WILD 'N' WOOLLY COOPWORTHS & WILDLIFE
Sheep Shearers: An Endangered Species--Their Art, Their Zen
by E. Hope Allen Yankey, appearing in The Shepherd, Vol. 46, No. 5, May 2001
I wrote this article before I had the distinct pleasure of spending the day with blade = hand shearer, Kevin Ford. I "machine" shear. David DeLamater, friend and part-time sheep shearer "machine" shears—David Todd, the one and only professional, full-time shearer in the state of Maryland, "machine" shears. They are equipped with downshaft and handpiece apparatuses. I learned to shear using the heavier, more cumbersome electric Oster shearmaster clippers. Perhaps, I would have blade = hand sheared all these 20+ years had I learned from Kevin Ford. I did use blades the year I visited New Zealand and watched someone there shear several sheep with blades. I sheared my 13 ewe lambs that fall with a set of blades I purchased from Nasco. I did nothing to them, except start shearing. (I taught myself to crutch and "spot-shear" udders and bellies using the smaller hand trimming shears you so often see "show" folks using to block sheep at the fairs and shows.) I enjoyed not having to set up in the barn, to have sheep penned, have electricity and electrical cords, heavy machine clippers and several sets of sharpened combs and cutters, but I wasn't as proficient a blade shearer as I was a machine shearer. I blamed it on the blades—they weren't very sharp, I thought. Nor did I think shearing left-handed with right-handed blades worked. I was pleased to leave an inch or so fleece growth on the sheep as we were heading into winter and my sheep are not housed unless it is very cold and snowy, wet or raining. Nonetheless, I wasn't sure that I would ever do more blade shearing until now! Kevin explained to me the "set of the blades'' and how important the sharpening techniques are in making blade shearing no more uncomfortable than machine shearing, especially, if you're using the heavier handheld Oster machine shears and not a handpiece and downshaft apparatus. It is not the strength of one's hands, I now understand, but the set and sharpness of the blades that help determine the ability to use them. My comments below still hold regarding this article, but I will, in the future, modify shearing my sheep and include crutching with blades, and perhaps once more shear ewe lambs one or two a day in early fall. I like the idea of just grabbing the blades, a sheet upon which to set the lambs and lay the fleece, and a jug of water to quench my thirst and keep the blades clean. It's more flexible, less noisy, and less cumbersome. Were I a sheep, I might not so quickly attempt escape were someone to come at me with blade shears as I so often comment I would do were someone to come at me with electric ones. Kevin, Thank You! I am looking forward to writing a review of your book, Shearing Day, which I think any and all who use coffee, end, and kitchen tables as desks would be pleased to own, read, and display.
Now, to the Art and Zen of Sheep Shearing…I have exclusively farmed (and owned sheep) since 1983. Before that, I had only assisted an older man, a real West Virginia mountain shepherd, rightfully dubbed an "old timer'' (a man the age of my father), on weekends and during my VACATIONS (yes, during my time off from work as an industrial dye chemist) with his flock of 100+ Columbia and Western ewes…and his herd of 40+ Angus and Charollais cattle. His name: Bruce Lambert of Wymer, West Virginia...Bruce taught me to shear sheep. My first lesson took place on a Monday in May of 1979, a very cool Monday "May-Day" at the end of lambing season—I David Todd at work on his shearing stand.
sheared my first sheep (victim) with neither speed nor skill, and it would be an outright lie if I told you that shearing was easy to learn, "child's play," as some would say. I must have enjoyed it, nevertheless because (…to Bruce's dismay and delight), I showed up the very next day for Lesson #2. I hoped Lesson #2 would mean that Bruce would further demonstrate this "age-old" art, explore the finesse and improved techniques of modern day sheepshearing, but, we just simply sheared MORE sheep—I remember it well. I was on vacation and had planned to take a trip to the beach. Instead I had come back to Elkins to the ever so beautiful spring-laden mountains of West Virginia for the week. (I owned a small house there on the outskirts of town.) I dressed in overalls, rather than a bathing suit and shorts, and joined Bruce and Rover, his Border Collie, at his home in Wymer at 6 am. Monday morning (mind you, I had to drive 17 miles east from Elkins to Wymer in the opposite direction of the Beverly farm where the sheep were). We then drove to Bruce's farm in Beverly nine miles south of Elkins where he kept his sheep and cattle during the winter months, clear through birthing the cows and ewes into May or early June. It made sense to me to apprentice myself to someone who'd been "at it" more than 35 years so I could learn how, when, and where to "do" sheep—shearing, included. Books can tell you how, but only experience can teach you! Bruce's idea, however, of teaching me to shear was unique in contrast to the methods shearing instructors use during shearing schools as offered around the country…I think he was just plain glad to have help—any help, actually. Bruce lambed out and sheared all 100+ ewes himself. (His son, "Little Bruce," who is my age, but not much for farming, however, helped when he was home, but I think he chose to work "away" then—clear on the other side of West Virginia.) Normally, Bruce stuffed all 100+ fleeces into those huge burlap sack(s) used to pack grease wool for the Wool Pool sales…He'd hang the bags from planks set among the barn rafters, climb a homemade ladder, crawl inside the sack, and pack the wool.
