We have just shorn our sheep. Shearing in winter? Are you mad? Surely the sheep will be cold? I can hear you say.
Well, actually, no. They’re not. We use special “cold weather” cutters which leave a few mm of wool behind so they don’t get cold. They look like they’re wearing pyjamas – not naked. They also have a HUGE bed of deep straw, a cosy shed and 3 good meals a day of top quality sheep food so they are absolutely fine.
Why do we shear in winter? Many farmers in the UK winter shear because they like to keep their animals inside to get them out of the cold and wet. If farmers have the inside space it makes sense for the animals and the humans who look after them. It also gives the ground outside a rest. But if sheep have a thick winter coat on and then come into a relatively warm, cosy barn, they get over-heated. Imagine sitting in a hot room with one of Finisterre’s fantastic jackets on and you will understand. Shearing means they are much more comfortable.
This year we have a new shearer. Our beloved Raymond has finally decided to slow down and give up so Ross has joined us. Ross is a young man who shears many thousands of sheep each year, but this is his first Merino flock. The technique is a bit different and it takes a little longer, but he and the sheep have got along just fine. Ross takes off a fleece and while doing so, takes a special piece out for me to send for quality testing in a laboratory. The remaining fleece is then weighed. Every sheep has the wool weight recorded against its ear tag number and we do a quick visual check on some key points of wool quality. After 10 years I have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking at but the samples I send off to the lab are our main source of info. Guesswork is not good enough when you are working hard to produce top quality Merino.
Winter shearing also means we can keep a very close eye on body condition. Judging how fat or thin a sheep is can be really difficult in a full grown, thick Merino fleece. The sheep are pregnant right now and it’s very important that they receive the right amount and type of food. They need to be “fit not fat” for lambing so they give birth to lively lambs that are up and suckling really fast. Too fat or too thin are both bad news so we have to try our best to get them just right.
A couple of weeks ago, we vaccinated the sheep with their annual booster against the common nasty diseases. That booster will keep the sheep and her new lambs safe. I have also just been on my annual Lambing Refresher Course for experienced shepherds. Every lamb delivery is different and knowing how to help efficiently and safely is critical, particularly at 3am in the morning. You can never know everything and each year I learn something either from the vet running the course or another shepherd there with me.
Now it’s a waiting game. Every day I go in the sheep pens, walking slowly through the pregnant mums so they are used to me being very close by. Sheep are naturally flighty and keeping them calm when a person has to get close to help them is very important. I talk quietly to them all the time until they ignore me and resume whatever they were doing. They know and trust me so it doesn’t take long.
Lambing pens go up at the weekend and then, that’s it. Get as much rest as possible, bake some cakes, prepare my “emergencies” kit, then sit and wait. The first lamb will appear soon enough!