Tag Archives: sheep

Day 8: Sheep shearing and the beauty of labour

My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.

Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.

Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.

It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.

I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.

He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.

It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.

In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.

Thank you.

The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.

Farm 1.8

The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.

I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.

The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.

That made me a little queasy I confess.

T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.

Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.

Farm 1.8

He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.

We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.

And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day

Farm 1.7

Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.

Farm 1: Sheep And Beautiful Gloucestershire

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

Save

Farming days 5 and 6 (and 7)

There’s a trick to catching a lamb, striking fast, grabbing it by the back leg and scooping it up. Day 5 we herded up the sheep that were here in the orchard because there were some problems that needed monitoring, this little handful was no problem on Monday, though I was tired after:

Farm 1.6

But yesterday, yesterday we started herding the year-old ewes to bring back here to be shorn tomorrow. They didn’t really want to be caught and it all went pear shaped but we vanquished in the end. I can see how important a good sheep dog is, sadly Todd the dog is afraid of sheep so it was the two of us trying to herd.

I didn’t know then that this was starting off easy.

Farm 1.6

Farm 1.6

This is them before being penned in proper tight, so we could give them deworming medicine and their vaccine…I had to spray a spot on their heads for each so we knew who had been done. I am really bad at tagging sheep turns out. They are covered with an array of strange marks and sigils and the occasional appropriate thumb-sized mark.

So we moved them…and I was tired. But the real work would be moving the ewes and lambs into the field these ladies had lately been occupying.

Herding those guys? Jesus. Lambs skipping and jumping and breaking away everywhere. We had one complete fiasco of an attempt, and then tried again and were victorious.

Farm 1.5

So in I waded into this morass of sheep and fished out about 65 of the lambs, one by smelly shit-covered kicking and very heavy one. My facebook update after lying around comatose last night:

65 lambs today. I caught 65 fat and hell of heavy lambs along with other assorted herding and moving sheep in a double decker trailer tasks and I may possibly have been this tired but I have never been this smelly in my whole entire life. Also, sheep are just as stupid as you always thought they were. I am still enjoying farming.

Which I am.  But it is exhausting. I wasn’t strong enough to manage technique, so I grabbed the back leg and then sort of threw my arms around the thing and hauled it up, and then held it for its shot and then as it continued to kick, we fought to get it into the top deck of the sheep trailer.

I don’t even know how we managed them all, and while loading the last trailer load of sheep, in an effort to keep the ewes in the trailer, a tendon was torn (not mine) and so I&T ended up at the hospital but all is okay today. I walked the dog and cleaned out the very disgusting trailer once again. It’s almost as bad as housework.

I can’t really feel my arms.

Save

Countryside Day 2

I am not sore!

We started today with a drive around the various fields to check on all the sheep — so many smallholdings have been broken up for conversion and development, contiguous fields are nigh impossible to come by. Thus the patchwork method, which requires driving and an immense amount of trouble moving sheep from field to field as you must.

Almost all of the barns and the farms we passed have been converted. They are such lovely, substantial, old buildings and I couldn’t help thinking about what needs to happen to convert them back to usefulness again, as we need them to be given the future that climate change is bringing us.

I learned a lot about sheep today. Most of which I have forgotten but with some repetition I am sure I shall get better. I do remember a little — Romneys are the best mums, Texcels are the best for meat and if you look at them as a butcher might you will notice they have lovely round ends, cheviots (pronounced cheeviots) are…are…I dunno, but they have awesome hair.

Male sheep are dangerous and if you enter their field they are well-capable of cornering you. Generally, the result is knee injuries because of their height — they have dislocated many a knee I find.

No one here mocks my nervousness of cows.

I am fascinated by how differently the wool sits on the different breeds, and just how thick it is.

New grass lacks magnesium, so they need supplements. Also, it goes right through a sheep. It makes them messy, but that mess could also be worms. If one sheep has worms, they all do.

Beautiful fields though.

Farm 1.2

Farm 1.2

Farm 1.2Every time you move sheep you have to clean out the trailer — so I got to do that today too. With a pressure washer. It is both immensely satisfying to expose the metal beneath the shit with one stroke of your hose, there is something wonderful about cleaning things that are filthy.

It went on for a very long time though.

Very long.

And despite the sexy jump suit I got wet.

But before that we drove some of the most beautiful bluebell woods I have ever seen.

Shower, hot tea, delicious lunch, more weeding of willow bank. Then a walk, the skies dark and forbidding and the sun still shining — It hailed again today, but we had just gotten indoors…

Farm 1.2

Farm 1.2

I am a big fan of WWOOFing, I am having a wonderful time.

Sheepherders and the CA Minimum Wage

So I’m doing a wee bit of research for a fellowship I’m applying for…money is money, and money paid to do something akin to what I want to do is good money so I’m applying. So I’m trying to explain the abysmal situation that most working folks in LA find themselves in, and from there heading down the ladder to all those who are sometimes with work, out of work, unable to work. And what my writing might be able to do about it…I’m writing a good line to be sure, but it’ll take a hell of a lot more than writing for damn sure.

At any rate, I was looking some stuff up about the California minimum wage and discovered this juicy tidbit from off of the official California Department of Industrial Relations (a misnomer if the below quote is anything to judge by…you can read all about it yourself at http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm):

Q. What is the minimum wage?

A. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum wage in California is $8.00 per hour.

For sheepherders, however, effective July 1, 2002, the minimum wage was set at $1,200.00 per month. Effective January 1, 2007 this wage was increased to a minimum monthly salary of $1,333.20. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum monthly salary for sheepherders will be $1,422.52. Wages paid to sheepherders may not be offset by meals or lodging provided by the employer. Instead, there are provisions in IWC Order 14-2007, Sections 10(F), (G) and (H) that apply to sheepherders with respect to monthly meal and lodging benefits required to be provided by the employer.

Yeah, I thought that was pretty sweet. Sheepherders. I’m glad they’re taken care of, or are they? I suppose a minimum monthly means they can’t be paid less then that for their work…how many hours do sheepherders work anyway? The ones in the bible seemed to be on pretty much 24/7 but it’s been many years since I spent time reading about them…

Actually this minimum wage takes care of no one really. A full time worker will earn $16,640 a year. That means a mom with her two kids is living below the federal poverty limit even though she is working full time. Though I guess she’ll be better off working at Burger King than herding sheep. Perhaps.

It’s really too bad that the Department of Industrial Relations’ Frequently Asked Questions section doesn’t include just how people are expected to live off of under $1,400 a month when the average 2 bedroom apartment in LA is now renting at $2,100. Forget about healthcare, car insurance, clothes, utilities, food…

For general info on just how badly you are fucked on minimum wage look at California Progress Report 2008, of course, the folks earning minimum wage already know all that.