Shearing and lambing season went hand in hand—so from time to time, we had to check the ewes in case one or more decided to lamb [I began to see lambing in quite a different light those days, watching and wanting ewes to simply push their little one(s) "out-the-back-door," sending them from "within" to "without" hopefully, with ease and finesse, and, most definitely, with little or no human intervention.] That first day I helped, by the time we'd fed and checked and lambed a few ewes and set up to do the day's shearing, it was nearing noon…Bruce suggested we eat lunch first. Hazel, his wife, fixed lunch and snacks for us both, since the Beverly farm was a 30 mile drive from their home and Post Office/Country Store in Wymer, which given the time of year, the weather very unpredictable to say the least, could mean a two hour drive.
Shearing Lesson #1: Bruce grabbed a ewe and sheared the first sheep (victim) of the year. I watched and took mental notes. He had no training in either the New Zealand or Australian methods of handling sheep and techniques of sheepshearing, but, nevertheless, appeared to do a fine job of removing, with some degree of finesse, I might add, all the wool from the belly, legs, head, and body of this first ewe he'd selected to shear. It was the first sheep I'd ever watched being shorn "up close and personal." It was 1979…I was just shy of turning 30! Bruce was a year or so older than my father—67 or 68, as I recall. So, why would I not shear sheep—I was younger and at least as stubborn, so I'd been told? Besides, I was and am one of those "hands-on" individuals and would eventually want to "do it all"—worm, trim hooves, vaccinate, shear, and lamb out my own sheep. And, I was certainly stronger than most women I knew, and, more importantly, not afraid to get down and dirty. When Bruce got done shearing, he handed me the fleece and told me to climb the ladder and stuff the fleece in the bag…so, I did it. Then, he handed me the clippers, grabbed a sheep, helped me set her down, and said, "Okay, Hope, Your Turn!" I was nervous, but determined. He guided me verbally with words of wisdom and kindness and i got through it…Amazed, yes, but I did NOT "nick," deeply cut, or maim that ewe, MY FIRST VICTIM (for which I am grateful to the Shearing Gods)…for, if I had, I just might have "thrown in the towel'' right then and there—not because I am squeamish, but, because I would have hated it then just as I still hate it now when I nick 'em…it makes me feel bad, like I am the one cut, even if it's a mere skin abrasion. I was so lucky starting out, to have chosen to help a farmer who actually sheared his own sheep…I would surmise that less than 10% of all the sheep producers I have known since that time and know currently shear their own sheep! WHY? It is hard work…It is dirty work…It is sometimes "four-letter" words, self- explicative, those-you-shouldn't-say-words "sorta" work. It is grueling, back-breaking, Herculean work…But, of course, somebody's got to do it, and there are those of us who have chosen, whether professionally or for the shear hell of it, again, because "somebody's got to do it," to become the WORLD'S SHEEPSHEARING ARTISTS * ZEN MASTERS * and PROFESSIONALS!
Sheepshearing is more than just an everyday shepherd's chore. It is, in essence, an art, a skill, a zen event that not everyone wants to do or can do or will do. It involves commitment and technique and the purchase and upkeep of professional equipment. It means getting "down and dirty!" With the exception of those who raise the "hair" sheep that look like and approximate goats, and, solely or soulfully, defy what defines "sheepness" (sorry, but sheep without wool???)…an exception, I realize, which expresses MY PERSONAL OPINION (AND I EXPECT NOT EVERYONE TO
AGREE WITH ME ON THIS!!)
