Shearing Your Sheep - Why, When and How
There are two reasons to shear sheep. Firstly, to harvest their wool, and secondly, for welfare reasons: a heavy fleece not only causes a sheep to overheat in the summer, but it also provides an ideal environment for harmful parasites.
When to Shear
Shearing starts during May, slightly later in northerly counties, when the weather gets warm enough for the sheep to be able to do without their ‘woollies’, and before the fly population really gets going.
Although sheep are usually shorn in the Springtime, any stress, such as lambing and lactation will be reflected in the fleece quality, so sheep raised specifically for their wool are often shorn in the winter to produce superior quality wool.
The Price of Wool
The price for wool in recent years has been depressingly low, and you may well find that the cost of hiring a contractor to shear your sheep costs more than you receive for the fleeces. One answer, if you have just a few head of sheep, may be to learn to shear them by hand yourself. It’s hard work, but once you get into a rhythm, can be enjoyable! The cost of buying an electric shearing machine is prohibitive unless you plan to offer your services to other smallholders, or perhaps buy as part of a smallholding co-operative. If you do decide to shear your own sheep, either by machine or hand, the British Wool Marketing Board runs excellent training courses. The BWMBis responsible for marketing and promoting the UK’s wool internationally and if you have more than 4 sheep you must register with them. They will give you the name of the wool merchant who operates in your area, and send you wool sheets for your fleeces. After shearing, they will grade your wool and pay you the appropriate amount. You can of course opt to process your own fleeces!
The desirable characteristics of a good fleece are highly hereditable, so if you are breeding sheep specifically for wool, you can ask the BWMB to assess your own ram’s fleece ‘on the hoof’, or seek out a ram that has a good ‘Fleece Assessment Certificate’.
If you want to keep your fleeces for your own use, you should contact the BWMB merchant to let him know, as you are otherwise obliged to sell your wool through him.
You may even decide you’d like to learn to shear the flock yourself, and again, the British Wool Marketing Board will be able to help: they run training courses throughout the country, both in hand and machine shearing.
If you don’t shear your own sheep, you will have to find a shearer who is prepared to shear a small flock of often unusual sheep – most commercial sheep are breeds that don’t have any wool on their faces or legs, whereas quite a few of the rare breeds do, which makes shearing a longer and more intricate job.
Preparing Your Sheep
When your shearer arrives, he’ll expect to find clean, dry sheep. This may mean you will need to house them the day before if there is the threat of rain (but do not house wet sheep, this can lead to pneumonia).
It’s a good idea to ‘starve’ the sheep for 12 hours beforehand, as a full stomach causes discomfort during shearing (but remember they will still need access to water). You should ‘dag’ any that have soiled fleece around the tail.
Set up an efficient handling system, with a holding pen and a small catching pen, so that there is always at least one sheep penned ready for the shearer the moment he’s finished the last one. You’ll also need a clean, smooth table, ideally at least 6’ long, on which you can roll the fleeces ready for packing in the wool sheets. The occasional small cut is inevitable, so you should have an antiseptic spray at hand to treat any nicks.
Your shearer will need a clean area approximately 2m x 2m to place his shearing board on, and an electricity supply for his machine. He will supply all his own kit, including a circuit breaker for safety.
The shearer will tip the sheep onto its rump, in a ‘sitting’ position. First, he’ll shear the belly wool, which comes away from the main fleece. Then, working around the sheep, the entire fleece will be shorn off in one piece and left neatly on the board, ready for you to remove to the table for rolling and packing. If your sheep do have woolly legs, these will be shorn off separately – leg wool is usually ‘hairy’ and should not be included with the fleece (add it to the compost heap!).
This is an ideal time to treat your flock with a ‘pour-on’ to protect them against blowfly and other parasites.
When they’re released and reunited with their lambs, the sheep will appreciate being put onto good grazing, as without their fleeces their appetite will increase to keep themselves warm.
Rolling a Fleece
As ‘shearer’s assistant’, you will need to work quickly around the shearer:
- First, throw the fleece, flesh (cut) side down, onto the table
- Pick off any vegetable matter, dirty wool and oddments
- Place the belly wool – if clean – in the middle, and turn in the flanks towards the centre
- Turn in the britch (tail) end, and firmly roll this towards the neck
- When the fleece is rolled, push your hand in to make a hole in the fleece and firmly tuck the neck end into the body of the fleece
This should leave you with a firm, securely rolled fleece to put into the wool sheet. If you can, pack the fleeces from your ‘hogs’, or young ewes, separately from the older ewes and males – their fleeces tend to be much better quality and will attract a better price.
The Non-Shearing Way
If you don’t have a specific use for the wool from your sheep, and would like to minimise shepherding tasks, there are sheep that shed their wool naturally and so don’t need to be shorn. These include:
- The Wiltshire Horn – a traditional breed
- Easy Care – specially bred for easy shepherding
- Dorper – a hair sheep, originating from a cross between Dorset Horn and Persian Black Headed sheep
See our DVD 'Managing Your Flock for Peak Health' for demonstrations on shearing and fleece rolling.
Inspirational ideas for turning your wool into a viable product can be found on our DVD 'Sheep for Business, Enterprise and Profit'.