Distraction and carelessness are two states of mind that should be avoided if you are to be successful shearing your own animals, their safety and your own depend upon staying focused and aware of one another. You can be sure that your ewe or ram will be alert to any opportunity and therefore so should you be aware of your hold, position and how you move around the animal, – this is especially important the first few minutes of shearing when the animal is most scared and spooked by the noise of the clipper. While a great deal depends upon how your farm or ranch is set up, the means you employ in selecting and catching the animal and your relationship to the specific animal you are dealing with, there are some things that do not vary or change very much. One of these is the necessity of being deliberate in your movements and conscious of the animal’s mood and position as you change holds and move around with the clipper.
For the most part the animal will be especially agitated at first, even if you have the animals trust (such as it is) and she is experienced in being sheared by you, there will still be instances where a careless lapse could cause the animal to panic or break free. Even when you are doing everything right, the right hold, the right position, the animal could sense a change in your grip, or movements, and try to break free. This is normally nothing to worry about, if you have her in the proper position and a good grip or your feet placed correctly, we have never had one get away, however such movements can cause serious injury to the animal or to your person when in critical positions. In my experience, the most dangerous time is in the beginning, they are more agitated and prone to try and break free. After a time they settle into a resigned state, once they realize you are only shearing them and they cannot get away… Generally, we start working down the neck and chest, followed by the belly and then up the sides, this works for us because our number one goal is to prevent injury and this gives the animal time to adjust to this resigned state. We have found the most dangerous areas are at the shoulder and hip joints; we are always on high alert when we get to these areas because this is the only areas where real or lasting damage is possible.
Nearly as important is the shearers safety, a lapse of concentration on my part is an opportunity in the ewes mind, and they are always looking for such opportunities and the number one trick they employ is lashing out with their hind legs, – no matter the position, they can and will jolt you back into the present if you lose your concentration. Typically such displays occur in the first few minutes, but they can strike out with slightest provocation, most at risk are your forearms and hands, but depending upon your position they can get you good in a number of other spots. One of the most inopportune times they strike out with their hooves is when you are carrying them to the shearing area, – the combination of fear, agitation and perhaps a weakened grip due to exhaustion all combine to make this the most dangerous times for your hands and forearms. Best to invest in some high dexterity mechanics gloves or hunting/tactical gloves, especially if you are getting up in age and your skin is thinning (long sleeves a must).
Another practice we employ is starting with the friendlier, older and more experienced ewes, not only are they easier to deal with and calmer, it helps to get the feel of process again with the least drama, further they are the weakest and it is important that they be free of their fleece early, both for their health (carrying around the weight and heat it produces) and they typically need longer to grow a full fleece. In general I feel it is helpful to be able to get a few of these easy ewes done quickly, a refresher course if you will from the previous years experience, and it is psychologically helpful to see the numbers go down quickly, rather than struggling through difficult animals first…
While we dread this time of year, for shearing is the dirtiest, labor intensive and often unpleasant task in sheep rearing, it is also the most rewarding. There is great satisfaction watching the progress of this arduous task, the numbers diminish daily, seeing the transformation of the flock from wooly creatures to sleek and clean ewes that are enjoying their new found freedom from their fleeces. Perhaps most of all this is the closest you get to your flock or individual animal. All our ewes have names and we recognize the vast majority by sight, though we do number them due to matching mothers and lambs, this is the time when we get to spend the most face to face time with each animal and it brings you a little closer to them.
It is tempting to put this unpleasant task off to a professional, we did so the first 5 or 6 years, however this is something that you really should consider taking on yourself if you are physically up to it. While a professional can do an entire flock in a single day or two at most, often for a very reasonable rate (considering the costs of machine, blades, materials, the professional is competitive to doing it yourself..), and they often bring labor at their own expense, there is nothing more satisfying in sheep rearing than doing it yourself.