All shepherds must either shear or find someone who will shear their sheep! Sheep need to be shorn…wool will continue to grow, shedding and dreadlocking = felting will occur with heat and humidity, hormones will stimulate the annual growth and production of new wool fibers…think what it would be like if we humans never bothered to comb, cut, or trim our hair and beards!
THE QUESTION WE SHEPHERDS
MUST ASK OURSELVES?:
TO SHEAR OR NOT TO SHEAR
Hope and Bev table shearing a Coopworth ewe.
So. why did I choose "TO SHEAR?" Why did I take that first fleece I'd sheared that nice spring day back in 1979, with Bruce watching and guiding me, "cheering-me-on," and climb that ladder, stuffing both his and my freshly shorn fleeces at the bottom of the wool sack, climb back out six feet, grab another ewe, and begin the process once more??? Well. because it needed to be done! I am reminded of the movie Karate Kid when I think of what it is like to shear—the concentration, the "art" that takes over once the technique, although not totally mastered, is learned...at best continuously perfecting in your mind and you and the sheep's body as you shear, clippers gliding ever so graciously, under control, blades and cutters in motion, setting the stage for regrowth and the continuation of the process, the production of wool, the raising of sheep, sheep that define "sheepness.'' You become the arm that holds the blades, the combs and cutters, that cut the wool and you are "one" with the process and the product of your efforts.
Personally, I had decided from the beginning that I would be the one to "handle" my sheep, when the day came, to shear them-to know the wool as it came off each and every sheep that I might learn from them what defined crimp, color, evenness, britchiness, tippy-ness, bulk, loft, yolk, medullation etc. Not everyone shears for that reason-some shearers are literally and physically born to it, some shear to make money, making it their profession, some do it just because they learned when they were young and see it as a challenge to continue doing it later in life (perhaps, they even grow to like shearing—now, that's a scary thought), and some shear because no one else in their immediate sheep-producing family would or did or could and, as I said previously, SHEEP NEED TO BE SHORN—Bruce did it because it was hard to find anyone to come to Beverly or Wymer and shear his sheep even back when there were thousands more sheep in West Virginia than there are now...and he needed it done! He told me he felt proud when lambing season was over and he himself was done with shearing and could turn the ewes with lambs out to pasture. (I now know that feeling myself! It's a fine one, it is!) Bruce taught me to have respect and foresight when shearing, he had me handle the sheep with care, and look them over mindfully to assess their value within the flock at shearing time…MIND YOU, AN EXCELLENT PRACTICE! The ones who fight are always the ones you WANT to put at the head of the cull list, but often, they are the most productive, best wooled, and most statuesque of the lot! (Murphy's Law).
At any rate, Bruce and I sheared 20+ sheep in those first two days, shearing 1979; we lambed out several ewes and tucked them away at dusk, sorted and stuffed wool until dark, then headed back across the mountain to a warm meal with his wife, postmistress and storekeeper, Hazel. I will never forget that experience—Later that year, I took a two-day shearing course with a middle-aged gentleman, a "professional" sheepshearing master, whose name was "Hutch" (Dick Hutchinson, I believe, from Morgantown, West Virginia). I learned from him the more correct posturing to use when shearing sheep "Australian Fashion"—nevertheless, he remarked at my ability and asked if I had sheared sheep before his class. I was pleased and quite proud to have told him, yes, I had learned from Bruce Lambert just recently—that he and I had sheared his flock of 100+ ewes! I think now that it would be interesting to know if any of the 10+ young men (4-Her's and FFAer's, as I recall) who attended the course still have anything to do with sheep and/or sheepshearing today…I know my friend, Phyllis, who came with me that day to the shearing school, is no longer involved in sheep or sheepshearing—she gave it up ten or so years ago to pursue other interests. Not everyone is cut of the mold to be a shearer (or a shepherd)...but certainly anyone with sheep should try and shear just ONE sheep—just ONCE! Perhaps, then, we who do shear would be more appreciated and better paid, and/or much praised for having chosen to do so...whether we shear our own or someone else's sheep (maybe even yours)!!!
