Melbourne — Barbering wool off burly sheep is not exactly shear ecstasy. For one thing it is arm-pumping, backbreaking work. For another the animals can be as rambunctious as a shaggy teen-ager sitting down to his first military "whitewall."
But, alas, help may eventually be on the way.
Jumps in the cost of shearing are spurring the search for new ways to steal a sheep's coat other than using familiar hand-held electric clippers.
One method under study in Australia, the world's leading wool producer, is chemical defleecing. After being fed a certain chemical, the sheep shed their wool the way a snake does its skin. The process is still being perfected, however. One snag: The sheep often lose too much of their coats, leaving them vulnerable to sunburn or cold weather.
Another alternative being explored is "robot shearing." The wool is clipped by a mechanical arm that follows the contour of the animal. So far the space-age method has proved slower than old- fashioned elbow grease.
"At this point in time nothing beats the good old Aussie shearer," says Harold Pleasance of the Wool Corporation's textile technology department.
A good shearer can clip more than 100 sheep a day. Down on the McDonell farm , north of Melbourne, shearing starts in October. A team of three shearers, part of a roving band of professional clippers, will trim the McDonells' 6,200 flock in a few short weeks. They earn about 65 cents a he ad.