Last time I told you the story of the weaning of the lambs, today I’ll tell you another sheep story. It too is condensed from my new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story.
A little later in the spring, after the ewes had recovered from birthing, it was shearing time. All the sheep were rounded up and placed in a holding pen just in back of the upper barn. Chipper, the sheepdog, took the lead in the roundups and these were, without doubt, his proudest moments.
The end of a shepherd’s staff has a thick “R” shaped doubled wire on the end. The bottom of the “R” is a wide opening for hooking the sheep’s leg and the narrow neck is for securing it. Mr. Pitman and I would go into the pen, herd them into a corner and I, being quicker than he, would use the staff to grab the rear leg of one of the sheep. I would reel the animal in and we would flip it over on its back. I’d grab the rear legs, he’d grab the front ones, and we would carry our prize into the wide back door of the barn to be sheared.
All the sheep’s strength is in the rear legs—they have no power in the front ones—so I was warned sternly to take care of “the business end.” I never got kicked, but I’ve heard that if it happens to you once, you will make sure it never does again.
The shearing process was fascinating. I kept hold of the rear legs while Mr. Pitman used an electric wool clipper that was similar to a barber’s clipper, just a little bigger. He started with a run up the middle of the belly, and working quickly and keeping the fleece all in one piece, worked to one side as far as he could go. Then I’d lean the sheep in the opposite direction and he’d do the other side.
The dangerous part was finishing the last few stripes down the back and detaching the fleece. By that time the sheep was tired of the whole process, and being nearly upright, was in a position of strength and knew it. But I always held on, though sometimes with considerable effort. Visions of a half shorn sheep running around with fleece attached kept me alert.
Thankfully I never had an escapee, although I’m sure some other shearers have.
The shearing done, Mr. Pitman would powder the animal with tick powder and then I’d let it go directly into the pasture—bleating, pink-naked and embarrassed, but unhurt.
It is impossible to adequately describe the beauty and fragrance of a freshly sheared lamb’s fleece. The animal may look quite dirty on the outside, but the inside of the fleece is as white as snow. It is absolutely beautiful and the feel of it is heavenly. It is not only soft and springy, but also slightly oily and perfumed.
As the animal gets older, the quality of the wool diminishes. A lamb’s fleece may be about eight inches thick, sparkling white, and as soft as soft can be. They also rarely had even one tick on them. However, by the time a sheep is several years old, the wool is coarse and may be only about three inches thick or even less. The pleasant aroma is also gone and they are far more susceptible to ticks.
I would roll the fleece up into a tight ball and Mr. Pitman would tie twine around it to keep it together. Then I would climb a ladder and drop the fleece into a long gunny sack that was hung from the rafters. As more fleece were added to the bag, I would jump into the bag to compress the wool. It is amazing how tightly wool compresses, and as I recall, we usually got all the wool into one bag.
The Last of the Prune Pickers is available on line at www.2timothypublishing.com