Shearing 180 sheep is a one-day task at Lyme farm

Lyme — Managing a farm is a year-round production of planning and preparation, carrying out those plans and reaping its benefits.

As part of that annual ebb and flow, the end of October stands as Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm sheep-shearing period — a weekslong process that will yield more than 1,000 pounds of fleece to be processed and spun into yarn.

The process of shearing, however, lasts just one day at Beaver Brook Farm, and on Monday, that meant 180 sheep were scheduled for shearing from 8 a.m. to dusk.

Standing in the farm’s main barn, on top of wooden floorboards for stability, two professional shearers from Massachusetts, sheared one sheep after the next with the help of four farmhands — a calm and calculated process that takes considerable effort to perfect, they said.

“It’s hard work even if you’ve been doing it for a long time,” said Aaron Loux, a shearer with 17 years of experience. Loux said he typically shears more than 10,000 sheep a year.

“Shearing a sheep is a combination of labor and brute force,” he continued. “But it’s also a technique. You try to shear the same way every time, but you have to make adjustments based on the size of the sheep, how old they are, what their fleece is like and their temperaments.”

“I’d say it’s more important to be flexible,” added shearer Bryan Mason. “If you look at me, I’m not that strong of a guy, but I am flexible.”

The technique for successfully shearing sheep — some of which can weigh hundreds of pounds, and some of which like to struggle — starts by propping the sheep down on its behind, before placing its shoulders between the shearers’ knees. It’s the knees that hold the sheep still, farm owner Suzanne Sankow said, leaving the hands to move across the sheep as necessary.

“If you look, a shearer will shear in the same way every time. There is a proper way to shear sheep,” Sankow said, explaining that typically, shearers begin shaving the sheep’s stomach first, moving in smooth strokes before proceeding to the sheep’s legs and working over the back. Then using one hand to hold the sheep’s ear, the shearer will shave the sheep’s neck, holding folds of skin meanwhile to ensure a close shave. The process, which takes less than five minutes per animal, requires a constant maneuvering of the sheep, as well as calm, precise movements — all while keeping the sheep relaxed.

“This one here isn’t scared, see,” Mason said, as his clippers slid over one docile ewe. “But they all have different personalities.”

“They are a flight animal,” he continued. “So they would rather flight than fight. They don’t typically fight like a dog, or kick like a horse, but their defense is to escape. That’s why you have to hold them in a way that calms them.”

After a sheep is sheared, a farmhand immediately bags its fleece, which is sorted over the next two weeks by texture and color. The fleece is then sent to be washed in South Carolina and is later spun in Massachusetts.

This year, Sankow predicts she’ll produce more than 1,000 pounds of fleece. One adult sheep will yield eight to 10 pounds of fleece, she said, while a lamb will yield six to eight pounds. Sixty lambs were sheared for the first time this year on the farm.

Once the wool is made into yarn, Sankow will use it to knit socks, blankets, vests and sweaters — products she will later sell at fairs around the region, as well as at her wool shop on the farm.

Besides the necessary technique and teamwork needed for a successful day of shearing, Sankow also explains that the lead-up to shearing day relies as much on good preparation as on knowing her sheep and her business.

“We started Thursday, first separating sheep from lambs, rams from ewes. We had to separate the ones that will be bred and the ones meant for meat,” she said, explaining that she also had several groups of ewes and rams that were brought in to avoid the rain.

“Their wool can’t be wet,” she said. “Plus, you have to put up different gate systems, different moving systems. You have to keep groups away from other groups. There are rams who will try to knock fences down. So there is a lot of preparation, but it goes quickly, because I’ve done it for so long.”

But all the work is worth it, Sankow said. “I’m just happy to get the wool in the end.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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