Shear Joy: Charlemont Man Enjoys the Quiet Tradition of Hand Shearing Sheep
The Recorder, May 7th, 2016, by Richie Davis.
It’s a wary, downright wooly crowd waiting for the moment to get clipped.
Every five minutes or so, a worker reaches into the bungee-held ante-pen of about 30 white and black-faced sheep and randomly chooses one from this cross-breed flock. The animal is escorted out by one hand grabbing onto some hind-section wool and another gently pulling back on the head to force the sheep backward.
Only about half of these sheep, falling back onto their rumps and then scooted backward into place by forelegs, will get a “brush cut” as part of this annual shearing ritual at Leyden Glen Farm.
The others, escorted out of the pen by white haired and bearded Kevin Ford of Charlemont, get a traditional blade cut.
This is no ordinary fleecing. Yet, it’s the way shearing has been done for centuries, and the 70-year-old master blade shearer is thought to be one of the only professional shearers exclusively using this technique in the United States.
This is less dazzling than “Edward Scissorhands.” It’s more like “Dances with Woolies.”
Ford’s left hand, and each of his other limbs, elbows and knees, is used to keep sheep in place — and relaxed. But, in his right hand, he wields a pair of British-made, spring-loaded shears with 7 1/4-inch blades. About five minutes later, the sheep scampers from his makeshift baa-baa “chair” naked of that wooly winter coat.
Ford literally wrote the book “Shearing Day: Sheep Handling Wood Science and Shearing with Blades, ” on blade shearing. He also writes the “Shearing Notes” column in Sheep magazine, which refers to him as “America’s foremost ‘blade’ (hand) sheepshearer.”
In addition to traveling each winter to shear in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, as well as shearing around the Northeast, the tall, slender shearing pro has led workshops and demonstrations in his traditional skill in Maine, North Carolina and elsewhere for young farmers to learn the craft.
Here at Mark Duprey’s and Kristin Nicholas’s Leyden Glen Farm — although the “here” is really inside an open-air barn off one of its Bernardston fields — Duprey says Ford has been shearing his flocks for about 25 years.
It’s more important to Duprey that a shearer “shows up when he says he’s going to show up” — not that he uses super-sharp blade shears or an electric implement. He guesses it probably makes little difference to the sheep, either. But as practical as the farmer is, he admits there’s something “very peaceful” about Ford’s steady hand-snipping, where “all you’re hearing is just the clicking of the shears.”
Because there are 130 or so sheep — mostly 2 to 4 years old — getting sheared today, with another 100 or so planned on a second day, Ford is joined by another contract shearer, Gwen Hinman from Ackworth, N.H. Unlike Ford, this 41-year-old professional shearer — one of about two dozen in New England, she guesses — uses electric shears hooked to a power source hanging from the ceiling of this open-air barn.
So there are actually two “baa-baa chairs.” No waiting? “No.”
Although most of these sheep, at an estimated average weight of maybe 150 pounds, outweigh her, Hinman says, she has little trouble wrestling each out of the pen. It does seem a little harder than it used to be, though.
Holding firmly onto the animal’s rear and head, she backs it onto the plywood sheet placed on the soil. There, she positions and repositions each animal, buzzing down each side, under its limbs and around its head, down its back. All the while, the sheep squirms as she firmly moves the animal’s front right leg behind her own right leg, or whatever works.
Suddenly, she has the lamb’s two front hooves gingerly held behind her arm.
Hinman works by using her knee here, her leg there, with her free hand to hold the sheep’s ear, limb or a clump of fleece strategically.
“Some of them are just easy, some of them are miserable,” observes Duprey as one of the cheviots — a wilder breed of sheep that he favors for its toughness — fusses with Ford as he tries to keep the ewe steady on his plywood shearing board, like a toddler getting a rare haircut.
It takes obvious strength and agility to assure that Hinman and Ford are in control, minimizing the animal’s attempts to get out of these awkward positions.
“Would you mind doing a ram?” asks Duprey, before bringing over a waist-high Dorset with Hinman for her to shear. The farmer pulls the animal’s rear legs down to get it in place. It’s one of six rams on this 400-animal sheep farm on which just one sheep — a black one that used to be his daughter’s pet lamb — has a name: Cora.
With 16 years of experience, Hinman, whose father taught her to shear, is able to have the fleece uncloaked from the animal gracefully, in one seamless robe, so that it can be washed and carded efficiently for sale at the best price. This is the New Zealand shearing technique in which the sheep seems to almost magically disrobe to reveal a lighter skin underneath.
Yet, the fleece is not always as white as snow. The newly revealed grayish patches under the fleece are dirty spots where the animal may have been rubbing against some filth or even have had a lamb hopping on its back, Hinman explains.
