Shearly ewe jest
COLRAIN — When I was invited to shear sheep at a local farm, I figured it would be easy as pie.
When I pulled up to Winterberry Farm and saw traveling shearer Gwen Hinman shearing an upside-down sheep as she held it in place with her knees, I knew it was going to be a little tougher than my morning shave.
I had an audience, too. The farm makes an event of the annual shearing, with several families stopping by to watch the 30-something sheep get their spring trim.
After I watched her at work a while, Hinman had me try my hand at getting an ewe into position. Just getting it from its pen to the shearing area a few feet away was a chore, as the animal resisted my efforts to lead her to the platform.
Once the ewe was in place, it was time to sweep her off her feet, which required a little reverse psychology.
“Sheep do the contrary of what you want them to,” Hinman said as she showed me how to wrangle a sheep. “If you press against them, they’ll press back.”
She showed me how to hold the sheep’s head to the side, lean my knee into her flank, press her rump down and get her legs out from under her.
I tried, but nearly fell onto my own rump as the ewe remained upright. After a few tries, though, I had the ewe on her side, grabbed her front legs and put her in a sitting position.
She was remarkably calm as I held her from behind and passed her off to Hinman for a haircut. She explained the process and, a couple sheep later, it was time for me to try.
Farm co-owner Jim Lyons led Juliann, the ewe, to the pen’s gate, and handed her off to me. I got her over to the platform, onto her rump, and handed her off to Hinman. She took care of the sensitive spots like the belly and head, sheared one side and handed her over to me to do the rest.
With the sheep’s head and leg between my knees, Hinman gave me the shears and set me to work.
The wool was so thick and greasy that, many times, I thought I’d hit skin because of the resistance. When I looked over my work, though, I saw that I was nowhere near the skin.
Once I started to get a feel for it, I went a little deeper. I accidentally nicked Juliann’s skin twice, though she didn’t so much as bleat. The only way I knew I’d struck skin was by seeing a small spot of blood. I felt bad, but Juliann didn’t seem to mind that much.
When I was done, the dirty white wool went into a bag — mud, hay and all — and was tagged with Juliann’s number and name. Later, it would be sent off to be washed and carded before coming back to the farm to be dyed.
Hinman said I did pretty well for a first-timer, and farm co-owner Jill Horton-Lyons agreed.
“Our old shearer used to say it takes 10,000 sheep before you’re competent,” she said. “When I got started, I didn’t have the time for that. I wanted the wool to come out perfectly, right away.”
So, she’s hired professional shearers since she started the farm back in Leverett some 30 years ago.
Hinman, on the other hand, has had a lot more experience.
She’s sheared sheep all over New England and New York state, and as far away as New Zealand. She makes her home in New Hampshire, where she’s got 15 sheep of her own.
After running some numbers in her head, Hinman said she’s sheared about 100,000 sheep in her 15 years.
While I doubt I’d ever get as good as Hinman, I think, if my life depended on it, I could shear a sheep with moderate success. I just don’t think it would win any beauty contests after I was done.