Shear thrills

WATROUS, Sask. — Today I am part of a crew that will relieve sheep of about four kilograms of their wooly winter wear.

It’s the annual sheep shearing day at the Dog Tale Ranch near Watrous, Sask., where Arlette and Allen Sieb have invited friends and neigh-bours to take part .

For the first hour, I am a sweeper, whipping the fleeces from around the shearers’ feet and dodging the legs of the fleece sorters standing at the skirting frame.

Then I advance to skirter, where I pull manure tags off fleeces and remove the neck wool that is full of hay and vegetation.

Under the tutelage of Andrea Batchelor, a spinner and weaver, I learn the rudiments of wool staple and crimp. I even tried my hand at throwing a fleece or tossing a shorn fleece to land clean side down, dirty side up on the skirting frame. It’s harder than it looks.

When it was time to move livestock, things went south. I found myself sandwiched in the middle of a flock of 300 sheep.

The sheep were calm and the heat radiating from their wool was nice, but I feared what would happen when Rex, the border collie, began working this flock.

At the front of the shearing shed, Laverne Struck and Dave and Lorrie Reed, the stars of the operation, were hard at work.

This trio travels to sheep ranches around the province in the time-honored manner of professional shearers the world over.

Shearing is unbelievably heavy labour, and it runs like clockwork. Each shearer selects a sheep from the chute through a set of flap-doors, hauls her to the sheering stanchion, clamps all 45 struggling kg. between his legs and then, bent at an impossible 45 degree angle, shaves the animal in a couple of minutes.

Watching a sheep being shorn is a bit like watching a grapefruit being peeled. A naked sheep the colour of citrus pith emerges.

Done correctly, the sheep seems almost to sit back and enjoy the barbering — at least the older, more experienced sheep do. The yearlings bleat and make a fuss, and, if they manage to wriggle onto their backs, their fleece comes off like twisted netting.

Once shorn, the coiffed sheep leaps up, gets its bearings and either dashes for the outside door or toward its unshorn sisters.

Now back to me sandwiched in the middle of the flock where Rex and his handler, Jared Epp, were in silent communion. That’s the only way to describe their silent ex-change of looks and pauses.

Epp occasionally tossed in a word or a whistle because sheep dog commands are minimal. The sheep gave Rex a generous berth and Rex waited for a signal.

“There,” said Epp, and Rex crept forward. “Away to me,” and Rex flew.

The sea of sheep parted but one ornery ewe misread the situation and charged straight at Rex and collided. The shock of impact made the whole flock flinch.

Instantly the sheep straightened out. I stood like a pillar as sheep pooled around me. Once the fencing closed behind about 20 sheep, Rex continued to drive them up the lane, diving under their legs and swimming his way forward.

Epp whistled and Rex swam back, popping out from beneath the sheep like a mini-submarine. When a big crossways sheep held up the works for a moment, Rex tried to work out the bottleneck.

“Lie down,” Epp said to Rex. I noticed the dog’s instinct to direct sheep was equally balanced with his desire to obey.

I had made my way to the corral fence now, and as the sheep pressed forward, I felt the warmth of a giant group hug.

Epp reached over the bulge of sheep with his shepherd’s crook and nudged Mrs. Crosswise. Like a cork, she popped. Once again, sheep flowed up the chute.

The livestock movers closed gates behind every two or three animals to keep them separated in turn. The shears hummed, the wool packer growled and the team scurried between tasks.

“Calmly, everything must be done calmly,” said Epp, nodding encouragement to me.

This is how you move sheep.

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