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I’m up to my elbows in wool, my hands soft from the lanolin. The shed smells of machine oil, sheep shit, and sweat. The air is thick with dust and fibres, making my chest tight. The trimmers buzz, the sheep baa, the workers say very little.
“50017. 50176. 10237, leave her neck.”
The wool is still warm from the sheep. It’s a bit like plucking just-laid eggs from a hen’s nest. Oddly intimate. A few seconds ago this (wool, egg) was part of a living animal. But that’s as near as I am going to get to the sheep today.
I am at the end of the production line which consists of:
- two men who snatch the sheep from the flock. Tarasconnaises, they come with convenient handles;
- an accountant scribbling the sheep’s numbers in his ledger book;
- two wrestlers who whisk them off their feet and plonk them down on their backsides, holding them by their front legs, preparing them for the indignity to come;
- two barbers with electric shears, the only professionals in the team. I time their progress: a timid Bo Peep of a sheep takes 45 seconds to be unzipped, a wolf (in sheep’s clothing) takes two minutes;
- two ushers who shoo or drag the newly naked sheep into another pen where they huddle together for warmth;
- a hairdresser, the only woman in the team, to trim the ‘foreigners’ (from other flocks) who will be lumbered with a bell on a collar. The barbers have left a tuft of wool on their necks which she tidies up with a pair of hand shears;
- and me. I’ve been given the job that requires no skill and no experience: stuffing as much of the newly shorn wool as I can into each of the huge sacks.
When I look at the photos later I am reminded of a scene from Hell as painted by Hieronymus Bosch. But despite appearances, it isn’t like that at all. The sheep are treated with respect and shaved with skill. And it is all done for their comfort.
Extreme sheep shearing, Australian style
If a tarasconnaise sheep manages to escape the yearly round-up, like 23 of Gérard’s last year, her wool will continue to grow, but then fall out. Merino sheep, on the other hand, have a big problem.
Archaeology of sheep shearing
The hairdresser tells me that the wool will protect the sheep’s necks from rubbing. But what interests me is the shears. I’ve seen identical ones on archaeological digs, perfected three thousand years ago.
“When I was young,” she says, “we used these, though electric shears already existed.” I’ve seen them in use in the Basque country. There, the sheep were hauled up onto a table and their legs tied together. It takes much longer, around eight minutes with a remarkably cooperative sheep, as seen here.
After breakfast one of the shearers slips his waist into the adult equivalent of a baby-bouncer, to support his back in the awkward bent-over position. By the end of the morning the two shearers will have shaved 258 sheep, at a cost of 380€. I will have stuffed about 250kg of wool into five sacks, for which my shepherd friend Gérard will receive 160€. So shearing costs him 220€.
But the day is not yet finished. Back at the house we are joined by various wives and the fourteen of us eat:
- squares of toast topped with foie gras or smoked salmon;
- pâté de campagne with gherkins;
- oeufs mimosa;
- salmon, cod and scallops in cream;
- wild boar in a wine sauce with steamed potatoes;
- green salad;
- apple croustade, strawberries and cream;
- carrot and ginger cake (my contribution).
We drink pastis, vin de noix, muscat and wine, and finish off with génépi liqueur. That’s what I like about sheep shearing in the Pyrenees!
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