At dusk, as I trundled down a leafy lane near Cheddar Gorge, I was excited to turn into Fernhill Farm to get some sleep in a refurbished Claas Forage wagon before starting a British Wool 2-day Machine shearing course.
The British Wool website hosted shearing courses at various locations so I booked the course closest to me. I hadn’t realised that the course was based at Fernhill Farm, although I had recently discovered their crimpy fibre during a trip to Wonderwool Festival.
The sheep-shearing course was a bit of a pre-emptive strike for me because I don’t keep sheep but I love recording the journey from Sheep to Skein and I’m always curious to go further back in the process. I’ve always wanted to keep sheep, I had dagged a Cotswold before with a friend at Mary Arden’s Farm (a Working Tudor Farm) when I was younger and helped a couple of sheep with flystrike, but I am in no way a shepherd.
I love being able to spot rare-breed sheep, play with fibre, and discover the qualities of their wool: the lustre of a Cotswold, the drape of a Wensleydale, the durability of a Jacob yarn etc. (All things I discussed during The Twelve Skeins of Christmas Series series on my YouTube channel).
Booking online was easy and I received an email detailing what kit I needed for the course. There was a number to could contact the Instructor and ask to borrow a handpick (like a Shaver) or use one I already owned. As I didn’t own one, and I wasn’t 100% sure about comb and cutter sizes, I called up George Mudge Shearing and they set me up with what I needed for the course, in good time.
The course information suggested wearing comfortable, thick trousers. I decided to wear some cotton jersey leggings for flexibility, which were fine, and I managed to avoid getting any blue antiseptic spray or blood on them! The moccasins were borrowed from Fernhill Farm and very comfy!
When I arrived at the farmyard I was welcomed by Jen Hunter and the dogs. I had met Jen once before, at Wonderwool, where I’d chatted with her and her exuberant helper about wool, fleeces, and their September Wool School. Jen seemed down to earth, friendly and very practical.
As it was really tipping it down, Jen said I could look at the wagon but maybe I’d like to upgrade to the stone farmhouse which had a spare room that night.
The wagon was rustic and cosy-looking. Its walls were stuffed with wool insulation and it had wood panelling and a comfy bed with a view onto a large pond, a barbecue space and a picnic table. The pond was (I think) the very last part of their water filtration system and had reeds and Coots bobbing about.
Somerset is the most beautiful backdrop for this course and I was a stone’s throw from Cheddar Gorge. Gorges always feel a bit like home for me because I used to live near the Ardèche Gorge. The surrounding area is great for climbing, walking, locating fudge, etc., and I took some photos of the feral sheep wandering the gorge! They were shedding their fleeces so they looked a bit scraggy, but more primitive breeds of sheep have fleeces that come off like this.
There were about five of us on the course: A lady on the course who had a few pet sheep, a guy who had a small flock of Ouessants, another man with a large flock that he has sheared, and someone else who was learning so he could shear in future and look towards the Gold seal Award.
We were instructed by Andy Wear. He was assisted by another instructor who was a full-time shearer. Andy spent time going through a few pages of Health and Safety guidelines about shearing and the inherent dangers: from electrocution, to heat exhaustion, to making sure the motor for the handpick was securely fixed to the wall above the shearer’s head. Andy said it would be good for every farmer to attend a shearing course just to see how it all works.
To begin, we watched Andy shear a sheep, which was so quick! Like any skilled worker, the instructors made shearing look easy and skilfully moved the sheep about in a well-practiced dance
There are certain moves that nudge the sheep into the right position for the shearing blows. The British Wool YouTube channel has a really nice British Wool Shearing Short demonstrating this with a diagram of sheep and shearer. The word blow doesn’t mean you are hitting the sheep, it just means the handpick is making contact with the sheep. The handpick needs to glide smoothly along the skin, shaving off the wool cleanly.
Positioning the sheep was not as easy as a hairdresser saying, “Can you just tilt your head forward, please?” If the sheep isn’t in the right position, it is harder to shear because the sheep might try to run. At one point I needed to push a fist against the inside of the sheep’s leg to tighten the skin and make it flatter. This meant the cutter was less likely to nick the sheep’s skin when I sheared it. I imagine shearing a merino sheep, which is quite wrinkly, would be very tricky! That’s why chubbier sheep are easier to shear, because they have fewer folds of skin, although they are heavy to cart about.