I got my first sheep from Bruce in 1983—five bred ewes. They had ten lambs among them—all lived, one was a set of triplets from a ewe who always without exception had triplets (and raised them). I sheared all five sheep that first year (It took me days!) and the increasing flock of 20+, then 40+ ewes the next several years. Then, one year, my husband suggested we hire a neighbor and good friend of his, who also had a 65+ ewe flock of his own, to shear for us. Billy sheared the way he had learned from his grandfather, "on a table," and even more importantly to my way of thinking, he sheared lefthanded like me. My husband thought it best if I left the shearing to someone else…it was just too hard physically, he felt. Bev had only helped catch sheep and stuff wool in sacks when his father's and grandfathers' (both grandfathers') flocks were shorn when he was a boy at home long before I entered the picture and we got into the sheep business ourselves—Shearing is hard on your back and your body, so I agreed to let Billy shear our sheep, but only if I could shear alongside him as well. Billy came…and Billy sheared "his way'' and he taught me to shear "his way," the way he'd learned from his grandfather—on a table where you lift the sheep up, onto a low table (or platform of old boards nailed together like a door, set across two saw horses roughly 30 inches off the ground); then lay them on their one side, feet facing you, holding them quietly in place by a leather collar around their neck, legs hobbled if necessary; you shear the one side, then flip them (set them on their butt and shift them to face the opposite side of the table), and shear the other side. It certainly saves the shearer's back. (The only drawback is that you must have another person there to help you lift the sheep onto the table.) In New Zealand I visited a fellow who designed a rather unique piece of equipment called the Moffet apparatus designed to allow sheep to be shorn in this fashion. It, in fact, could be operated by one individual—the sheep walked a concourse which put them on the same level as the Moffet table, which rotated when the shearer pumped the foot petal that drove the flywheel that rotated the table which made the sheep roll from one side to the opposite side while being shorn—WOW! Don't know how many of them were sold, but I will admit it was a pretty ingenious set up. Guess I'll just depend on Bev to be there for me when shearing time rolls around!!! You might think it is “hard” on the sheep to shear them lying down, but often the fat, even pregnant ewes, take it to mean Siesta Time is here and SLEEP while being ''fleeced'' of their woolly coat. Funny, but the rams always seem to love it. “Handsome Man,” our one old ram, sleeps so soundly when we shear him that it wakes him up when we roll him from side to side…Mind you, some sheep will fight, but no matter what method you chose when shearing sheep, some sheep will fight….“to keep not keep their annual fleecey growth, and that is the question…of course, were someone to come at me with BUZZING CLIPPERS, reminiscence of sly, slithering, singing alligators of which sheep learn nightmares are made, I'd fight like hell! I'd be in the next country before anyone had time to think of putting me flat on my butt, laid out on a table, head strapped or not strapped in a trimming stand, to have my fleece removed! At any rate, that was the first and last year Billy helped us shear. I caught on quickly, lefthanded and all…and from then until now, I (have) insist(ed) I be the one to shear all our sheep…we've got the equipment, I've more or less mastered “A'' technique, and l absolutely love the feeling of autonomy, the experience of shearing my each and every ewe and ram in our flock. With our wool business, too, I am able to sort and skid and select as I go which fleece will best suit a particular end use—and which sheep will best suit our breeding program to enhance both lamb and wool production. Bev's a great "roussie"—he catches the sheep, brings them to me, helps get them on the table, holds their head and assures them I don't intend to do them harm, removes them from the area, takes fleece samples, weighs the belly and skirted wool, boxes weighs the ''good'' fleece, and starts the process all over again until all 100+ Wild “n'' Woolly sheep are shorn for the year…I cannot afford to have him to do the shearing. I'd lose my job and my hard earned status as Shepherd/Shearer/Sheep-Shaman Extraordinaire! Worst of all, I'd lose my “roussie”!!
If you have no one to teach you regular shearing skills or if you have a bad back, try bench or table shearing.
