“Watching the Lesotho shearers is like poetry; they are so relaxed they have no physicality to them at all…their hands simply float over the sheep and the wool falls off.”
This is not the only comparison made today between sheep shearing and what would generally be considered an altogether more classical art form. Andy Wear, shepherd and master shearer as well as our tutor for today’s Introduction to Blade Shearing workshop, owns and runs Fernhill Farm together with his partner Jen Hunter, animal husbandry specialist and current Nuffield Farming Scholar for her research into wool. The pair have created a unique farm, combining traditional farming (including 2000 head of sheep, cattle, pigs and chickens) with modern diversification (eco-venue for weddings & conferences, rural education, glamping, music festivals) while doing it all in as a sustainable way as possible. Not, as Andy says, because they feel like they need to, but because it simply makes sense.
The day begins with a farm ‘walk and talk’ – more an in-depth tour of Fernhill and everything that is amazing about it. Which is a lot. From the sheep – and we were there mid-lambing, to the willow reed-bed filtration system, the polytunnel and rural education projects they are working on, dry-stone wall conservation and restoration of historic stone buildings. We arrived back to the shearing shed/lambing barn for a brew and a shearing demonstration by Andy using just about the biggest sheep (a prize-winning Polled Dorset ram) that any of us had ever seen. A look of consternation begins to spread across everyone’s faces.
As Andy talks us through the process of how to prepare our blades – bending them, smoothing any burrs, checking their line, customising finger guards and straps..I’m reminded of the way ballet dancers ‘break in’ each new of pointe shoes – bashing them about, even taking a razor to them, to make them more comfortable and give themselves greater grip. And sheep shearing is, without doubt, another form of dance.
Photograph by Alex Ingram Photography, 2014.
The expert shearer must have energy, strength and endurance, yet be completely flexible and relaxed at the same time; able to absorb the energy of the sheep without fighting against it, and transfer the weight of the animal around in artful, seamless movements without ever giving it reason, or opportunity, to struggle. For a learner it can take an immense effort to coordinate oneself, sheep and blades, yet watching an expert it seems perfectly choreographed. The secret to this, Andy emphasises time and again, is in staying relaxed. Andy lines up the group behind him, each with a sheep, and has them copy his moves step by step..just as if teaching a dance, together with the the direction of each ‘blow’ (stroke with the blades)…blow by blow.
His other secret is in the footwork: Andy controls the sheep he is shearing by gently applying pressure with his feet, calves and knees, manoeuvring the sheep by using it’s weight and centre of gravity in balance with his own. Its beautiful, seemingly effortless and not entirely dissimilar to a martial art. Indeed; in Wing Chun kung fu the primary stance for ultimate balance is the ‘goat stance,’ while another position is called ‘gripping the goat.’
The shearer even has his own kind of dance shoe: the shearing moccasin.
A shearer of over 30 years, though one who still professes to be learning, Andy has travelled the globe with his blades, competed internationally and (if he really wanted to) could shear around 300 in a day. The world record holders can shear over 500..but thats with mechanical blades, an altogether noisier, more stressful experience for everyone involved, and as Andy believes, not so good for the fleece either. Today’s group, comprising local biodynamic farmers, a vet, hobby farmer, future textile student and ethical restauranteur, all here for different reasons, each managed one in 40 minutes….not bad considering the look of horror on most of their faces as it dawned on them what they had let themselves in for. We even got one throwable fleece – one that is shorn off in a single piece.
While BTQ began facilitating these workshops in order to provide textile workers (be they students or professionals) with unique, immersive opportunities to learn direct from the animals and farmers who grow our best textile fibres in the UK…it is evident that learning these skills has the capacity to teach so much more. Confidence and self-esteem spring to mind; everyone in the group was surprised by what they managed to achieve in so short a time…but also care, trust and mindfulness. Sheep, like many animals, will mirror your own energy and attitude, and can excellently reflect how you come across to others: “treat them as you would want to be treated yourself,” Andy began, right back at the beginning of the day. Credit to our novice shearers (or perhaps the sheep have been here before) they might not have been the Royal Ballet, but wouldn’t have faired too badly at all at the local village dance.
BTQ can organise blade shearing, wool craft and other immersive learning days at Fernhill Farm tailored toward just about any kind of group..from schools to university students and community groups, even corporate, team-building and family days out.