Wovember Words: James Rebanks on Shearing Sheep

Today’s WOVEMBER WORDS come from James Rebanks whom many of you may know on Twitter as @herdyshepherd1. TEAM WOVEMBER have been following James for years now and his Twitter feed is surprising, delightful, educational and real. James published a book this year entitled ‘The Shepherd’s Life‘ which has been extremely well-received for its engaging depiction of life as a shepherd in the Lake District. Today for Harvesting Wool we share a section in which James describes the work involved in shearing sheep.

Dad’s T-shirt is wet with sweat. He straightens his back occasionally as if it aches. He catches the sheep from a pen, and turns it with a twist of the neck over her leg, on to its bum. A hand reaches up and pulls the shining rope that starts the motor. The other hand tucks the ewe’s leg behind his bum and picks up the clipper hand-piece. The stomach is clipped first, with a hand reaching down to protect the teats or the penis. Then wool on the back leg is opened out round to the tail and the backbone. The machine sweeps the fleece, with successive blows of the arm, from the sheep’s bodies. Dad is like a machine, the sheep sort of entranced by his movement, an all-consuming dance between him and the sheep. It is a carefully choreographed thing in which the sheep is turned, shuffled and rolled in clever purposeful ways so that each sweep of the shears takes a full comb of wool from the body, with that part of the body stretched safely so there are no vulnerable clefts of skin caught and cut by the shears. The ewes are ready for clipping, so the fleece rises from the skin, lifting away from the body with the comb of the eletcronic shears gathering it in and the cutter cutting it cleanly and neatly from the body. The ewe loses its fleece without stress, and is back with its lambs before it knows what is happening.

Dad could shear maybe two hundred sheep in a day. He wears moccasins sown out of a hessian wool bag and rough-stitched across the top of his feet. These help him to feel the sheep and to caress them around his legs to get the cutting comb full of wool without cutting loose folds of skin. You can clip in boots, but you lose the feel o fhte sheep and the flexibility needed to bend in all the right places.

His motor hangs from a ladder that is jammed between two rafters in the barn. From it hangs a drive-shaft that powers his hand-piece. which is silvery smooth from heavy use. Once or twice each summer, a ewe will struggle and be nicked by the clipping machine. My grandfather would sew the wound up if it were deep, with the thick needle he used to sew up the wool bags, or, if just a nip, he’d send me up the hay mew to gather cobwebs which he would then press on, helping the blood to coagulate and scab.

A few years later, when I was in my mid-teens, I learned how to clip from my father. It felt impossible. I was awkward and clumsy and the sheep felt as if it was fighting me. I had no stamina, and my feet were not moving when they should have. My kneww-bending, steps and rolling somehow not quite in sync, I couldn’t find the rhythm I needed. I tried to fight through it and it just got worse.

He was always faster and fitter than me.
I felt like giving up, walking away.
It is cruel work for men.
I got tired and the sheep felt it and fought the process.

But tough work knocks the silliness out of you when you grow up in places like ours. It teaches you to get tough, or get lost. Them that are all talk are soon found out, left sitting, feeling sorry for themselves, exhausted by mid-afternoon, whilst the older men are grafting away like they have only just started.

Dad would look across, mid-sheep, and ask if I was tired, a taunting question. I’d feel like punching him. I couldn’t keep up with him for years. I hated that, and fought it, and I got beat even worse. Later I stopped trying to race him. I found I was beating him sometimes. He got older. I’m not the fastest clipper around, but I’m not bad, I make a tidy job.

– James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life, published in 2015 by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, pp.28 – 30

Words © James Rebank and quoted from ‘The Shepherd’s Life’. Photos © James Rebank and embedded directly from his Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/herdyshepherd1

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This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

4 thoughts on “Wovember Words: James Rebanks on Shearing Sheep

  1. Such wonderful descriptive words…I smell the fresh wool. A perfect read as I prepare for a shearing this Sunday. I will be gathering in my flock into my barn Saturday, so they can get dry and their stomachs can be empty to ease their stress during shearing. The fall fleeces are the best and I have been eagerly awaiting this day so I can inspect, feel and fondle the freshly sworn wool. The process is not only a dance between shearer and sheep, but shepherd too as we keep the shearing platform swept, preparing and adding documentation to bags ready to receive the fleeces, getting ready any wormer or injections as needed…keeping the process moving smoothly. Yep..I smell the wool already.

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