In the Shearing Shed

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I am writing this from a hard plastic chair in South Australia. It’s night here, though only just. The sun sets around 5:00. It’s winter. We’re still wide awake, while all you folks in America are snug in your beds in summer.untitled (3 of 4)

Ethan is reading a book (imagine), and the only sound besides the creaking of his chair as he shifts is the eternal hum of the refrigerator.
We’ve been having a bit of rain lately, though not enough to make the Aussies happy. We live in our irrigation boots, which may or may not be the reason that my arches are shot so I feel like a crippled old woman. When it rains, the roads on the farm turn to slippery clay, impossible to drive on. Ethan was building fence recently and got the clay all over his pliers. It was like someone had greased them with 10w-30.

On Monday we assembled all the sheep on the farm into the yards (corrals, for all you yankees) and weaned the lambs off. Last month, we spent a good two days marking all the lambs, which entails ear-tagging, drenching, castrating the males, vaccinating, and putting a ring on the tail. By now, all but a few of the lambs have dropped their tails, except for the smallest.

One of the smallest ones is one that Phil and Michele have named Idaho, after we found him alone in a paddock. Ethan and I, unable to manage something as complicated as the name, “Idaho,” have resorted to simply calling him “Lambie”. Brilliant, I know. “Lambie” we first met when Ethan was out feeding the sheep and saw a lamb on the ground. He couldn’t stand or walk. His mum had left him when she realized that he couldn’t keep up, and he looked like he hadn’t had anything to eat for awhile.

Life immediately improved for Lambie after that first meeting. He was brought to the main house and wrapped in a towel with a hot water bottle. Michele taught us how to talk to him like his mother would, which is an odd sort of humming. Phil and Michele’s toddler, galloping into the kitchen, was enchanted at the sight of Lambie and wanted to let him know by poking at his eyes.

“At other farms,” Phil explained, “The sheep farmers don’t pick up the lambs they see by themselves. They just leave them out there.”

They explained how in previous years, they picked up all the lambs they found (sometimes as many as 100 in one year). When those lambs grew up, Phil and Michele noticed a marked difference in how flighty the entire flock was. Apparently, the bottle-fed lambs had been teaching all the others not to fear humans.

That was several weeks ago. Now “Lambie” is of substantial size, eating grass, barley, and a litre of milk a day.
“You’ll have to be out by 7:15,” Phil had told us, the day before the shearing, “The shearers will be here at 7:30 on the dot. The New Zealand boys are always on time.”

This meant that Ethan got a terrible night’s sleep because of me. The reason is this: When my routine wake-up time is messed with at all (even by fifteen minutes), it means that all night my brain is constantly going, “Is it time? It must be time by now! You’ve slept in, darn it!”
I woke Ethan up several times:

“It’s time to get up,” I said.
“No, it’s not time to get up. It’s the middle of the night. Look, it’s dark outside,” he said, very patiently.

Three hours later:
“It’s time to get up. It’s got to be past 6:00.”
“It’s still dark outside. Go back to sleep.”
The end result was that Ethan and I both got terrible sleep.

The shearers did not arrive at 7:30 “on the dot”. Turns out that their manager had totally forgotten about Phil’s sheep. He’d remembered every year for the past three years, so Phil didn’t see the need to remind him. It was 9:30 before a dusty station wagon pulled up to the shearing shed.

I’d expected buff, bearded kiwis, wearing wife beaters (do Kiwis wear wife-beaters?). They were nothing like I’d expected.untitled (1 of 4)

One of them looked to be a New Zealand islander. The other was an old man who looked very British, had no beard and hardly any hair to boot. They were wearing sweat pants and sweaters and flip flops (out here they call flip flops thongs. You can laugh if you like. The Aussies have to be real careful when they go to the States.). Both of them looked very tired.

