Sheep’s Wool. A Layperson’s View.

You could be forgiven if, like me, you considered sheep to be fluffy white clouds with legs that ate grass and had cute lambs dotted about the fields in the Irish countryside. Well that’s what I used to think, before I dated a sheep farmer! I don’t claim to be a knowledgeable sheep expert, but I have picked up a thing or two, and I find the some aspects of the sheep industry very interesting. Like wool!

Many non-farming people know sheep get shorn and logically assume it happens in the summer or just prior to it. But it also happens in the winter. Why says you (and me too)? Here at Waterfall Farm we shear the sheep in the winter when they come into the shed to have their lambs, around Christmas time. I know what you’re thinking. The winter? They’ll freeze! No, not so. With so many sheep in the shed they can actually get too warm in their full winter fleece and loose condition, which is not good for them or the lambs growing inside them. So they all get a short back and sides. This lack of wool encourages the ewes to eat vigorously which is great for their unborn lambs and ensures the ewes are in prime condition before launching into motherhood. Also the lack of wool makes more room in the shed for the ewes to move around each other and get at the feed trough more easily. As wool grows continuously, like hair, the ewes will have a nice comfortable covering of wool in no time.

Other reasons for shearing sheep are to prevent fly strike or maggots, which happens mainly in the summer. This is not pleasant! Flies lay their eggs in a damp patch of wool and these eggs then hatch into maggots. The horrible little maggots then eat into the sheep’s flesh and cause septicaemia and if left untreated can lead to death. Yuck, I know. But farmers are conscientious people, always having the well-being of their stock in mind and are quick to treat any fly strike.

If Michael doesn’t shear our Lleyn sheep George Graham, a champion sheep shearer, will shear them. He is very skilled, setting an Irish record in 1997 by shearing 483 sheep in nine hours! Sheep shearing is amazing to watch, I’d consider it an art really. It takes a lot of practice, concentration and skill to shear a sheep like George can. To start with you must have the sheep correctly positioned and make clean smooth strokes with the shears, which are extremely sharp. The sheep can be cut in the blink of an eye, even so you must get the blades in close to the skin. Its important to get the second wool (the wool underneath) with the first stroke so all the wool comes away on the fleece. The method takes a bit of explaining, the in’s and out’s of it are quite intricate. Later in the year Waterfall Farm will have a Sheep Shearing Demonstration, keep an eye on the blog for further details. To keep the wool clean the sheep are normally shorn on a wooden board or clean concrete floor. Any dirty wool will lower the fleece’s quality and value. An assistant will roll up the wool and put it into a large bale to be taken away by the buyer.

Is wool useful? What can be done with it? Well, many things, the obvious one is the Aran sweater! Wool is used for knitting, crochet, attic and acoustic insulation. You can make sportswear, suits, luxury clothes and tough outdoor wear, blankets, textiles and upholstery items out of it. I’ve seen footstools fashioned like little sheep and tourist trinkets and Christmas decorations made out of wool.  Different breeds of sheep, obvious as it sounds, have different types of wool and some breeds are more popular for their wool than others. For example Merino wool is found in loads of different items in shops all over New Zealand, and now the world. That is just one example, there are many more. Wool is a valuable commodity. When Michael’s grandfather, Charlie Keegan, was a young farmer he bought a car with his first ‘wool cheque’. Subsequent wool cheques were used to pay a farm labourer for the whole summer AND pay the household bills for the year! Then in more recent years in Ireland wool lost its value. The price that farmers received for the wool did not always cover the cost of paying someone to shear the sheep. But the sheep still have to be shorn. A catch twenty-two as they say. The good news is that prices have risen since about 2009, although they have taken a dip in 2012, I am an optimist and with so many uses for wool hopefully its value will continue to be recognised.

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