Memories of Ollerbrook Farm: Shearing Day
The next big event on the sheep calendar after lambing is shearing time.
As I write this in early June, many of the lowland flocks are already being sheared, whereas the hill flocks tend to be later and often into July.
Shearing is very different today from the period I am writing about, the 1950’s. Nowadays, many farmers pay contractors to carry out the work. Depending on the number of sheep to shear, a couple of contractors will turn up, towing a shearing trailer from which they will operate, using electric clippers.
Contractors will shear anywhere between 150 and 250 sheep a day. Professional contractors, often from New Zealand who do nothing else but shear will do more. The current World Record, broken last year on a farm in Devon by a New Zealander, stands at 644 sheep in an 8 hour stint!
Back to the 1950s, a very different scenario! All shearing was then done by hand shears. Wool today is not worth a deal. Back then it was a valuable commodity and in fact many sheep were kept mainly for the wool. It was often said that on a rented farm the wool cheque would pay the rent for the year.
At Ollerbrook (and this would be replicated on most of the local hill farms) preparations would start at least a week before the date set for shearing. The barn at the top of the yard would be thoroughly cleaned out, the barn bay, which would be the holding pen for the sheep on shearing day, would be cleaned as it was important that the sheep did not pick up hay and straw into their fleeces before being sheared.
Two long wooden trestles would then be placed down each side of the barn for the men to stand behind to shear. If memory serves me well, there would be four or five men each side. A small table would be placed at the top end of the barn for the “wrapper” to work wrapping the fleece.
In the house, Nan would be busy preparing the food she was going to provide on the day. Invites would have gone out well in advance to neighbours and farmers in the surrounding area, Hayfield, The Snake etc to come and help with the shearing. In return, Granddad and Jim would go and help other farmers with their shearing, that’s how it worked. It must be remembered that as well as these being big and important working days, they were also social occasions, a chance to meet with people you may not have seen for a long time, and catch up on all the gossip. The food had to be good and plentiful!
The sheep would have been gathered in off the hills a few days before and penned up the night before shearing to allow them to stand and empty their bellies. It is not good for the sheep to be shorn on a full stomach, it could damage them internally.
On the day of shearing, milking would be done early and the first batch of sheep put into the barn bay. The shearers would start to arrive about 9:30am and after a brew would make their way up to the barn. Leg pull and banter would by now be in full swing! The ritual of sharpening their shears would then be carried out on a whetstone, and then, almost without a signal, each shearer would go and draw (catch) his first sheep out of the barn bay.
After that, “young Jim” would catch and bring a sheep to the shearers as they were ready. Some could “clip” quicker than others but a lot of pride was at stake in turning out a neatly clipped sheep.
An old chap called Charles Bradbury from Hayfield used to come and wrap the fleeces. He was a very steady chap but he could certainly wrap a fleece! Tight and neat, after he had wrapped he would throw it up onto the hay loft where in time it would be packed into the “wool sheets” sewn up and sent by train to the woollen mills in Bradford.
As a small boy, I had a very important job. Dressed in green overalls I was the “lock lad”. Weight of the fleeces was important and nothing was to be wasted. As a sheep is sheared, little “locks” of wool fly off and collect under the tables. My job was to go up and down behind the tables, picking up any clean locks, and taking them to Charles, who would place them inside a fleece as he was wrapping it. By the end of the day the green overalls were black from the grease and lanolin out of the fleece. Also, you were the butt of the humour of the shearers, in a good
natured way, and often any crawling creatures found on the sheep would end up down the back of your neck! Character building stuff!
Meal times were important. A large lunch would be taken, after which progress would be a little slower for the first part of the afternoon. Suddenly, the last pen would be emptied and shearing was done for another year. The shearers would make their way down the yard to the house for tea, after which the odd whiskey would be taken to celebrate the completion of another big day.
To a small boy, this was a great day. Huge characters, lots of fun and banter, together with serious discussion on the state of farming, the country, the world plus the inevitable gossip. I was to be “seen but not heard”, just get on with my job. But I took it all in and looking back, days such as this were a tremendous part of my education, and had a huge impact on me which was to stay with me the rest of my life. Great memories of Ollerbrook Farm.