Thursday, June 11, 2009

Click go the Shears

'You take off the belly-wool clean out the crutch
Go up the neck for the rules they are such
You clean round the horns first shoulder go down
One blow up the back and you then turn around'

Click go the shears boys, click, click, click
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow
And curses the old snagger with the blue-bellied joe'

In the days before rock 'n' roll - when the earth was fresh and green - we country children at Moreton Morrell School acquired our musical knowledge from Miss Charles at the piano (a stately old upright) or from the Schools' Broadcasts on the BBC's Home Service. A little research has reminded me that the programme was called Singing Together'.We sang from a little booklet like the one above - which predates me by a few years - but serves to give a flavour of those innocent pre-plastic days. Back then I don't suppose we gave it much thought; Miss Charles tuned in the wireless and we sat at our desks in 'the big room' and sang our hearts our as bidden by the presenter. Now I realise we were unwittingly and probably unintentionally, being given a good grounding in the folk songs of Britain and Ireland - with occasionally one from the Commonwealth thrown in for good measure - 'Click go the Shears' for example has its roots in the Australian outback. It was a favourite of mine. I find myself humming it at this time of year as strangely naked sheep stare back at me across the hill. It's shearing time again.

SBS and her shepherd have a rule of thumb; wait until the dog roses bloom before shearing your sheep. It's a bit of old country lore based on common sense. Wait until then and the chances are the poor things won't be left shivering when divested of that heavyweight fleece. Well, the dog roses are just about flowering up here on the Long Mountain but I think today's shearing activity had more to do with the fortuitous alignment of antipodean shearers and a day of sunshine than an old wives' tale.

This morning, with much whooping, shouting and baaing, there was a great round up of sheep. I watched part of the huge flock - a veritable river of sheep - make its way up to Fir House to be shorn. The shearers - three muscular New Zealanders - had arrived, not completely unexpectedly, and were ready to shear.

By the time I fetched up to take a look they were well into their stride and averaging about a minute per sheep.

What looked like chaos was in fact a pretty efficient system; a sheep was hauled from a nearby pen and the clippers buzzed swiftly over it to neatly remove the fleece without wasting a stroke. The fleece was thrown aside to be bundled up and bagged by Dan and Phil. The sheep, now strangely lightweight, was pushed off the boards to its freedom - which was generally celebrated with a tremendous jump - I'd like to think those jumps were jumps of joy but suspect they were just obscure sheep behaviour.

With a click of their counters and not pausing to take breath the lads grabbed another sheep and began all over again. Those counters are an essential piece of kit when you are paid by sheep shorn.

I don't know how many they would have got through today - 5 or 600 perhaps and I think the going rate is around 85p per sheep. (You can do your own sums.) Over the course of the season, moving from farm to farm it must be quite a lucrative, if back breaking, business. From the farmer's point of view it is hardly financially viable - the wool cheque will barely cover the cost of the labour but it is a job that must be done for the welfare of the animal.

When we were children shearing always seemed to be a high point of our year, probably because it was a break from routine and we were always amused by the comical appearance of the newly shorn sheep. (Simple pleasures eh?) We'd hang on the gate and watch the noisy bustle, the pushing and shoving in a dusty barn. If we were lucky someone might let us fold a fleece. I suspect one of my brothers might have tried shearing but as a girl I doubt if anyone offered to teach me. Mens' work see? My father taught his students to shear - I gather the method he used has now been superseded as has the rather precise art of folding up a fleece I learned back in south Warwickshire. So much remains the same though - the oily boards, the sheepy smell, the buzz of the shears. I'd rather hoped that the shearers would be wearing shoes fashioned from sacking - all the better to keep a grip when man handling a feisty ewe I suppose- but lightweight trainers do the job these days. I wondered if their hands were soft and smooth too - lanolin from the wool makes a wonderful handcream.

I left them taking a break, straightening their backs and flexing hands and wrists before the next few hundred ewes. John told me later he had about another 1600 to shear. I ache at the thought.

Right now as dusk falls out there on the hill it is incredibly noisy - ewes are bawling for lambs and lambs are crying for their mothers. Everybody's mixed up and confused; those familiar rounded and maternal figures that started the day swathed in wool have morphed into bony big-eared strangers. 'Oh woe,' those lambs bleat pitifully, 'Mother where art thou?'


Twiglet said...

The ones in our field were sheared before the weather turned cold and wet. The ewes are now gleaming white, having been thoroughly drenched day after day!

Cathy said...

Hello there
Oh I remember the radio for schools programmes back when I was in primary school in 19..... well I left Junior School in 1954 so you can see the timeline lol
I loved the music and singing lessons - I can still hear the tinny sound of the radio in the classrooms in Cosham Hants

With regard to the shearers - we heard recently they were having a problem with work visas - has that been sorted out?

Take care

Frances said...

I love those lyrics, and your memory of learning all those songs at school. I don't remember anything at all like that happening in my Virginia childhood.

It's interesting to see how the shearers follow the seasons round the globe. Wonderful pictures ... of shearers and sheep! As I was reading, I did begin to wonder how those new lambs would recognize their moms.


snailbeachshepherdess said...

ever noticed how newly shorn sheep fight? I doubt if ours will get done until right at the end of the month.
I remember schools radio - the last thing I can remember sitting to listen to was 'Under Milkwood'

Diary Farmer said...

I remember learning how to shear as student. We used a homemade type of moccasin for footwear. Days and days of backache made me realize on thing - sheep, no thanks. A fellow member of YFC once said that sheep make cows look intelligent!!

Pondside said...

Shearing sheep is one of those things about which I like to read - but can't imagine the actual 'doing'. Looks like there must be lots of noise and excitement.

Cait O'Connor said...

I love that dog rose story, will pass it on to my farmer SIL.