Shearing Sheep With Years’ Worth of Wool

Folks love stories of so-called Shrek sheep, found God knows where with years’ worth of wool growth (and living proof that sheep do not “just shed” their wool if left alone in nature).

But, as a shearer, those stories used to create nothing but dread. “Poor sheep,” I’d shudder to think. “It’s probably wool blind. And imagine what’s hiding in that fleece! Barbed wire, bottle caps, stuff that your shears turn to shrapnel.” No thanks.

It is no accident that the most experienced shearers are called upon to shear Shrek sheep. Years’ worth of heavy wool pulls the sheep’s membrane-thin skin away from its body, making it much easier to cut than usual.

I put off shearing sheep like this for as long as possible. I’d give the job to someone else, avoid them altogether. This approach works until you’re on the job and the next batch of sheep in the pen have 2-5 years’ wool growth. “I’m sorry,” the flock owner says. “I just bought these and they came with all this wool. I get mine sheared every year.”

You’ve got to learn sometime, and this year was it. And, as with most things related to livestock, my fear had blown it entirely out of proportion. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about shearing sheep with years’ worth of wool growth, and help beginner shearers who end up in this situation for the first time.
A man in bandana and tank top with a complete brown sheep fleece spread out on plywood, on top of hay

My shearing partner, Jordan, displays a completely felted sheep fleece, several years’ worth of wool growth. This is from a small sheep.

Stay calm.

If you take your time, you’ll be fine. Slow down and own it. I make a practice of saying “This is going to take me a while,” both to set expectations and to give myself permission.

Do not discount your rate.

Not even if you’re a beginner. That sheep (and its owner) needs you more than you need the tricky work. It is fair to charge more for sheep in poor condition, which include Shrek sheep. There is a greater risk of cuts and nicks, they require more shearing time, and they use more equipment, in that you have to swap combs and cutters more often than you do for regularly sheared sheep. You’ll go through a cutter every 1-2 sheep, and the same or similar for a comb, vs. getting 2-4 sheep per cutter and 3-7 sheep per comb. These are costs you bear, and you should pay yourself fairly for them.

As a ballpark figure, I would not shear a sheep with multi-year wool growth for less than $10-$15/head, after the ranch call, certainly $12-$15/head for a ram with that kind of growth.

If customers balk, explain that this is because of excess wool growth and that next year, it will cost less. There’s no need to make anyone feel bad for falling behind on shearing. We know how hard it can be to find a shearer, and how few of us there are. Tell them they’re doing the right thing, that things will be better in the future, etc. but also communicate the reality of the situation so no one is surprised. I use very plain language: “I never like to nick a sheep, and I will do my best to avoid that, but here is the situation with the wool…” 

Adapt your technique.

Many years of wool can be very heavy. If a sheep produces a 7-12 pound average fleece every year, and hasn’t been sheared for three years, it is carrying 21-36 pounds of wool. Sheep have very thin skin, so that kind of weight pulls and stretches the skin up as you shear the wool away.

I wish I’d worn a Go Pro or something this year so I could show you what I mean, but I didn’t, so let’s go to Imaginary Shearing Land (via the Mister Rogers trolley).  We’re shearing the neck. You do one stroke, and the wool from that stroke falls over to the side (away from your shears, over the sheep’s shoulder that you’ll shear next). You’ll see the just sheared wool (helped along by gravity) pulling the skin away from the sheep’s body, and lifting the skin right into the way of your shears for the next stroke. If you forge ahead as is, you’ll cut that lifted skin: the just sheared wool is lifting it right between the teeth of your comb. Damn and blast.

I adapt by holding the wool down with my left hand, and shearing with my right. My left hand is at the outermost part of the fleece, putting all of that wool between my hand and the sheep’s body, and between my hand and my sharp, fast, dangerous shears. I hold the wool against the sheep’s body, from the outside, and basically shear underneath it, being very mindful to not cut my hand. I check the sheep’s skin and hand piece position with every stroke and adjust accordingly.

I hope this makes sense. You’ll see what I mean, in any case.

Bring scissors.

Multi-year wool has often felted right on the sheep’s body. This solidified wool makes it difficult to find a safe, clean spot to lay the comb on the sheep’s skin and get started in the proper place, at the proper angle for comb bevel and teeth.

A pair of hand scissors really comes in handy. You can safely and slowly cut wool away by hand, until you’ve created clean purchase for your hand piece. I always feel better and calmer when I’ve set myself and my shears up properly, which gives me the best chance for shearing safely and well.

Bring hand scissors if you don’t already. I can’t say it enough. Add them to your kit. They’re wonderful for safely cutting wool away from the sheep’s face, too.

Use normal equipment, but more of it.

I do not use 9-tooth combs. I’ve sheared sheep with multi-year growth just fine with my usual 13-tooth combs. Indeed, I’d be more leery of using a 9-tooth comb for Shrek sheep, as that lifted skin would fit too easily in the larger space between the teeth. No bueno.

You’ll need more oil, more often, and Kool Lube spray too. After a year or more without shearing, lanolin can dry out, harden, and/or get absorbed by the extra wool. There is less lanolin, literally less oil, to help your shears glide along. This is even worse in cold weather. Your shears may also run hotter than usual, pushing through more wool with more gunk in it. Keep everything well oiled and as cool as possible.

I hope this helps somebody out there. Just take your time, all the time you need.

2 Responses to “Shearing Sheep With Years’ Worth of Wool”

  1. Ray Lupis

    Thanks for your advice! All of us beginner sheep shearers appreciate your information and support!
    Ray from Redding


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