….. when you spend your day working in a shearing shed.
(It’s Friday so the day for my You Know You’re In The Country When…..)
By the time this posts, I will have been in the shearing shed for a couple of hours. Another day of getting beautiful soft hands from handling wool covered in lanolin. Enjoying the earthy smell of the sheep. And being given a hard time from the guys I am working with – all with a laugh and affable smiles. These men are so lovely. They are tough as nails on the outside but the insides are like Caramellos – they are super sweet – and they are patient teachers. Thanks guys.
Yesterday I wrote about learning to throw a fleece. Today I want to write about the dance of the shearer.
To me, as I watch the men shear, it seems as if the shearer dances with each sheep. A known routine. A rhythmic dance with the same steps each time.
It reminded me (a little) of learning tango in Buenos Aires last year. In Argentina, I concluded that the guy really was the master of tango – he dictates all the moves. You as the woman just have to follow his cues – the slight change of hand or body pressure, the opening up of a space for you to flow into, a redirectioning of his body, a change in energy or pace. When I danced with a great tango partner, suddenly my bumbling 2 left feet managed to change into more knowing, independent feet. Not that I’m a great tango dancer but… with a masterful partner directing the choreography you just have to go with the flow and you feel like you are really dancing the tango, you are one with the music and your partner.
This is what it looked like to me as I watched the shearers shear the ewes yesterday.
The ewes were generally fairly submissive partners. Surrendering itself to the hands of the master as he turns her with seeming ease this way and that – on her bottom, on her side, on her other side and then (not so graciously) is discarded for another partner!!
It seems effortless but I am glad to be shearing vicariously!! About 140 sheep per day per shearer with an average weight of say 80 kgs; 11200kgs!! That means the shearers handled about 11 tonnes of live sheep yesterday!! I was tired after lifting fleeces!!
The start of the dance is a little less than romantic – the shearer choses a sheep (today all ewes), twists it onto its bottom then drags it onto the dance floor by her two front feet.
Then the rhythm between shearer and sheep begins.
The shearer caresses across the belly – taking the bellly wool off in one piece. He sweeps his hand across to reveal the soft stomach of the ewe. This is the nicest part of the sheep once shorn – without wrinkles, it becomes this lovely soft, pink surface. It looks nice.
Then in a sure movement of a man who can hear the change in the pulse of the music, shifts the ewe slightly so he can shear up the throat. The sheep has its head back as if it is enjoying having this huge amount of burr riddled wool removed. Basking in the attention of the shearer. The shearer’s shears glide effortlessly time and again up the ewe’s throat and chest revealing their dewlap (mostly merinos). I can see the pressure of the shearers hands changing constantly to lift a piece of skin, to flatten another area, to move a leg, to have smooth access.
With a swift change of pressure and bodies, the sheep is now entwined in the shearers legs – or is it? The shearers arms and legs and whole body, suspended in its Warrie harness, seem to be a flow of constant movement. With long blows the shearer sweeps up the sheep’s back, tail to head, tail to head, effortlessly removing the warm fleece. I love watching this part – the movements are long and sure – a man in control of the dance.
Finally, gracefully (usually, but not always as not all partners respond to this preplanned human choreography!!) the shearer moves his body and with it the ewe’s into the final position. Swiftly taking the last of the fleece off the right back leg.
I watch in awe at the skill of these men; time and time again repeating this rhythm. Just over two minutes per dance.
Then in another movement the sheep is ungraciously sent down the chute, discarded for the next dance partner.
Being the apprentice rousebout, one of my shared jobs is to pick up the fleece. I love gathering it. It is warm and smells delicious – earthy and natural. I don’t know anything about wool classing but it is easy to feel the difference between the fleeces. The texture of each fleece is easy to detect with my fingers as I grasp it, hugging it hoping not to lose its shape – increasing my chances of throwing a perfect fleece.
There is soft and soft – varying degrees of softness!! Mostly a delicious sensation on my finger tips. Some are ladened with burrs or famers’ friends (cobblers pegs, Bidens pilosa) which make the fleece prickly to handle. Some of these burrs have dug into the sheep causing their skin to have irritation ruptures. These sheep must be glad to get rid of the mat of irritations.
I enjoy watching the men shear – sheep after sheep, hour after hour. The same rhythm, the same flow. Man and ewe effortlessly (it seems!!) entwined. The dance of the shearers!!