Shearing in Camolin

Every year about 3.5 million sheep are shorn in Ireland. Most of this wool is destined for low value markets, and with the average flock being around 100 sheep and about 75% of flocks having less than 50 sheep, the costs of shearing are often not covered by the sale of wool. One of the main preoccupations of the shearing industry in Ireland at the moment is to help increase the value of fleece through training and education. In this special feature, Diarmuid Commins of S Twist Wool examines the state of play in the Irish shearing scene and takes on a shearing course.

According to George Graham, a well-known shearer and tutor: ‘we’re in a good place with shearing in Ireland and a lot of work has been done, however more needs to be done in terms of education for farmers and the wool industry.’ George runs courses up and down the country, training farmers and would-be sheep shearers how to properly and efficiently shear a sheep. Naturally, the more shearers in the country, the easier and more cost effective it will be for farmers to have their flock sheared.

While I’m out and about, I often hear from farmers about the difficulties in getting a shearer out for small herds. The price of wool per kilo is so low that, often, the costs of shearing will not be covered by the sale of the wool. And in some cases, farmers are tell me they may have to give up on sheep altogether.

I generally prefer working with smaller farms, so it seemed like a good idea to be able to shear those flocks myself. The first time I saw shearing was at The Golden Shears Championship in Gorey in 2014. I had been invited along by the 1978 Spinning Group from Enniscorthy. We were there so people could see what was done with the wool after it was off the sheep.

Every morning I visited the large marquee to see the two-person teams battle it out. It was an amazing sight. The shearer would grab a sheep from the pen behind them and bring it out to the front. A few passes with the clippers and the wool handler would take the fleece away, throw it out on a table, remove unusable parts of wool and roll it up. The fleece is later unrolled and examined by three judges. Scores are adjudicated based on speed and quality of the shearing and grading.

It all made a strong impression on me and I decided then I would have to learn how to shear. I kept my ear to the ground and, finally, I heard of a two-day course coming up organised by the Irish Sheep Shearers Association. Day 1 covered sheep shearing, and the second day focused on wool handling.

The morning of the course we all ended up at Roy Colliers farm in Camolin, Co. Wexford. Roy is a dab hand at shearing; he holds the British Isles record for shearing 617 lambs in a 12-hour period. There were about 16 students and 8 tutors. We also had a tutor for the tutors; Colin Macgregor, from the British Wool Board, had been invited over by the ISA as part of the association’s plans to help improve the standard of shearing in Ireland and to increase the number of tutors available.

We started off with health and safety. I had thought that my wellies would have been the perfect choice for the day, but I was surprised to learn that moccassins are the footwear for shearers. ‘If you wear wellies, you’re going to slip, and you don’t want to slip with a running clippers in your hand. Moccassins give you a grip’ The clippers are fierce looking yokes with prongs at either side, so, no you don’t want to slip.

The next part was about handling the sheep, the emphasis was put on the sheep being comfortable and making sure to not stress the animal. While he was telling us about this Colin had a sheep sitting on her rump for about 20 minutes and there wasn’t a bother on her. He then showed how the shearing itself is done. It starts with the sheep on her rump, sitting up. The underpart is shorn, and then with each pass of the shears, she is gradually rotated until all the fleece is off.

Two things stuck out for me here. The first was that the movement and rotation of the sheep is accomplished by light footwork. There is no pulling or tugging, just small foot movements from the shearer who works with the weight of the sheep. The second thing was how docile and accepting the sheep was of the whole procedure.

We then split up into groups, two students to one tutor. The tutors sheared another two or three sheep slowly and then it was time for us. I grabbed the clippers and off I went.

But it was like I’d been transported to a different class. In my hands, the clippers was not gliding smoothly, nor was it travelling along in measured passes. Pretty soon, the sweat was pouring down my face and it was around then that the language started to get pretty hairy. What had taken a few minutes with the tutors going slowly seemed to never end with me. I was getting sorer, the sheep was getting grumpy and my cuts were getting more ragged. And then, finally, I was finished. It had taken about 30 minutes, but I had shorn my first sheep. The rest of the day consisted of us taking turns, with the tutors observing and guiding. We finished up early evening and my total at the end of the day was seven fleece.

In my day to day, I not only lug around a lot of wool, I lug around a lot of wet wool. So, I expected that I was in reasonable physical condition. I no longer dwelt under any such delusions. I hurt all over, I hurt in places that I didn’t know I had muscles.

The second day of the course covered wool handling. After the fleece is shorn, the handler scoops up the fleece and flicks it out over a table. Again, the practised movements of the handlers belie how difficult this is. Points are docked if the fleece is hanging over any side of the table or it isn’t laid out flat. Parts of the fleece that aren’t destined for wool processing are separated out here and graded into different buckets. This consists mainly of ‘dags’, or wool encased in hardened feces. The dags are destined for composting or, more recently, the making of slug pellets. The rejected wool in other buckets will have other uses. Again, points can be lost here if the grading isn’t up to scratch. Then the wool is rolled up tightly and stored. This makes it easier for the wool grader, at the next step, to open the fleece and separate the different grades of wool in the fleece.

That evening I talked to Geoff Coller, PR spokesperson for the ISA. ‘Shearing is a craft that has been around since the beginning of history, and wool is something that will never go out of fashion. On one end of the spectrum you have advanced base layers used for mountaineering and other outdoor sports and on the other end you have handmade clothing, like jumpers, that can last for 10, 20 years. Ireland is starting to find it’s place with shearing, we have a few championship title holders and any country that has sheep, there are Irish there shearing them.’

The shearing season for sheep is drawing to a close for this year, although lamb shearing will go on for a while yet. Since the course, I’ve helped out on two farms in Tipperary with their shearing. My count is up to about 40 fleece now. This is not even a morning’s work for a professional shearer, but it’s not too shabby for this spinner.

Diarmuid Commins is the spinner behind S Twist Wool, an indie spinnery based in Tipperary and Dublin which produces hand and mill spun craft yarns made exclusively from Irish wool.

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