America, do you know those thermals you’re wearing? Those socks? I know that you try to forget that they came from sheep…
It turns out, Merino isn’t just one breed but a collection of different strains. Peppin Merino, Saxon Merino, South Australian Merino, Spanish Merino. Each Merino strain is specifically suited to one of Australia’s varied climates. Being in South Australia, I’d imagine that we’d have the South Australian Merino. Yep, that wouldn’t surprise me.

A Merino ewe is fully shorn twice a year. Once shorn, the fleece is graded according to the diameter and length of the fibre. The best wool, added to cashmere and silk for fine clothing, has a diameter of 12.5 microns (0.0125 millimeters). The most coarse wool (remember that hat your Mom put on your head in the ’90s that gave you a rash?) has a diameter of 22.5 microns. It is an infinitesimal difference, but the difference could mean that you’d either wrap it around your infant, or scratch the rash on your forehead.¬†Currently, wool with a 16.5 micron fibre diameter is selling for 1471 cents a kilo.

Because some might regard shearing as an unnecessary evil, I’ll shed a little light on what would happen without it.
The first thing to happen to a Merino ewe left without shearing would be fly strike. Fly strike normally starts under the tail, where there is a lot of excess moisture. Flies land and lay their eggs there. The eggs hatch, and maggots begin to work their way into the sheep, under the wool. If the maggots don’t first kill the sheep from the outside in, the wool will eventually grow over the sheep’s eyes, leaving it quite susceptible to predators.

Ethan and I have been thinking about the possibility of adding lamb to the Alderspring menu. However, we’ll try to avoid Merinos. While a professional Aussie shearer could do 240 sheep before six o’clock, it would take us a week.
Also, a Merino ewe is often a lousy mother, which is another reason that if Ethan and I decide to do sheep, we will definitely choose another breed. Wilty Poll, anyone?
The shearers were crutching today, which meant shearing around the backside of the sheep to prevent that first stage of fly strike from happening. Currently, wool with a 16.5 micron fibre diameter is selling for 1471 cents a kilo.¬†Crutchings, needless to say, aren’t worth $14.71 a kilo.

Phil’s shearing shed is separated into two parts, part wood-slatted floor part solid wood floor. The sheep yards are over the slotted floor.
When the shearer wants a sheep, he goes through a swinging door into the yard, fetches out a sheep and drags it back to where his powered shears are waiting. Then he goes to town, following the contours of the sheep’s rear end. He has to hold the sheep still, and maintain control of his shears, which resemble a giant razor with a comb on it.

A few days earlier, while he was crutching one of his sheep, Phil had warned us about the dangers of shears. “They can rip your arm off,” he said. There is a rope that hangs right beside the shearer, that stops the shears, but if he can’t grab it in time, then he’s in trouble. Phil said, “There was one bloke who died from shears,” And I’m sure he wasn’t the only one, “Lost control, hit him right in the jugular. He bled to death in a shearing shed on a station in the middle of no where.”

Thankfully, neither Ethan and I were shearing. I was the rousebout, which means I was using a broom to sweep the crutchings away when the shearer headed back through the swinging door. Once I had it away from the shearer’s station, I had to sort it, which meant picking out all the crap with my fingers. I had gloves, thankfully. Some of it was mighty sticky. Don’t worry, I don’t think your yoga pants were made from crutchings. I don’t think.

I had to fly to keep up. Several times, I did not manage to get the picking and the fetching done before the shearer came back out of those swinging doors. The British-looking guy, Blackie, would just pull his new sheep through the last sheep’s wool and keep on trucking. Sometimes he’d even kick the wool toward me before he headed to get the next one, so it would be a little closer. Not as an insult, I hope.

But the other fellow, Max. Whew. He was a lot quieter than Blackie, and while during smoko (smoke-break, morning tea, et cetera) we managed to get a few words out of Blackie about where he lived in NZ and whether he missed home, Max never said two words. If he did, I didn’t understand them.