With the fleece lying at her feet, the shearer releases the sheep to run off to join the rest of the newly shorn flock in the field.
And it’s on to the next, as 24-year-old farm worker Rachel Haas, a recent Hampshire College graduate who lives in Montague, helps stuff the fleece into a clean plastic bag set up on a hanging frame just outside the barn. By the time they’re done, six or seven of the bags will be stuffed, each with roughly 200 pounds of wool.
Duprey, 58, thinks back to the shearing workshop he took while a student at Stockbridge School of Agriculture, where he learned he’d gladly pay somebody else to shear for him.
Breeds and Bleatings
The shearer’s skill may look effortless, yet it’s also exhausting — even just to watch. Each one will wrestle, then completely bend over a squirming animal without inflicting injury or pain, maneuvering the sheep constantly to not only make the next section of wool accessible to the shears, but to keep the sheep from getting bored and antsy.
On his feet, Kevin wears shearer’s sole-less moccasins, professional footwear from New Zealand, which keeps feet low to the ground and anchored for better control of the sheep.
“You control the sheep with your feet, a lot of it,” explains Hinman, “so you can feel what’s happening. If they’re in one position too long, they get impatient. So if you keep them moving, it sort of relaxes them.”
Dorset mixed-breed sheep do appear to be relaxed, almost mesmerized as they begin to lose their wooly coat, despite an occasional jostling from a rambunctious ram or ewe.
“Positioning the sheep, and the shears, is really a basic skill of shearing,” observes Ford, whose voice is as calm as some of these sheep themselves. “It’s about moving (the animal) through those positions so the area of the body you’re shearing is convenient, and the sheep is passive due to realizing it’s being well-handled.”
He pauses a minute thoughtfully.
“(The sheep’s) kept at a big disadvantage. The sheep is pretty much convinced that struggling to get away is futile, so it waits for a better opportunity. Its sense is that the shears are not tense, and it’s not a threatening situation.”
The chorus of bleating is almost constant, though it shifts from one side of the barn to another, from one animal to another, from high pitch to low pitch to a very loud low pitch as a lamb bleats here, a ewe there, and suddenly from an already-shorn sheep that’s popped its head back into the barn to see what’s going down. Adding to the fun is an occasional sheep wandering back into the barn, or one of the lambs mixed in the pen slipping out — maybe searching for its mother? — and then out beyond the shearing area to join the shorn flock outdoors.
Border collie Kate, of course, waits nearby, ever eager to help if the humans would allow.
Toolbox and Tourneys
Ford, who grew up in Newton, took a fancy to sheep while visiting cousins in Galway, Ireland in 1975.
It was there — where farmers generally shear their own flocks of maybe 20 or 30 sheep — that he first took to blade-shearing, learning techniques that fathers generally teach their sons — or, as with Hinman, their daughters — as part of general farm trade.
“That’s where I got my start,” recalls Ford, who in 1991 took a shearing workshop in Putney, Vt. with an instructor from New Zealand and showed up with his blades. The workshop leader was a good friend and neighbor of Peter Burnett, the chief blade shearing instructor in that country of 3 million people and 60 million sheep.
“When I got to New Zealand, they brought me over to Peter’s house, and took me to my first shearing shed,” the kind of big barn fully equipped for shearing that’s part of every large sheep farm in New Zealand.
Ford began shearing with the intention of eventually getting his own flock, but instead came to enjoy the life of a full-time, itinerant shearer. In the 1980s, he moved to Shelburne Falls and a couple of years later settled down on Warner Hill in Charlemont.
“I never did buy a farm. It was a lot easier to get involved by shearing, just by shearing,” he says, while taking a rare midday break.
He favors the simplicity of hand shearing, which he considers “a bit more athletic,” but no more virtuosic than using electric shears or clippers.
“It’s independent from needing a power source, so it’s very handy for small flock,” he says. “You can go anywhere the sheep are. Just get ’em into a pen, and it’s very quick to set up.”
With an almost hypnotic click-click-click of his Sheffield, English blades, held together by a single arc of a spring, Ford enjoys the quiet traditional approach to shearing.
“There’s an advantage to the farmer because it leaves little bit more wool on the sheep. For years, in New Zealand, the principal reason they were still blade shearing there is it protects the sheep from sudden changes in weather.”
Without the buzz from electric shears, and having to keep the sheep oriented to the power source, Ford feels more relaxed with his blades, which he spends a couple of hours out of the box adjusting with tape to control how they close and fit in his hand, a strap keeping it in place. “The shearer always transmits that lack of tension to the sheep.”
