Lost Sheep and Hidden Talents

This ewe escaped on shearing day, or clipping day as we call it in Shetland. We were moving ewes around and she was discovered after the shearing crew had left.

My brother now runs the family croft and has around 170 breeding ewes. These are a mixture of cross-ewes (meaning, ewes that are a cross between two breeds) and Shetland sheep (pure-bred). There’s also my tiny flock of pure-bred Flock Book-approved grey Shetland sheep, amounting to 1 two-year-old ram, 3 ewes, and their offspring. Growing up my parents had a lot more sheep and we were drafted in to help on the day with gathering in the sheep (caaing in), making food for the clippers, or packing wool (oo). With 4-6 clippers and several hundred sheep to clip in a day it was a busy time. No time to let a youngster have a go. I probably wasn’t that interested either.

This brings me back to this summer and ‘Henrietta Houdini’. My brother suggested I have a go at hand clipping her. I was delighted to accept the challenge, having become more interested in sheep in the last 5 years or so. Over this time, I have gained more respect for them and how they have shaped our domesticated world, culture, and industry. Sheep to me now are not just the lifestyle I grew up in.

My Mam found her old shears and Dad gave them a sharpen. My brother went to fetch his dog so we could catch ‘Henrietta Houdini’. These are not tame sheep by any stretch of the imagination! We looked behind sheds and byres, in my mother’s garden and vegetable patch (heaven forbid) but she was nowhere to be found. My brother went off to check the neighbour’s field adjoining his croft in case she had jumped the fence. I went back to the shed where we’d sheared the others. I noticed the small door to my dad’s garage was open about a foot. Could she be in there? Surely not. With oil and grease, tools and tractors—she would be in some mess.

I peeped in the door and there behind a couple of tyres I could see her head peeping out. My mind was a mixture of relief and panic: thankful to have found her and despair at how we would get her out without upending a container of oil or jar of brush cleaner (my father restores classic tractors in his spare time). Finding my brother, we set up gates to stop her from taking flight again. Thankfully the exuberance had gone out of her and with my brother and I (without the dog, importantly) slowly flanking her she trotted through the garage door to the correct pen. Phew.

Some discussion was had on the best way to tie her legs together to disarm and disable her further. Tying 3 legs together was the way to go with a loop around each of her back feet and a clove hitch on the front foot. Mam came as foreman to instruct me on how to proceed. I had seen it done many times before from a young age as it was all hand shears when I was growing up. You set the ewe on her behind and start clipping from the neck downwards. This was the scary part: first snips with pointy shears near the jugular of this poor ewe. (She was a gimmer it turned out, so it was only the 2nd time she’d been clipped.) She was so good for me and never moved a muscle—in fact, the free leg lolled as I leaned her over to work on her shoulder. She was so relaxed, just like she was at the hairdressers or having a massage! I think she was glad to be getting her winter coat off; she was quite warm as the evening sun shone in and I uncovered her shorn body. The fleece was at least 5-6 inches (13-15cm) in depth so a bit like wearing a light but very warm duvet all day. Wool is very good at allowing moisture to transpire so that would be helpful on a sunny day, releasing the sweat.

I snipped away, discovering if I took too big a snip it just wouldn’t cut. Mam gave a helpful note on getting an even shorn finish: “Just lay back the fleece that is clipped rather than pull or lift it in any way as you are clipping”, she said. My brother didn’t mind about the finish, he just wanted her to get her fleece off. 

The value of wool isn’t high, ­the price for a fleece is often only between £3-£4, some years less—but it’s done for the health of the animal. This ewe had all of her fleece; none had been scratched off on walls or posts. Her fleece would just keep growing, making it a heavier load for her to carry especially when wet. In summer there would be more chance of the ewe overheating, basically putting more strain on her organs.

Sheep in Shetland are shorn in the summer months:  ewes usually July and August; rams and non-breeding sheep would be earlier, in June. This is because the shearing can often cause the ewe’s milk supply to slow down, depending on the weather. By July the lambs are well on their way to eating mainly grass, having been born in April or May. Lambs are weaned from their mothers around late August/early September helping to begin this natural process.
So you probably want to know how long it took me to clip my first ewe. Now bear in mind she had all of her fleece including her belly wool….

It took me 40 minutes! Quicker than I expected. My brother thought it might take me several hours! I was predicting an hour. 

I don’t think I’d get a job with a shearing squad though; they can shear a ewe with electric clippers in a couple of minutes, or less. I would like to have a go next year clipping 2 or 3 just to improve my technique in case I needed to clip an escapee in the future.


Janette Budge began working life at an IT helpdesk, now she helps people find solutions to their knitting problems as well as introducing them to traditional fair isle knitting and Shetland knitting belts through her classes both online and in person. She has been a tutor with Shetland Wool Week since 2016. You can find Janette at janettebudge.com and her patterns on Ravelry.