There are a few times of the year when the animals on Coombe Farm can’t contain their excitement. As winter draws to an end and the cows come out of the barns to taste the first grass of spring, they love to kick up their heels. And when our newborn lambs find their feet they can’t resist leaping, bouncing and running races. For the ewes and rams, it’s at shearing time that they feel refreshed and full of new life.
Sheep have been domesticated for many thousands of years and over that lengthy period, they’ve been bred for meat, yes, but also for wool. It’s only relatively recently, with the mass-production of easy-to-wash synthetic fibres, that wool has become a by-product for sheep farmers. Before then, it was the primary fibre used in weaving and knitting. Whole cities were built on wool processing and many vast fortunes were made.
To maximise wool yields and improve its quality over the generations, sheep were selectively bred. That resulted in different breeds having different types of fleece suited to spinning and knitting, felting and weaving. It also means that sheep are genetically programmed to produce a lot of wool.
Because wool is no longer so lucrative, a few farmers breed and rear flocks that shed their own fleeces – much as dogs moult to discard their winter coats. But the vast majority of sheep need to be sheared every year. In many instances, the cost of shearing is broadly the same as the value of the raw wool, so shearing is now as much a welfare issue as it is a commercial activity.
Here at Coombe Farm, we like to see our sheep sheared in the late spring. By that time the cold, wet weather has generally passed but pests and parasites haven’t started multiplying. It’s vital that every sheep has its fleece clipped at least once a year. It relieves the animal of the weight of the wool (an average fleece tips the scales at about 3kg, though some breeds produce far more), keeps them cool (wool has extraordinary insulation properties so is very hot on the animal in summer) and prevents parasitic infestation.
One of the biggest welfare issues that concerns sheep farmers during warm weather is flies. If flies lay their eggs in a dirty fleece, when the maggots hatch they’ll eat into the skin and flesh of the host sheep, leading to infection and – without treatment – death. With the fleece removed, ‘fly strike’ is much easier to spot and happens far less often.
The shearing process itself, when carried out by an experienced and professional shearer, is quick and painless for the sheep, taking only a couple of minutes per animal. The shearer follows a set clipping pattern, using the minimum number of strokes and aiming to remove the fleece is almost a single piece. A significant part of the shearer’s skill is in holding the sheep so it stays still while keeping the skin tight to allow the clippers to run close. Being quick but not rushing is important to avoid nicking the skin, though it is inevitable that occasional superficial scrapes – akin to shaving cuts – will happen. These are immediately sprayed with antiseptic.
After their fleeces are off, the sheep’s exposed skin immediately starts to thicken and produce lanolin. This helps to fend off chills. It’s important that we make sure they’re not immediately put out into a very exposed field and we give them lush pasture so they have plenty to energy to keep them warm as they acclimatise.
In years when we have very hot weather (like the summer of 2018), the relief felt by the sheep when they have their wool removed is almost palpable. It means they stay cool and relaxed and we can keep a close eye on their condition and well-being through the summer as they graze our meadows with their lambs at foot.