Shear Madness

Photo by Damon Hearne

Photo by Damon Hearne

“Sheep do not like to be sheared,” Ben Hearne admits. But for a Master Shearer, a herd of reluctant 200-pound animals is just a typical day on the job. Amateurs are advised not to try this at home. “In order to preserve the fleece, it has to be done by a professional,” Hearne explains. “If you’re not experienced, the fibers end up chopped in half or of various lengths.” When done properly, the wool is removed at the skin level in one big useable piece, without harm (potentially caused by cuts or too-rough restraint) to the animal.

Now in his 12th year of shearing, Hearne first learned from his father, Jonathan, who has 30 years of experience. “I started by doing all the shed work,” Hearne recalls from his farm in the Big Sandy Mush community. “Picking up the wool, catching the sheep, flipping the sheep over for the shearer — all of that boring grunt work.”

This will be Hearne’s fourth year offering shearing services at the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair, a multi-state showcase of heritage livestock (including rabbits, sheep, and alpacas); fiber art and apparel; and demonstrations of weaving and spinning that show the whole process: from rough barnyard coat to fine, silky scarf.

“The animals are being judged on their fiber, so I end up shearing after they’ve shown,” says Hearne. At times, the fiber has been sold while still on the animal, so shearing it at SAFF makes sense.

But Hearne says when it comes to shearing, it’s one thing to know what to do, and it’s another thing to actually do it. “It’s something that has to be done through lots and lots of practice. It’s master/apprentice-style teaching.”

Initially, Hearne could shear 30 sheep in a day. Now he can handle 150, but the learning process was physically grueling. “When you’re learning you’re slow, so you’re bent over each animal in the same position for a much longer period of time and your body isn’t used to it,” Hearne says. “It looks a lot easier than it is.”

He recalls shearing a 400-pound ram, impressing bystanders. “The ram was on the verge of jumping up and running away the whole time I was shearing him. I was barely keeping it under control, but nobody could see it. They said, ‘Oh, wow, you did such a good job!’ And I just kept my mouth shut.”

But even a large, unpredictable animal doesn’t mean a shearer needs assistance. “I have to control and handle the animal myself when I’m shearing it,” Hearne says. “A lot of people want to grab on and help, but it’s actually much more helpful if people leave the sheep alone.”

He does offer a trade secret for shearing a llama: “Gently hold an ear with your hand. It will distract them to a point where they forget to kick you.”

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