I have never offered to shear anyone else's sheep—I was (and still am) too slow and conscientious of the slightest “nick.'' It takes me 8-10 minutes to shear my long wooled ewes and rams, but, then I “skirt” as I shear…shearing in those early years for me meant usually shearing no more than 25 to 30 sheep a season—hardly enough to get the practice needed to make me a professional. I estimate (and was told by David DeLamater who said of Maryland Shearing School instructors, David Greene and Richard Barczewski) that it takes roughly 1,000 sheep to make a shearer a shearer, whether all 1,000 are sheared in one month, one year, or ten years! (That's like saying it takes 1,000 hours riding a horse to really have one "broken," whether it takes one month, one year, or ten to do it!) David Todd says it takes 20,000 sheep shorn or two years in New Zealand shearing 100+ everyday to make a professional shearer! As for me, I am just now getting to the point that I am comfortable with my shearing ability…I have sheared roughly 3,000 sheep over 20 years…I can (do) and have sheared sheep using any one of the many methods written and not written about—the Australian/New Zealand method, my favorite "Moffett" like stance—on a table…I have also sheared sheep standing on all four feet in or on a trimming stand, otherwise standing on the ground, held by a friend or with its neck strapped in a head stanchion, and with electric and with hand clippers (as mentioned earlier)…Yes, I am one of those crazy people that just likes to do it…I can do it…I do do it…But, don't ask me, if I were to just now at 50+ years of age start a shearing course to learn to shear sheep, whether I would venture to do so??? I might not! At this stage in my life, I'd probably say…"Best left to the Professionals!"
Which, My Friends, Brings Me to This Next Discussion: The Art, Zen, and Extinction of the Professional Sheep Shearer…
Our Wild 'n' Woolly Coopworth booth display at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is next "door" to David Todd's Shearing Stand. David is the ONLY Professional Sheep Shearer I know—he says he is the only professional sheep sheared in the state of Maryland currently (Several sheep shearers still reside in western Pennsylvania; Virginia's Tom Forrester is 72 now and as far as I know he's still at it; All the West Virginia shearers have, however, retired or taken a back seat) Anyway, it is so inspiring and so impressive to watch David Todd and other professionals shear…what finesse, what technique, what SPEED, what ease…Why Can't I Do That? Whether or not you have ever sheared sheep, just watching someone shear you can recognize and appreciate the ART, the experience, the years of working both body and mind, the practice, the ZEN…of sheepshearing!! Where did David learn? How many sheep has he shorn? Why does he still do it? I'll share with you the answers both he and a mutual friend, David DeLamater another very talented sheared, gave me when asked. David DeLamater is the sheared many will recognize from both the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival contests and demonstrations, the Maryland
Wool Pool, the Fall Fiber Fest at Montpelier, Virginia, and other activities across the east.
There are fewer and fewer shearers like the two Davids…but then, there are fewer and fewer sheep…and, there are fewer and fewer shepherds. The good old days are gone…The numbers of sheep, shepherds, and shearers in the U.S. continue to decline at an alarming rate. It's not so easy to find someone to shear these days. Wool prices have bottomed out…when and if the lower grade, meat breed wools can be sold, often the price is not enough to pay a sheared to come to your farm and shear your sheep…it may not indeed be worth offering the wool as well as payment to the sheared either! In the old days, everyone with a few acres and a barnyard had a few sheep and made money with them…one fellow with whom we make hay says he bought three of the many farms he owns with sheep money…he
sheared his sheep himself "back when," but in recent years hired someone else, someone like the two Davids, to do it for him…he keeps around 30 ewes, but complains that they make him no money now…paying to have them sheared is part of the problem. It costs $3-$3.50 per head this year to get them sheared, where ten years ago, it would only have cost him $1.75 per head maximum. Wool Pools could NOT find a buyer for their wools in 2000—I take that back: West Virginia's Wool Pool was eventually offered and accepted $.22 per pound. That means earning no more than $1.10-$1.50 per fleece per sheep for most West Virginia breeds and, folks, that didn't pay the shearer! There is no profit in wool production unless, of course, you market your wool directly to spinners and crafters. Ten years ago, Wool Pools were paid $.80-$1 per pound for grease meat breed wools. Producers also received a parity payment, an incremental sum of approximately 150% of the price received for that year, the Wool Incentive payment…eliminated in 1994, now there is no parity in pricing wool domestically, much less internationally! As I predicted some five years ago, for this year, 2001, most producers will choose to dump their wool in the trash or if they can talk their shearer into taking it with him, have him haul it away. Now I know this doesn't speak to everyone, myself included. There are those of us who raise sheep for their wool and have worked very hard to either use, i.e., consume all the wool we produce, or sell it to others who use or consume all that we sell…and we gleefully shear or pay to have our sheep shorn each year with little or no grumbling as to costs, scheduling, etc, Nevertheless, this is the story of the sheep shearer's extinction…the story of the professionals who are no more, who have given up the art and Zen mastership of shearing sheep for a living, who want nothing more to do with lanolin and long wool, sweat and saint, manure and muck, combs and cutters, downshafts and dags…sheep no more, they say! Not David Todd, not David DeLamater—they’re still hanging in there, shearing for those producers who need them-small and/or large operators, needing to shear long and short wooled sheep, meat breed and wool breed sheep, purebred and commercial flocks…for one, for all! What they ask is that producers understand their profession, respect their position…today's shearers bring to mind the "Last of the Mohicans.'' They are fast becoming the "Last of the Sheep Shear Masters Extraordinaire''…Few full-time professional shearers exist across the eastern U.S. particularly…and there are less and less everywhere. Again, David Todd says he knows of no other professional full-time shearers in the state of Maryland. Ten years ago, there were 2,500 sheep in our little West Virginia mountain valley, alone, and ten or so professional shearers to call upon-for potentially getting a flock of sheep, small or large, sheared each spring…today, there are less than 500 sheep and many of the "backyard sheepraisers'' are calling me to ask if I would shear! Our friend, Billy, is still shearing some, but he shears very few sheep other than his own--he's not any younger and the guys that helped him in years' past are even older.
