Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Goodness of Shearing Day

When I started raising sheep I had only three outside my rented cabin in Vermont. They arrived in the late summer with short coats and throughout the winter gained thick inches. As spring turned warm fast, I watched the wooly creatures hide from the sun in the shade of the pine trees or the small wooden 8x4 sheep shed I had provided for them. It was clear they needed a haircut and as a complete ovine novice I realized I had not lined up a shearer. So I did what I always do in times of farm need: check Craigslist.

I asked the Farm/Garden community who around the area was a quality sheep shearer who traveled. Not just one, but several strangers sent me Jim’s name and number along with high praise. I called the Vermonter, who lived near Rutland (about an hour north of my rental cabin in Sandgate) and left a message. I wasn’t sure anyone would travel an hour to give three sheep a buzz cut or what it would cost. I explained my need and prayed he’d call me back.

He did. And he explained that with small flocks like mine he would call me back when he had enough interest within the area. Coming all the way to my farm just to shear three sheep (at $6.50 a piece with a $25 flat farm visit fee) would cost as much in gas. So soon as enough locals flocks filled his dance card he would come to the farm and happily shear the two wethers and my surly ewe, Maude.

That first year having my own sheep shorn was beyond special. Understand I had spent years reading about sheep and sheepdogs and to finally be involved in that ageless agrarian act —even as a bystander—was so emotionally overwhelming I nearly teared up in front of Jim. I was certain wrestling with fat Sal in his lap was not as endearing to him. He’s a man who sees thousands of sheep a year. I couldn’t help it. I wiped my eyes when he wasn’t looking and made up something about having a possible lanolin allergy.

I was a girl who collected sheep books, contacted sheepdog trainers and breeders, attended workshops and classes and owned issues of SHEEP! Magazine before I ever had reason to call a sheep shearer. I imagine it’s how people who dreamed of their first horse when they finally had reason to call a farrier, something utilitarian but wonderfully specific.

I watched Jim do the work of shearing and helped where I could. IN this small a space with so few animals there wasn’t much to do beyond picking up the fleeces and carrying supplies. He was the one doing the holy work and I once again was busy as an altar server. Only this time I felt like the people in the pews, too. All of it was sacred to me now and I still got to participate with the adept.

And Jim certainly is adept with his shears. It takes him less than ten minutes to grab a sheep, flip it on its rump, shear the belly, sides, back and head with boot camp-ready buzz cuts and trim their hooves. This year I was more needed than usual, having to grab animals in the holding pen and take them over to Jim’s shearing platform outside the scrappy fences. Once he has them it isn’t long before the animals are shaved and set free of our clutches to commiserate with their flock mates on the hillside. Seeing them under the apple trees, their newly pedicured feet in the mud and moss, I have to remind myself they are the same animals. They look so foreign after so many months covered in wool I forget those black-and-white-speckled deer on the hillside are the same frumps I knew that morning.

It’s been five years now that Jim has come to Cold Antler to sheer sheep. This year, for our fifth anniversary, he had 11 sheep to shear and I had the most wool ever ready for the mill. This place has steadily grown since those first three sheep in a pen outside a rented cabin. It’s been quite the adventure getting here. I went from being a gung ho future sheepdog trial with an anglophile crush on British trials and breeders to someone trying to just make the mortgage on her own farm. I’ve been on this path of going from a beginner at a thing (raising and breeding sheep) to someone actually doing it, making it a part of my regular life. There have been mistakes, animals that died. But there have also been over fifteen sheep added to the world because of my work here, all of them used to better the farm and my life through barter and swapping. Now there are Cold Antler Farm blackfaces reaching as far north as Lake Placid and as far south as my friends at Common Sense Farm. That’s something to be proud of, that the breed lives on in a world bigger than my backyard. Sometimes I forget that.