sheep shearing history

Sheep Shearing Through the Ages

Shearing sheep has a long tradition. For centuries, the craft secured many people their income. Today, it is only the countries of Australia and New Zealand where shearers earn their living from shearing sheep alone – using different tools than their predecessors two hundred years ago, mind you.

Bathing the sheep

In the past, shearers used to wash the sheep before they started to work on their wool. For this purpose, they drove them into a dammed stream or river, in which the animals had to swim a short distance. It was not uncommon for the entire family to be involved in this spectacle, the purpose of which was to pre-clean the wool. Standing on oak barrels in the river water, the shearers washed both the back, belly and head of the sheep with their bare hands. Also until the 1950s, it was common practice to bathe sheep in a large tub of ash liquor to control parasites living in the wool, such as sheep lice, ticks, and sand lice. Many strong hands were needed, as the sheep did not always put up with this procedure easily. The stronger the sun shone, the faster the wool coat was dry again. Synthetically produced cleaning agents, which were easy to apply to the sheep’s backs and spread well in the wool fleece, replaced ash lye in the 1990s.

The hand shears

The shearer’s most important tool was once the one-piece sheep shearer, which involved using the entire hand to work by squeezing the shearer shut, allowing it to move back to its original position, and squeezing it shut again. As a rule, it was used twice a year. The first shearing in April was followed by a second in September, depending on the breed. While the sheep usually stood on all fours during the shearing of the back, the shearers placed the animal on a table called a ‘shearing stand’ for the shearing of the belly. To keep the animal still, its front and hind legs were either held or tied together with rope. Often it was women who performed this physically demanding task, sitting on the floor with the sheep lying in front of them. It was important not to injure the animal with the hand shears, which consisted of two blades and a spring clip, and to shear the wool as a continuous piece, the fleece, if possible.

The electric shearing machine

With the invention of the electric shearing machine in the late 1940s, men took over sheep shearing. In contrast to shearing with manual shears, shearing with the machine is much faster. Experienced shearers need only a few minutes to shear a sheep completely. In addition, less wool remains on the sheep.

Ground shearing technique

Today, the floor shearing technique is used, in which the shearer shears the sheep on the floor rather than on a bench or table. To do this, it is first gently turned onto its back and placed in a comfortable position. After the belly is sheared, wool is removed from the insides of the hind legs and then from the left hind leg and tail. Now the wool is removed from the chest, neck and chin. Over the left shoulder, back, and right shoulder side, the shearer moves the shearing tool to the right hind leg as the final step of shearing. Ideally, the wool falls from the sheep’s body as a fleece.

A professional shearer is characterized by the fact that the animal to be sheared trusts him quickly, so that unnecessary stress as well as injuries to both the sheep and the person are avoided. Sharp blades are indispensable, which can be easily replaced with new blades in case of need. With skillful grips and movements, the shearer guides the shearing tool properly over the sheep’s body, so that neither the animal nor the wool obtained is damaged, and the latter fetches a good price in the sale.

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