Farmstead cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and her husband, Dean, are increasing their flock in an attempt to make award-winning sheep's milk cheeses year-round (Brenda's Ocooch Mountain, a six-month aged nutty tomme was recently named to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest's top 16 cheeses, out of 1,702 entries). Typically, their sheep would have been shorn in early March, but because Wisconsin seems to have forgotten it's spring, they held off shearing until warmer weather.
First of all, let me say shearing sheep is serious business. At Hidden Springs Creamery, a three-man contract crew arrived bright and early Monday morning to set up three electric shearing stations in the Jensen's hay shed/sheep loafing barn.
Going in, I was a little afraid shearing sheep might be a bit traumatic for both me AND the sheep. I had visions of "ringing pigs" as a kid, holding squirming, squealing piglets while my dad pierced their noses (we pastured our pigs and having a ring in their nose kept them from rooting and escaping under fences. Despite my protests, my dad assured me it was worth 3 seconds of pain for the pig to be able to live its life outside instead of in a crate, and as an adult I now have to agree with him).
Turns out, I worried for nothing. Because once limbered up, the sheep shearers chose a sheep from the pen, herded it onto their wooden board, and very simply and matter-of-factly, turned the sheep onto its back.
Yes, you read that correctly. Sheep are lifted up and turned onto their back, so that all four of their feet are sticking up in the air. I knew sheep were stupid, but I didn't realize they (thankfully) were stupid enough to allow this to happen without so much as squirming or even making noise. In fact, sheep look fairly bored during the entire process. Simply unbelievable. Here's a look at shearing a sheep:
First, the sheep is turned onto its back and the shearer works on the belly. This wool is kept separately, as it's not nearly as valuable as the overall fleece. The picture below is the typical look of a sheep during this process, as it lays there, listless. You have a feeling she's thinking: "I wonder what's for dinner?"
When finished, the sheep is unhanded and allowed to get up and walk away. Most, like this one, however, continue to just sit there until the shearer scoots it outside. Yes, these are pretty wild animals.
After the sheep is persuaded to actually leave the shearing board, the helpers pick up the fleece.
Then it's off to the super huge sacks, where the helpers stuff the fleece. Like this:
And here it is in action - fleece is heavier than it looks:
Occasionally, sheep shearers change blades or adjust the setting on the shearing device, which looks like this:
And when shearers are done with one sheep, they do another. And another. Until they're done.
So to recap, here's a "before" picture:
And here's an "after" shot:
Throughout the entire process, I kept thinking I had seen something like this before. And then I remembered: I have a cat who thinks it's a sheep.
All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2013