After a couple of sheep, I started to appreciate the sheep without wool on their belly, too, because that saved you a job which takes a bit of manoeuvring, avoiding teats etc. (and the belly wool isn’t worth much, although it goes in the bag all the same because it still adds to the weight).
Three of us set up working in pairs on the stage; one of us was shearing with an electric handpiece while the other person was assisting and pulling on the rope which starts and stops the handpiece. If you needed to stop or start the motor for the handpiece you’d just ask your partner.
Whilst I was working on the second sheep, I had a migraine. It was hot and I hadn’t been drinking enough, and I had spent about half an hour shearing the first sheep with my head upside down too long. At that point I decided to stop. It didn’t make sense to continue when I couldn’t see half of the sheep and my head was aching. I told Andy and went to the house for some bread, Nurofen and a few hours’ sleep: Andy came and checked up on me later and I said I’d still do tomorrow.
The next morning Andy discussed health and safety again, about knowing your own body, and we spoke about different reasons why a couple of us had stopped and taken a break, because it’s important to look after yourself, for your own safety and the sheep.
The next day was a lot better. The information from the previous day had been absorbed, and I was slowly learning to coordinate myself more and understand the anatomy of a sheep! I was still kicking myself for having lost an afternoon as the others seemed a lot better than me.
After all that rain it was a really hot summer day learning to shear. We drank lots of water and the sheep seemed thankful to be rid of their hefty woollen jumpers! Shearing is a proper workout! Every sheep was different to shear and I had been practicing pointing my toes together and tightening my hamstrings to hold the sheep in place between my legs so she didn’t move whilst I sheared. She was so chilled out with me that her head slipped through my legs and she just relaxed on the floor, which I wasn’t expecting! I had to move quickly, though, before she got up, as I wanted to get her in position for the next blows.
Both instructors had a wry sense of humour and were ready to help when necessary, but also very patient and let you give it a go, even when you had to keep trying something challenging. It took me a while to get the knack of getting the sheep out of the pen, and I still needed demonstrations to get it right. I’m sure the sheep was thinking, “What is she doing?” The second instructor, whose name I can’t remember, stood back and gave me helpful tips and showed me how he did it until I figured it out. When he went into the pen to show the technique, it was just–whoos–and the sheep was on its bum ready to be shorn!
There were massive bulk bags by the stage that hold about 25 fleeces and would eventually be sent off to British Wool. Jen said all the fleeces in a bag had to be the same colour: If there were brown fleeces in a bag of white fleeces they wouldn’t fetch the best price for the fleece. Likewise, we had to have neatly rolled fleeces. So, once we’d collected and rolled our fleeces neatly we put them tidily in the bag – five fleeces in a row. It was definitely a lot more than 3 bags full!
Fernhill Farm is very diverse. Selling their Shetland-Romney yarn and fibre is not their only focus. Jen does a lot of education work surrounding wool and its various uses in the wool industry. If you are interested in finding out more about the versatility of wool and what Fernhill Fibre Farm contributes to the wool industry, this webinar is great! Webinar by Jen from Fernhill Fibre Farm: Hosted by “Gwnaed â Gwlân. Made with Wool” Historically, Fernhill used their wool to insulate their buildings and, all around the farm, you can see hints of fibre being used in gardening to provide nutrients and protection for plants.
Not only do they sell fibre, crafts, and textiles in the shop, but they sell lamb burgers and cuts too: The lamb burgers were very tasty. It was great to buy local produce from their farm to take home!
On the last day, I snuck into the shop and bought some wool felt, Romney yarn and a hat pattern by Marina Skua.
Fernhill Fibre does a Wool School in September as well as hosting weddings. Andy showed me some epic photos of the shearing barn turned into a stage for live gigs. They’ve really diversified and made the most of their Grade 2-listed farmhouse, farm design-style pig arcs and fodder wagon for Glamping. It really was a tranquil and friendly place to stay in beautiful surroundings. I’d definitely go again!