Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Naked Sheep


One of the key features of our sheep is that they shed their fleece naturally, so there is no need to shear them. That’s the theory, anyway. Come spring, the stock fencing, the gorse bushes, anything with a bit of rough texture picks up tufts of fleece as the sheep brush up against them, or scratch the serious itch that comes with the shedding. It mostly works. There’s really just two issues...
Firstly, some sheep opt out of the natural shedding process, or only do half the job, which means we do have to do a partial shearing when the weather warms up. Our oldest ewe, Cilla, is an absolute devil for not shedding and her fleece develops into a semi-rigid shell – a sheep-armadillo cross. Partly because of her age, we only trim when the weather is really good, and by the time that comes round I feel the urge to get out the angle grinder, just to cut through that outer layer.
Cilla passed the trait on to her son, Softy. Perhaps if he hadn’t had the snip, he would shed like a ram, but instead he is an enormous wether in an armoured jacket. We did a partial trim recently, because the weather suddenly got warm – not a full shearing, just enough gaps so that the rest might unravel like a knitted jumper with a pulled thread.

Butch, with a proper winter coat

Secondly, and most significant in late Winter, the rams get in a bit of a hurry. Butch, our oldest ram, and his half-brother Monk had already started shedding, just as the cold weather arrived back in March. In winter, both have a dense fleece that keeps almost everything out, and a very fine hairy chest wig to show what splendid lads they are. (OK, in Butch’s case, a splendid older gentleman, with half a horn missing and a spot of bother with his right knee.) But just as the snow came, our woolly lads were looking a bit moth-eaten.

Butch getting scruffy

Just to clarify – this isn’t like a cat moulting, swapping a thick, dense winter coat for a thinner, lighter summer casual. When the sheep shed their wool, there’s a change in the growth pattern – the fibres get thinner and more fragile near the skin. The shedding process is not a light trim at the barber’s but a skin-hugging buzz-cut. In the middle of this year’s round of sharp easterly winds, freezing conditions and abrupt snow or hail, Butch and Monk developed bald patches.

Monk, just chilling, in patches

It does all grow back, of course, but for the coldest few weeks it got pretty chilly round their nethers. It’s not funny being an ageing ram in skimpy underwear when the temperature drops.

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