’s a special magic to making that sound.

At the beginning of March, the Indiana Sheep Association hosted its annual Sheep Shearing School, teaching attendees that magic.

I’ve known for years how to shear sheep by placing them on a trimming stand and using the clippers in no particular pattern for 20 minutes until all the wool has been shorn. With this method, the wool is often cut in several different sections, and the fleece does not stay together. Therefore, the wool is not as marketable as a fleece that comes off of the sheep in one piece. The wrinkles in a sheep are difficult to shear with this method, as it can be difficult to straighten out the skin. Shearing a sheep’s wrinkles the wrong way can result in cutting the skin.

I needed to learn the Bowen technique, a method devised by Kiwis Godfrey and Ivan Bowen that streamlines a shearer’s maneuvers and uses the sheep’s natural movements to straighten out its wrinkles. The fleece clears in one piece for a high-quality product. This technique is much faster than using a trimming stand and is the method seen in competitions where world record holders like Ivan Scott of Ireland shear sheep in less than 40 seconds.

I’ve wanted to learn the Bowen technique for years. While in New Zealand, I investigated the opportunity to attend a sheep shearing clinic, but that was cost prohibitive. So I settled with watching sheep shearing competitions at agricultural and pastoral shows and filming demonstrations to study later.

Fortunately, the opportunity to learn hands-on became available here in the States.

Sheep Shearing School was held at the Purdue University Animal Science Research and Education Center, a place where I’d spent some time at animal science workshops as a 4-H member. As a college student, I would visit the Sheep Unit to teach others how to exhibit lambs.

There was even some excitement ahead of time as the story of the sheep shearing school made the Indianapolis news, talking about the workshop as an opportunity to learn new job skills because the number of shearers in the Hoosier state is so low right now.

Sheep Shearing School 2020 Purdue Lamb
Small lambs at the sheep unit.

When we arrived, the pens were filled with newborn lambs. We walked down the aisle next to the feed bunkers toward the teaching area where shearers demonstrated how to properly prepare the sheep clippers. Then, they showed effective ways to hold the sheep and keep it comfortable while giving it a haircut.

After that, it was our turn. We split into groups of four.

“Pick who’s first and grab a lamb!” the instructor shouted.

The group pointed to me, so I went to the pen and picked a woolly sheep.

But even with all my observations overseas and just a few minutes earlier at the shearing school, as soon as I had that sheep locked in and comfortable, I forgot where to begin. My mind completely blanked.

So an instructor, a shearing legend whose name I had heard for years, walked me through the whole thing. One stroke down the front of the right leg, carefully down the belly, straighten out the wrinkles.

At times, my wrist gave out, my legs shook, and my back ached. But I was on fire. It had been a long time since I’d shorn a sheep, but the feel of the clippers in my hand was one of the most natural things in the world.

Sheep Shearing School 2020 Finished Sheep
The final result. I’m about to let the sheep go and rejoin her pals.

It was a good workout, and once I released the sheep, I was able to lean back and watch the others and try again to commit the pattern to memory. I’d help gather the fleece for packing into long burlap wool bags.

After lunch, we could shear a second sheep. I sought out another instructor and picked up some new tricks. But again, when I settled the sheep into a comfortable position, I completely forgot the first stroke.

“Remind me how you start this thing?”

The main thing to remember was to keep the lamb’s shoulder from hitting the ground. If its shoulder hit the ground, it would wriggle out from under the clippers and make a dash for freedom.

The workout was refreshing after months of inability to do basic exercises.

It was neat to visit with fellow Indiana Sheep Association members and meet new people. I met fellow shepherds, a woman who wanted to learn to shear so she could help her neighbor, and others who just wanted to gain a new skill. I also talked with a farrier who is adding sheep shearing to her repertoire so that her winter workload can pick up.

At times, I’d glance around the shearing shed to see the action. It was full of focus and learning.

Sheep Shearing School 2020 Shed Panoramic
A panorama of the teaching area at the Sheep Unit, which transformed into a shearing shed. The long burlap wool bags are sitting in the corner on the left side of the photograph.

The sound of shearing is so soothing to me that I nearly fell asleep during a sheep shearing competition as I sat in the back of the stadium at the Canterbury A&P Show in Christchurch.

Maybe that’s why I kept forgetting what to do.

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