These pregnant ewes are on their way to the barn to be shorn. Their instincts to protect their young lambs from bad weather is enhanced by mamas having thin coats too. Shearing time is the most challenging few days of the year for our farm: we can’t shear wet sheep. The weather can be dry (as it has been this spring) for weeks on end, but lo and behold, when the inflexible shearing dates approach the forecasts are full of wet and cold doom and gloom. Why is this such a challenge? The shearers we hire to do the job are popular guys this time of year: they are booked solid in advance and shearing must happen, regardless of weather.
Do sheep have to lose their coats? Yes, ewes have to be shorn yearly for their health and well-being. We believe that the best time is in the spring, just before they lamb, when (hopefully) the weather is warming, but before the lambs are born. That way, after they have babies in tow, they’ll seek shelter if it is windy or cold. They don’t feel the weather if their coats are still on.
We invite families to visit shearing.
It rained steadily all Saturday, and despite our best efforts, 68 of the 1250 sheep to be shorn got wet. Fortunately the shearers are finishing a job elsewhere on the Island, so will return on Tuesday. There is a glory in the teamwork activity however. There are 3 shearers and 6 “roustabouts” working in the upstairs barn shearing area, with another three people backing them up.
The ‘rousies’ pick up and fling and skirt fleeces, and sweep floors. The space is purposefully snug, so people and animals aren’t travelling more than necessary. There is an almost ballet-like quality to the flow of action, with people keeping an eye on what is needed and who else is moving where, as they back each other up. The shearers finish each fleece in about 2 ½ minutes; nudge the animal out one gap so they can descend a ramp to the outside; click a counter to keep track of numbers; get their next ewe or lamb from their individual holding pen and start again. Meanwhile someone has to pick up the fleece in just the right way so it can be flung, right side up, on the skirting table. Someone else has to sweep the area so it is cleared for the next fleece, while not interrupting the movement of the shearer. It’s a dance. In the adjacent space, the fleece on the table is “skirted” with any dirty bits removed, then roughly bundled and put into an 8 ft hanging burlap bag, that is being solidly packed, then sewn and hauled up by block and tackle, then replaced by an empty one. A metal frame with ladder and a suspended bag takes the flow of fleeces while this is happening. Jacob or Kyle have been doing (or helping with) this job since they were about 5 or 6 years old. Meanwhile, Dianne prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner at her place and hauls hot water, coffee, tea, and snacks to the barn for mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.
These are the ‘Bare-Naked Ladies – a variation on the theme – after shearing. Don and Ian keep the flock fed as well as moving unshorn sheep up the ramp into the holding pens on the second floor of the barn. They also moved the shorn sheep down the road to the shelter of our new barn. The action starts each day about 6:30 am. On the final night the men finished at 8:15 pm. Today, as forecast, there is rain and wind, mixed with snow – just an additional challenge. We do the best we can, providing barn shelter and wind-protected fields, and all the food they want.
Topsy Farms is located on scenic Amherst Island, west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario. Our sheep farm has been owned and operated for over 35 years by 5 shareholders, and involves 3 generations of the Murray family. Our flock of about 2500 sheep graze on tree-shaded pastures, protected by over 20 miles of fence and numerous guard dogs. Natural farming methods without spraying pesticides, or using growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality.