As summer temperatures begin to rise the local ranchers who raise sheep prepare for their semi-annual visit from the Shearer. The dense fleece that insulates the animals through the cold winter months has served its purpose well, but the hot days ahead necessitate a summer buzz cut. That’s when they call in the experts.
Sheep shearing is a skill best left to seasoned professionals who have made it their calling. These nomadic tradesmen work their way from ranch to ranch, moving their mobile sheep trailers with the seasons from the warm southern border areas of California to the cooler northern regions of the state.
I had never seen a Shearer in action, but I had heard stories about their prowess in the field. So when Stemple Creek Ranch owner Loren Poncia recently invited me to photograph a shearing team at work on his flock, I jumped at the chance.
By the time I arrive mid-morning the sheep trailer has been humming with activity for several hours. The Shearer’s day starts at 7:30AM sharp, and he has already finished a group of animals who are standing, dare I say sheepishly, along the fence line.
I pull through the gate and park near the holding corral where the flock is gathered. Impatient bleats pepper the air as each animal waits to file down a narrow shoot and up a ramp into the shearing shed. A sturdy ranch-hand saunters back and forth along the length of the channel, nudging the animals along to keep the production line flowing smoothly. Inside, the loud buzz of electric clippers signals the Shearer is hard at work.
I amble around to the rear of the trailer and peer inside the small wood structure. Sunlight streams in from the slatted sides, illuminating piles of freshly shorn fleece that lay strewn across the floor. To one side, a middle-aged woman busily shoves shorn pelts into a large pile and quickly separates the soiled, undesirable pieces from the lot.
She collects the remaining fleece and carries it to a mechanical “sacker” at the rear of the trailer where it is compressed into bags and sold to the local fibershed after a thorough washing.
At the rear interior of the trailer, the Shearer, a man in his late forties, has skillfully pinned a large sheep to the floor. His tank top is already soaked with sweat, and his muscular arms strain as he curves himself and the sheep into position. Man and animal are so tightly bound together it is difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. With each deliberate stroke of the shears he paces himself to minimize effort and conserve energy for the long day ahead.
Watching a good Shearer at his craft is a thing of beauty. It is hard, physically demanding work. I observe silently as he takes total command of the squirming 165 pound adult sheep, and nimbly maneuvers the animal while quickly stripping the thick fleece from its body. “Shearing is like a dance,” he explains thoughtfully as he pulls the next sheep from the chute. “You’re either a good dancer or you’re not.” Clearly, he is a masterful dancer. He occasionally talks to the sheep as he works, flowing in rhythm from one animal to the next like a maestro. His confident, purposeful moves are designed to get each animal in and out as quickly as possible.
Out of curiosity I time the process to see how long it takes. Unbelievably, he can shear an animal from tip to tail in less than two minutes! If that sounds impossible, check out this video I took of a single shearing:
By the end of this day he will shear about 100 sheep, but that’s a cake walk by his standards. His personal record in a single, nine-hour day is an impressive 585 sheep. For perspective, the current World Record, set in 2007 by New Zealander Rodney Sutton, is 721 sheep completed in the same amount of time.
For the most part, the sheep surrender themselves to the process. They know the drill. And their newly coiffed bodies will withstand the heat of summer much more comfortably. Liberated at last from their thick coats of fleece, the freshly shorn animals make a hasty exit from the shearing shed to rejoin nearby herd members with a little hop of relief.
One by one, the numbers in the holding corral dwindle as each animal emerges lighter and cooler on the other side. When this workday is finished, the shearing team will move their mobile trailer to the next ranch. They are accustomed to this routine and have embraced the transient lifestyle.
The ranchers send them on their way with gratitude, knowing they will return to repeat the dance again in the fall. I leave with a new appreciation and respect for the artistry of the Shearer.
Not baaaad for a day’s work!