Billy, like my husband, Bev, and myself are past the half-century mark. Of the many young men I know in their teens and twenties who grew up around sheep, helping fathers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts, neighbors and friends, only two shear…and they prefer not to shear sheep other than the ones their families raise. Other than his 20 ewes and the 120+ ewes in his dad's flock, Billy's son, Jeremy, shears only one other neighboring flock of 12 ewes. The two younger women friends of mine, Martha and Joy, who are both thirty something shear out of necessity and in response to the need for fitting their purebred sheep for competitive showing. I'm not sure either they or I could make a living shearing sheep these days any more than we could pay for a farm raising sheep. David Todd attempts to…and so far, he is able to make a go of it, but he's traveling several hundred mites, over several states, each week. Both Davids travel many mites up and down the mid Atlantic states, shearing five sheep here, five there, and ten somewhere else…there are few farms in the east that have more than 20 sheep per flock. Some have one sheep, some have 50, a few 100-200, but less than 5% have more than that now. The largest flock David Todd shears is a 2,200 ewe research flock—that is the exception in today's eastern U.S. sheep operations. If you were to acquire the skills to shear at least 120 per day (as David Todd had), you might do okay in Texas or the Western states, better yet New Zealand and Australia, but even there, the numbers of sheep and sheep farmers are declining steadily. And, likewise, the numbers of sheep shearers! I once thought it would be a great way for a young person, man or woman, to earn extra money…maybe even work their way "cross country." Today, though, you'd need a good working Border Collie, at least one helpful human, a decent running pickup truck, several good sets of electric clippers, preferably, at least one of which was a downshaft and hand- piece setup, a generator, blade sharpening equipment, burlap, canvas, plastic, and/or the latest sack, pack, or bag recommended for wool handling, possibly as well, a wool ladder, bagger, or baler, lots of pocket change for the washers and dryers used to tidy up the laundry from the continual buildup of sheep grease and goo that infiltrates every pore of every piece of clothing you own and wear shearing, and, last but not least, a pocketful of money to fill the gas tank that fuels the truck to get you from place to place, not to mention the soda, beer, and bottled water needed to replenish the body and spirit. Looking at how much it cost ME to keep my clippers running, my blades sharpened, my clothes clean, and my Border Collie fed and entertained, I realize there's little money to be made shearing for others as a part-time or full-time profession. If it seems unreasonable to think of asking $3.50-$5 per head to shear a sheep, think what it means just to have a shearer come to your farm…it's like asking a plumber to come to your house (David Todd likes to comment). Who wants to pay $60 just to have a shearer show up, no matter what they do while they are on your farm, how many sheep they shear once they're there, when wool is worth no more than the price of shearing the sheep were the sheared to charge $1.50 per head maximum???! But, as David Todd puts it, like the plumber, shearers are needed, and like the plumbing job itself, often, the shearing is not a skill understood or performed so well by the one who needs it. Ah, but to pay the
David Todd was born on the Isle of Arran off the west coast of Scotland. His dad taught him to shear when he was a young boy. His family were shepherds to a flock of 200 North Country Cheviot ewes, David wanted to continue in the sheep arena somehow—he raised and trained sheep dogs, worked as shepherd (and shearer) in England with a flock of 3,000 ewes, sheared professionally on teams in New Zealand and in Australia…before landing here in the United States some 15 years ago. He says he is content living in Maryland, and although it just never worked out that he had sheep of his own, he is quite happy to work WITH THEM—it’s hard to travel and shear other people's sheep and have sheep (and sheep dogs) back home that need you when you're gone, His professional goal has been to make a living shearing-over the 15 years here in the states, a number of other jobs kept him "going" but now shearing is his life! Like sheep raising, sheep shearing will not $$$$ riches convey…it's just that he loves doing it! When asked, David says he couldn't imagine doing anything else, never even considered it, hopes he's still going strong at 72!! He shears 10,000-20,000 sheep each