We are all familiar with the bucolic image of sheep grazing fields, their woolly coats making them look like small clouds drifting along. Or in wintertime when it snows, and either they blend in the snowy surroundings, or we realise that the fleece is actually not as white compared to the fresh snow! But why do we need to shear it off?

Sheep skins and prehistoric wool

Wool is a commodity that humans have used for thousands of years. Even before the first sheep were domesticated, people were using skins from the animals they killed; sheepskins would have had a good value for keeping warm and dry. However, you can only get one skin from each animal. People must have realised it was a bit of a waste to always have to kill an animal when some of the wool was often found hanging from the vegetation. 

At some point, there must have been someone who thought to try and make use of some of this soft material to keep warm, without killing the animal. After all, sheep were shedding it in summer and growing it back in winter. So there was plenty of it around. Prehistoric sheep (and a few modern breeds) could shed the wool thanks to a natural break in the fibre. Which they then lost by scratching against bushes, trees, etc. Humans just had to tag along and collect what was coming off. Later, people decided to start collecting it more efficiently by combing the sheep; this is called “rooing”, and there are still people that do it to avoid a blunt cut in the fibre.

So how did we get from sheep that effectively (and efficiently) moulted and sheared themselves, to the breeds we see nowadays that keep growing fleece unless we remove it?

Condensing millennia in a sentence, for a long time we believed this to be purely down to selection; natural and artificial. According to this theory, since people needed sheep as a food source, and since we also got a skin or fibre from them, it was soon realised you could choose a certain colour, or quality of fleece. These animals were better looked after, allowed to breed, and prospered; those that didn’t show the desired characteristics were probably eaten – by people or wolves.

As certain qualities of wool/meat/milk became more popular, breeds started to develop in response to different climates and economies. Sheep became more dependent on humans for their survival. Certain wild characteristics have been lost, or put aside – one of them is the ability to shed fleece. This process of selection would have taken a very long period of time; many, many generations of sheep to establish each breed and their characteristics away from the primitive, wild sheep.

It may not all be due to human selection

Recent evidence suggests that coat changes in sheep happen within a shorter period of time than if they were a result of simple selection (human or natural). So it looks like sheep have had all the necessary genes to be moulting or continuously growing their woolly coat, all along. Reverting to the primitive coat type is entirely possible; even when starting from the extreme opposite (the Merino breed), and without human intervention. That would all be down to follicle populations having all the necessary information to become one or the other kind by being able to adjust to the environment. This is fascinating! 

The same effect can be seen in domestic pigs, which are large and covered in thin bristles. Once they return to living in the wild they soon (within a few generations) become smaller and hairier. Therefore, different environmental and human factors would simply favour either the primitive type that moults, or the “modern” type of fleece that needs shearing. Yet the genetic potential was there since before sheep even set eyes on humans. Domestication probably accelerated some of the process. Especially as sheep were being combed to get the wool off quicker than waiting for the natural shedding to complete.

Fast forward a few thousand years…

Aside from the obvious reason to collect wool for its uses; shearing sheep is a welfare matter, and not one taken lightly. Farmers will still arrange for their flocks to be clipped, even when it loses them money. This is because they don’t want their sheep to suffer. A heavy, overgrown fleece will make them more likely to become overheated. And become a victim to parasites and flystrike, eventually unable to walk (and even see) properly. Shearing is a necessary – and welcome – procedure. 

The vast majority of shearers are highly competent professionals that have spent a long time honing their skills; they have to be fit and healthy, as shearing is probably the toughest job when it comes to sheep farming. Once the animals have been placed in position, they are usually quite happy to let the fleece come off. Sometimes you get a few that struggle. It’s usually either the more flighty ones or the shearer is still perfecting their handling technique. Most of them will however sit happily and quietly, only to do a relieved jump and skip once released. They must feel so much lighter and cooler. Try wearing a thick woolly jumper in summer: would you not be happy to be helped out of it? 

Shearing time

As for the shearers, they are often unsung heroes of the farming community. Turning heavy animals, maintaining a clear head and calm manners in the heat… You can see shearers get into “the zone” as they clip sheep after sheep, with swift movements of the blades making it look easy and effortless. It is anything but! 

Campaigns against shearing sheep

There have been some pretty ferocious campaigns of late, claiming shearing sheep is cruel and barbaric, showing graphic pictures of bleeding animals. I suspect like many other current “issues” in animal welfare, these images were taken in the unfortunate (and very rare!) circumstance of a sheep doing the wrong move at the wrong time and then blown heavily out of context. Superficial cuts are uncommon during shearing, even in breeds with wrinkly skin, as the shearers adapt their technique smoothing out the skin. In many years of vetting in areas very heavily populated with sheep flocks, I can recall only 1 or 2 occurrences of a ewe needing the vet out to stitch a deeper cut. 

First aid

Farmers and shearers are very good at providing first aid for the minor grazes; they don’t want the animal to suffer either. Besides, if all the sheep were badly hurt by shearing, it wouldn’t take long for all these people to be out of business when all the animals died! Replacing a flock is not cheap. Even more so these days when wool is paid so little that it is hardly worth its own weight. 

The cost of wool

In many cases, the cost of shearing per head is higher than what the Wool Board will pay for that fleece. It is mind boggling because wool is an amazing product, with so many useful qualities and can be transformed into a huge amount of items. Yet, despite not being paid much at all for it, farmers still get them shorn, and willingly pay for this to happen (with a bit of moaning!). Because they have a duty of care for their sheep. As wool is a natural, completely renewable and 100% biodegradable resource, we are doing ourselves and our planet a disservice in not asking for more wool products above the oil-derived man-made fibres.

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