The athletic art of removing sheep's clothing

Aphrodite-like she emerges from her fleece and is pushed by Daniel's boot down the exit chute into the yard below the wool shed. Accompanied by a disjointed symphony of bleating ewes, Classic FM radio, and humming from the shearers' clippers, I flick the freshly shorn fleece onto a pile for the presser to load into the wool press.

The air is thick with the smell of sheep manure and lanolin, sunshine filters through cobweb-covered windows, and the shearers drip sweat, standing astride 123 pounds of struggling wool. Here is the raw material of life, and I love it inside the old wool shed, where everything is functional, full of character, old but useful.

It's shearing time again in New Zealand, and farms up and down the country have been buzzing with activity. Shearing gangs worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week during the time before Christmas to provide the farmers with a small income from their fleeces.

Thirty years ago, wool was the major earner for New Zealand sheep farmers. Now, as wool can't compete with synthetic fibers that are cheaper and easier to make, many farmers raise sheep for meat. Demand for wool is mainly confined to carpet manufacturing.

Daniel Berger and Craig Davie-Martin are part of a shearing gang based northwest of Auckland on the edge of the Kaipara Harbour. The gang is made up of 11 shearers, five wool handlers (or rousies, as they are affectionately known), and two pressers.

I'm learning the art of the wool handler today and have to flick the wool away from Craig to Scottie, the presser, who loads it into the wool press. Belly wool, which is shorter than the main fleece, is bagged separately with leg wool and the sheep's "top-knot."

Any really "daggy" wool near the tail is left in a pile to dry and be sorted later. (Dags are sheep droppings that matt together and hang from the tail area.)

The wool shed we're in today is characteristic of thousands dotted across the New Zealand countryside. Many are still standing from early last century.

Outside, the holding pens full of thickly fleeced sheep form a spiderweb pattern around one side, while in adjacent paddocks, clean, white ewes, separated from their young lambs, bleat their way through the flock trying to find them.

Inside, apprehensive sheep crowd together in pens on a wooden slatted floor. Daniel grabs a ewe by the front legs and pulls her through the swing gate beside his shearing station. Trapping one of her front legs between his thighs, he effectively renders her immobile.

She appears to lie calmly back against his body while with long, curving strokes, he releases her from her winter coat - but any reduction in pressure from his grip, and this "docile'' creature is transformed into a formidable wrestler.

Physically, it's very demanding work. Holding a sheep to stop it from struggling and controlling the heavy handpiece are quite an art, and you have to be pretty experienced to make it look as easy as they do.

"Black wool," shouts Craig. I dive in and grab a minuscule tuft of black from him, quickly throwing it down the exit chute. Black wool cannot be dyed, and any strands left in the fleece could de-value the end product.

On average, Daniel and Craig can each shear 300 sheep a day - about 40 an hour. The tools of their trade include trousers made with two layers of thick, brushed denim on the lower legs; special flat-soled leather moccasins, to protect their otherwise bare feet; and their shearing handpieces.

The latter, run by a motor fixed above head height, are made up of a detachable steel comb and a cutter. All combs have 13 teeth, but can vary in shape depending on the type of wool for which they are used. Daniel and Craig each have two handpieces - changing the comb every hour, and the cutter four times an hour.

Once the sheep is shorn and sent unceremoniously down the chute, and the fleece removed by the wool handler, the shearer gulps back a much-needed drink - and he's on with the next one.

Wool presses vary from farm to farm, but on the smaller properties the old hand-operated ones are still very much in use. Scottie, the presser, gathers armfuls of wool, filling the two chest-high wooden boxes and tramping it down with his feet.

He then cranks one wooden box on top of the other and presses the contents of both boxes into one. The result is about a 397-pound bale of raw wool.

Every day the shearers burn off about the same energy as someone running a marathon, but I feel these guys are fortunate to be part of life on the baseline - where the physical man is satisfied, and his soul finds peace in being part of the process.

The next time your bare feet touch a soft woolen carpet, or you pull a sweater over your head, spare a thought for the sheep - and their friend the shearer!

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