Strength, stamina and skill meet shears

WILSON SIDING, Alta. — It takes a special kind of crazy to enjoy sheep shearing.

That’s what Allison Preston says, anyway.

The 26-year-old lives on a sheep operation near Hays, Alta., where the family has a flock of 800. In a few days, she and her brother and father will shear 200 of those sheep, but this year they’re also bringing in a ringer — professional shearer Shaun Fajnor.

Preston took Fajnor’s shearing course April 7-8, which was hosted at J and M Farms south of Leth-bridge. She isn’t new to shearing, but some independent instruction seemed like a good idea.

“It’s very difficult, learning from our dad. The joke is that I was the only one stubborn enough to put up with it, or determined enough, I guess,” Preston said, while tugging on a red sweater bearing holes from wayward shears.

“My family is third generation sheep producers. My grandfather out in Ontario, my dad and now my brother has them, too. So I’ve been around shearing my whole life.

“I’m here to fix some of my footwork and get a little bit faster. Shaun’s actually going to come out and between him, my dad and I, we’re going to do 200 animals in one day, hopefully. I think Shaun could do them by himself.”

Fajnor, who lives in Taber, Alta., has been shearing for years all over the world. He can shear a sheep in about 90 seconds on a good day, or within two minutes if he doesn’t particularly hurry.

“It’s fairly average,” he said about his shearing time per sheep.

“In Canada it’s not too bad. You go overseas and I’m just kind of a beginner still. I’m kind of average at best.”

This seems a bit modest to an observer because Fajnor easily handles sheep while instructing 15 beginners in the proper way to hold the animal, grip the shears and remove the wool.

It’s a display of physical strength involving strong arms, a bent back and hand-eye co-ordination.

“It’s full body,” Fajnor said.

“We train quite a bit. Most guys that are serous about shearing train quite a bit, especially in the off-season because you don’t want to get out of shape because then coming back hurts.

“Typically as a professional shearer, you do this for eight hours a day. So we’re doing 200 plus sheep a day. It’s a bit of physical exertion,” said Fajnor with what appears to be typical understatement.

Nicholas Zachoda of Lamont, Alta., wants to become a professional sheep shearer, which is why he took the course. He initially learned how to shear each part of the sheep and on the second day tackled the whole animal at once.

Fajnor said he learned that teaching technique in Australia and New Zealand, where he still takes shearing courses and learns from the masters.

Shearing schools are the best and perhaps the only way to become skilled, he added, so that’s his advice for those who are interested.

“Come to one of these schools. Go to shearing school. That’s how I started,” he said.

“Without someone to show you, it’s near impossible. You can’t learn just watching YouTube.”

The barn is noisy with the sound of electric shears, but the sheep themselves are mostly silent. Once grabbed and sat upon their backsides, they remain relatively docile while the shearing takes place.

“Controlling the sheep is the hardest part,” said Fajnor.

“That’s the biggest part. It’s more important than the shearing part.”

Brenda Critchley of Calgary found that out the hard way when one exuberant ewe threw her to the barn floor — twice.

“They weigh more than I thought,” she said.

“It is a physical thing, dragging them and getting them into position. You’ve got to be able to finesse them, if you’re a small not so strong person, but you do have to have a little bit of strength.”

Fajnor said good shearers can travel the world plying their trade. In fact, that’s necessary for Canadian professional shearers because the domestic flock is small.

There might also be a competitive streak in those who love to shear. That’s the case for Preston, along with the social aspects.

“I’m competitive and I like being able to say I can do something no one else can do. And it’s a family thing,” she said.

“For us, shearing sheep is like a giant family event. We usually shear over Christmas holidays because we lamb early and we want to get that Easter market for the lambs.

“So we ‘re shearing over Christmas so everyone’s home. We get the boyfriends and cousins and people out. It’s like the equivalent of branding for a lot of cattle farmers. You just make a big party out of it. I’ve got a lot of memories associated with it.”

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