The Athletic Art of Removing Sheep's Clothing

Article excerpt

Aphrodite-like she emerges from her fleece and is pushed by Daniel's boot down the exit chute into the yard below the wool shed. Accompanied by a disjointed symphony of bleating ewes, Classic FM radio, and humming from the shearers' clippers, I flick the freshly shorn fleece onto a pile for the presser to load into the wool press.

The air is thick with the smell of sheep manure and lanolin, sunshine filters through cobweb-covered windows, and the shearers drip sweat, standing astride 123 pounds of struggling wool. Here is the raw material of life, and I love it inside the old wool shed, where everything is functional, full of character, old but useful.

It's shearing time again in New Zealand, and farms up and down the country have been buzzing with activity. Shearing gangs worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week during the time before Christmas to provide the farmers with a small income from their fleeces.

Thirty years ago, wool was the major earner for New Zealand sheep farmers. Now, as wool can't compete with synthetic fibers that are cheaper and easier to make, many farmers raise sheep for meat. Demand for wool is mainly confined to carpet manufacturing.

Daniel Berger and Craig Davie-Martin are part of a shearing gang based northwest of Auckland on the edge of the Kaipara Harbour. The gang is made up of 11 shearers, five wool handlers (or rousies, as they are affectionately known), and two pressers.

I'm learning the art of the wool handler today and have to flick the wool away from Craig to Scottie, the presser, who loads it into the wool press. Belly wool, which is shorter than the main fleece, is bagged separately with leg wool and the sheep's "top-knot."

Any really "daggy" wool near the tail is left in a pile to dry and be sorted later. (Dags are sheep droppings that matt together and hang from the tail area.)

The wool shed we're in today is characteristic of thousands dotted across the New Zealand countryside. Many are still standing from early last century.

Outside, the holding pens full of thickly fleeced sheep form a spiderweb pattern around one side, while in adjacent paddocks, clean, white ewes, separated from their young lambs, bleat their way through the flock trying to find them.

Inside, apprehensive sheep crowd together in pens on a wooden slatted floor. Daniel grabs a ewe by the front legs and pulls her through the swing gate beside his shearing station. …