Blackie didn’t seem to mind my being a little late, but Max, on the other hand… There were a couple times that I didn’t quite get the old wool out of the way before he dragged his new sheep through the swinging door, and he never said anything. He never really waited. He never kicked the wool toward me. But I somehow got a very strong feeling that by not having that wool gone by the time he got there, I was violating some ancient Code of the Shearing Shed.

We took several breaks throughout the day. First there was smoko, where both the shearer’s sat down and had a cigarette and some tea. I can’t imagine those two go down well together, really. Then we stopped for lunch about two hours later, and the shearer’s had lunch and another cigarette. About two hours after that was another break, wherein it seemed time for another smoke. During those two breaks no one said a word, and Ethan and I laid back in two chairs and almost went to sleep. Man, it felt good to sit down.

I wondered what everyone was thinking, while it was quiet. Were the shearers thinking about NZ, and how cold it would be when they got back? From what Blackie said, it sounded like they’d almost rather be in Australia than New Zealand.
I watched them, wondering if their backs were hurting them (they both had slings suspended from the ceiling, so they could rest the majority of their weight in them). I thought that Blackie, sitting in a chair, wearing shearing shoes and smoking a cigarette, would be a good Norman Rockwell painting.

It would be called, The Shearer, and would be printed in the Saturday Evening Post, hung up on the wall in blue collar homes, and in the 21st century it would be in a memorial calendar like the kind friends of mine hang on their wall. Nobody would mind the cigarette. In Normal Rockwell paintings, everybody smokes.

By the time we finished the last ewe, my knees felt fossilized from crouching down. Ethan, who had been working the yards and helping me pick and fetch in turn, was worrying about whether he would get carpet-layers’ knee again.

Towards the end the shearers had been moving faster, maybe a little too fast. There were a few more nicks on the ewes from the shears. I felt bad for them, but Ethan said it probably doesn’t happen that often. Considering the number of ewes, they probably get nicked only once every few years.
Ned, the kelpie (did anyone know that kelpies are part dingo?), had been watching the sheep being crutched all day. He seemed very pleased that they were being put in such a submissive position. He helped himself to some select delicacies from the crap pile, then went to sleep on some fleeces in a corner of the shearing shed.

Ethan and I loaded up the “clean” wool–the wool that will someday be horse blankets and carpets–into the wool press. The shearers packed up all their gear and put their flip-flops back on and went out to their car. Phil had to give them some motor oil so they could get home. It turned out they had had none in their car. Ethan turned out the lights in the shearing shed.

There is more to learn. There’s terminology: who is the bloke that runs the yards? What are the shearing shoes called? Is there a different name for a sheep that’s been shorn vs. one that hasn’t? What do you call the sling? Is keeping the wool away the rousebout’s only task (no, Phil mentioned the rousebout is supposed to shut off the shears if anything goes wrong)? How much are the crutchings worth?

There’s technique: How does one shear a sheep? How do you keep the wool in one neat pile instead of spreading it all around? How do you keep your back straight so it doesn’t kill you? How do you grab the sheep out of the yards and drag it right so it doesn’t move?

There’s practice: How many years does it take before your hands know when to turn the shears? How do you find that shut-off rope whenever you need it? How do your muscles memorize the practice of pushing the button on the adder each time you walk through the swinging door? If you’re from New Zealand, how do you know the quickest way through customs (because you know that you’ll get your shearing stuff quarantined before they’ll let you into Australia)?

I thought about asking the British-looking bloke if there were any women who were shearers. I can picture her now: Mid-sized and muscled, skin browned by sun and old tattoos. Voice husky from cigarettes. Hair pulled away, away, and forgotten. Back bent beyond return. Hands large and skillful, fingernails painted to try to remember what it’s like to be a girl. Quiet, and tired.

Not that I’d want to be a shearer.

Comments

  1. Brenda Barker says:

    I felt like I was there in the shearing shed with you! great job – I can’t wait for more!!!

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