He’s quick to add, “Very good machine shearers like Gwen are also at ease, but a lot of beginners think it’s going to be easier with a machine, and it isn’t. Overall, according to professional shearers in New Zealand who do it both ways, it’s physically easier to shear by hand. You don’t do as many, but you don’t have to control the sheep quite as rigidly. The powered hand-piece will drive the shearer because it’s always going, it wants to be in the wool.”
Ford carries a handmade wooden toolbox with him, complete with shoulder carrying strap, hanging pocket watch, lubricating oils, a hardwood stick with a notch in it for blade sharpening and a mechanical counter to keep track of how many he’s sheared today, since he gets paid per animal.
He also keeps a pail of water handy to wash off the lanolin that’s accumulates on his shears.
“These sheep are not very greasy, but there’s some degree of lanolin in most sheep,” Ford says.
That grease can bulk up the best of shears and make them sticky, but these Leyden sheep, which are raised for meat that’s sold to Hope & Olive, Green Fields Market and at farmers markets in Amherst and Northampton, are out enough to get rained on, so much of their lanolin has washed out.
Each pair of shears is good for shearing about 1,000 sheep. He figures he shears about 4,000 sheep a year, about four times more than the Wisconsin woman who he thinks of as his only possible counterpart in this country.
Dressed in a sleeveless black T-shirt from the 2008 Golden Shears World Shearing & Woolhandling Championships in Bjerkem, Norway, Ford says he’s been to plenty of competitions.
“There are farmers and judges from all over the place who judge you while you’re shearing, and they judge the sheep for any nicks or ridges of wool left on and tags … and, of course, time. But, the quality is usually decisive.”
He laughs modesty when asked if he’s ever won.
With no shortage of top-notch contestants from countries that have lots more shearers, plenty more sheep and way more blade sharing than we have in this country, he says, “It would be pretty outrageous if I won. There’s just a culture of sport shearing in places like Australia and New Zealand.” And South Africa has won a good share of top titles in recent years, Ford says. “They shear 10 million sheep a year over there, and most shearing there is done with blades.”
Although some say that the relentless wrestling, restraining and releasing of sheep all day long is like running a marathon, Ford says, “It’s just something you develop stamina for.”
Since most sheep farms shear their flocks once a year, Ford keeps busy from February until at least August, and often into the fall. Some breeds, like Icelandic sheep or angora goats, are shorn twice a year, and between Ford’s own migration to shear in the South and his hand-cutting of firewood in winter, he says, “I stay in shape. I get out and it keeps me limber.”
Most of the flocks he shears are small, and his limit for going it alone with his shears is about 40 sheep, like Northfield’s Balky Farm. With larger herds — up to the 400 or so sheep he does in Great Barrington each fall — he asks for a second shearer or maybe a third.
In the barn, with a sheep’s white head secured between his legs, Ford and the sheep are mellow, as he softly snips off the wool from around the hipbone, bunching it up in with one hand to get as much as he can with a single clip.
As he constantly maneuvers his hand with an understanding of the sheep and its body, he’s at ease in talking with Duprey. Clip, clip, clip go the pointy blades, which he deftly moves around the ewe’s udder.
“It’s not a finger thing, it’s a forearm motion, and the position of the hand is constantly varying too, so it’s not a constant tension” where muscle fatigue or carpal tunnel injuries can set in.
While shearing, Ford calls Duprey over because he finds a redness on one animal, a sore on another. The farmer then marks the sheep with orange or red dye, making a mental note to follow up with special attention.
“It’s the only time you can see the bodies on them,” Duprey says, taking advantage of the opportunity for close inspection.
Aside from the obvious reason that it keeps his flock comfortable in warmer weather, Duprey says that annual shearing is important so that his animals aren’t dragging around an ever-growing, unmanageable mess. It’s certainly not because the wool is that valuable, he adds.
Last year, the market for wool was so poor that Duprey says he dumped it . There are few places to process it, and by the time he and Nicholas pay to have it transported, it pays for little more than the shearing.
“If we didn’t shear, I think they’d probably die at some point, whether from heat exhaustion or some complication from excess weight because they lie down and can’t get back up,” says Duprey.
Last year, an Australian ram shorn for the first time yielded 89 pounds of wool, enough for 30 sweaters and nearly half its body weight.
There are a couple of sheep that manage to elude shearing each year, says Duprey, but the real danger is that if they lie down on manure and then attract flies, maggots can get into the wool and actually begin feeding on the sheep.
As for Ford, shearing — shearing by hand — is way more than a chore. There’s fulfillment in fleecing.
“There’s an athleticism to it,” he says. And although the thought of sheep after sheep may be enough for the weary among us to doze off, he says, “Every sheep is different. Every situation is different. Your skills always are being challenged, and you’re always attempting to do the best job you can.”
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.