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The pleasure of watching sheep shearing instructor Lorrie Reed deftly remove the fleece from a ewe was abruptly ended. “OK,” he said. “Any questions?” As a matter of fact I had many. But I wasn’t sure how to state them. They had to do with sheep anatomy, avoiding injuries (for myself and the sheep,) and the rising sense of apprehension about so delicate a procedure as separating a woolly, not at all calm animal from its coat. It was too late for that.
Sheep are, beneath their thick coats, very warm. The variety of sheep we were learning to shear at shearing school were heavy. The effort to control a heavy, hot ewe, a set of maniacally sharp clippers, and my own flight instinct was great. A short distance into the job left me cramped, sweating, and confused about where the shears were supposed to go next. It was a moment of deep self-doubt.
Evidently there is an appetite these days for things that are “simple.” Simple refers to activities and products that are not heavily dependent on technology, that hearken, perhaps, back to former times when people made their way through life on practical skills and physical labour. Shearing sheep surely fits that description. Not having this skill has always kept our family from keeping woolly sheep on our land. We bought our small flock of wool sheep as a way, I think, to make learning the skill unavoidable.
So when the annual workshop was announced through the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board’s newsletter, I was on my way.
“There just aren’t enough shearers in Saskatchewan,” says Reed. It was a refrain I would hear often over the two-day course. Reed is a contract shearer who gets through roughly 20,000 sheep annually with the help of an ever-shrinking pool of helpers. Shearing school is one way to shore up the ranks of able crew members.
“I got started through the University [of Saskatchewan],” Reed explains. “We did it as a one-day course because we realized that there were fewer and fewer shearers around.”
Dog Tale Ranch sits just east of Young in rolling land. Arlette and Allen Seib raise about 450 sheep on the ranch with the help of a cluster of vibrant dogs. They generously volunteered their sheep for the workshop—a testament to their faith in Lorrie Reed’s ability as an instructor. Perhaps a quarter of the workshop’s participants brought any experience with them.
I had only one shearing story to share. It involved watching a couple of videos and giving our ram, Gimli, a peculiar, and enduring haircut. Unlike the proverbial bad haircut, two weeks was not near enough to grow out the mess I left behind. I approached the first of the Seib ewes with real trepidation.
Whether or not the trepidation was a factor I don’t know. But ewe number one emerged fleeceless and unharmed. I was decidedly slow at the task, taking perhaps 20 minutes to do a job the pros do in three or five. Reed and long-time shepherd Chris Eddy from the Yorkton area leapt in where I was clearly having trouble to point me back on the path. It was gratifying to see that a skill I had admired in so many people was within the realm of my ability.
There was only one problem. I was drenched in perspiration, I remained in a hunched position for some time after the ewe had run off, and I had managed to poke a stinging gash into my left index finger.
With no subtlety at all, I asked Reed the first question that came to mind: Why do you do this?
“I love it,” he said simply. “I love working with the people. It’s only for a few months a year but I really look forward to it.”
There is a certain buzz that gets going when a half-dozen shearers are at work and the long burlap bags begin to fill with wool. Empie Estehuyse and Russell Eddy, the youngest of our group at 16, kept a blistering pace. The 40-plus age group showed a greater tendency for breaks between ewes and stops for water and coffee. Given that I had only a dozen sheep to shear at home, I reasoned, I’m wasn’t going to push too hard. It was a logic of convenience, I admit, but so far it has worked out at home: I’m up to one sheep a day.
To learn more about Lorrie Reed’s annual shearing school contact the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board at 306-933-5200 or visit www.sksheep.com. Keep track of the Seib’s at Dog Tale Ranch through Arlette’s fantastic blog.