year…20,000 if he takes a month in early spring and shears downunder—He recalls once having sheared 402 sheep in eight hours in New Zealand! He hopes his 8-year-old son will take an interest and follow in the footprints of his father and grandfather, but that remains to be seen—Let’s Hope! (I'm reminded of the day our 85-year-old neighbor, a retired sheep farmer, once asked me if I still had and sheared my 80+ Coopworth sheep, to which I replied, "Yep, guess they'll bury me and my clippers with my sheep!) And, of David DeLamater…he decided to learn to shear after he and his wife honeymooned in 1986 at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival—they intended to have sheep at some point and he wanted to shear his himself. In 1988 he attended the Maryland/Delaware sheepshearing course—he says of the 20 or 25 that came the first day to learn, by the end of the course, only four or so remained. Hmmmm! His first job entailed shearing ten Jacob sheep for a friend and it took most of the day. In 1992 David says he acquired the confidence to attempt shearing as a part-time profession when he attended a shearing course held in Blacksburg, Virginia, taught by a gentle- man smaller than himself, a slightly-built 140 lb. New Zealand Golden Shearer Champion. He now shears several thousand each year, but just on weekends or days not working in the boating industry.
David Todd has sheared more than half-a-million sheep during the 20 or so years he has sheared professionally. He likes the easier, less physically demanding pace of shearing the smaller eastern U.S. flocks compared with the enormous flocks of New Zealand and Australia. He is taking over some of the flocks David DeLamater is giving up this year due to back and wrist and arm ailments, time constraints to allow for more time for other wool interests, and travel concerns. Todd thinks he'll last longer professionally (shearing well into his seventies, eighties, nineties perhaps) here in the states as a full-time shearer versus shearing downunder (in New Zealand and Australia) due to the grueling wear and tear on your body and mind when you're expected to shear several hundred sheep a day. Shearing at that pace is akin to the life of a professional athlete—short-term. DeLamater is sticking closer to home, these days, traveling 60- 70 miles and no more, while Todd's travels require him to go into New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and obviously all of Maryland, regularly. They both will continue to shear if for no other reason than they like it—David DeLamater says he's still learning every day he shears, that he learns from shearing different breeds of sheep, and that he is a better sheared now than he was even two or three years ago! As long as he enjoys it, he says he will continue, but that doing fewer over the next several years (last year he sheared the most ever at roughly 2,000 sheep total) and staying closer to home, will help him to keep it that way!
So, you east coast folks, if you're having a tough time getting someone to shear your sheep, try giving David Todd a call. Otherwise, you might search around the STATE you live in—the COUNTY probably won't do it—and find an older Amish fellow who shears, a backyard shearer like myself who might be talked into coming to your farm, but the going price these days is a little like that you'd expect from the plumber: a $50 minimum most places and depending on the number of sheep you have, $3-$5 per head. Believe me, it's a small price, given the task! Just Try It!
It is my modest opinion that wool will find its way back as a viable alternative to all other fabrics. It has durability and wear and insulating properties that no other fiber can duplicate. Sheep grow wool. Wool has to be shorn. Shearers are needed. We can only hope that a few good men and women will continue to want to shear and keep those old pickup trucks, clipper blades, and shearing skills primed for shearing season. We need David Todd, David DeLamater, Billy Haviland and son, Jeremy, old timers like Bruce Lambert, and women like myself in the business of sheep and sheep shearing (and as well my newly discovered sheep shearing master of blades, Kevin Ford) so that we can retain the art and Zen and mastership of sheep shearing for the future shepherds of generations to come—who knows, one day, another young guy or gal, like myself, just might show up at the door and need to learn how to do it just because they can and they like it and it needs doing…let's hope there will be someone there to show 'em!
*David's cell phone number is the best way to catch him: 410-917-5819 (He's promised to come to West Virginia if we need him, too!)
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