We are not the faithful gardeners that we would like to be. I've said time and again that we can only focus on so much at once, and we grow the wool. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my veggies, and we plant more than we are able to maintain well in the earth nearly every year. I still get to put some abundance away here and there every summer. We do, however, get to faithfully glean from our wooly gardens!
To prepare before shearing season, every day is spent with a bit of evaluation and contemplation for our wooly gardens: How are the minerals? Have caloric needs changed? Is our co-grazing working for the health of the fields and peace of all involved species? Oh no - Is that burdock coming to attack and stick in fleeces? Is it time to rotate etc., etc., etc. A farmer always looks for the thing on the top of the list.
Keeping hay out of fleeces in the winter is a real thing. Some people put coats on their sheep which seems like a great idea... but for expense, time, and the fact that we do live in the South and humidity plus coats often leads to felting. Plus, Finns have wonderfully easy-care fleeces that tend to shed much of the VM, etc. As a side note - If you plan to keep sheep for wool, remember this: the lower the hay, the less VM (vegetable matter) you get in the fleece. Sheep eat overtop and under and squeeze in from the side to get their little snacks and nibbles. Low feeders prevent chaff in the Spring fleeces which tend to suffer the consequences. We often use a high quality round bale with a configured cattle panel to keep the hay intact and clean inside while pushing the sheep away from falling fiber matter. I'm am sure that there are better ways that I have not yet discovered, but this seems to suit our numbers and needs for now. During the lambing season, the littles will often crawl inside for some much loved bed and breakfast time. It's a sweet time of year! I love the Spring, and the fleeces are nice with some thought to management, etc., but Fall is where my Wooly Garden shines!
Last year, a very kind shepherd friend of ours gifted the kids with some retired and beloved blade shears - all in varying conditions and sizes. Well, my children have all wanted to shear! This was elating to them! And this Fall, they were able to live those dreams and graduate from shearing angora rabbits to their very own Finn flocks.
And now we enter into the moment. Our wooly friends have been carefully washed on stands and the electronet fencing is set up in our yard waiting to receive the freshly washed wooly friends who are turned out to dry. The other sheep faithfully mow while they wait to get their transforming baths. The first-timer Spring lambs complain a bit at first until they realize that the itchy accumulation of dirt and some lanolin are being rinsed away. Occasionally, we'll find a neglected thistle or other debris wound into their wool, and we dislodge it. The older sheep mostly seem to know the drill and settle into their contented state awaiting the primping and manicuring. They know that soon they will be breezy free and that this process will soon free them from all the locked in itchies that have begun to plague them. They know that we work admiring their gift and giving extra scratches and love. Many of our sheep don't even need the stand, but stands make the work easier on our backs, etc. The stands are not always available, however, and so the rams are often tied to a convenient tree. Most will stand stock still for shearing. And the most exciting part about this year - everyone can help!
I watch as my daughters and sons carefully part the fleece to start the clip. The wool "waste" has been removed and will be not wasted but used for felting or dryer balls or compost or mulch depending. Straight down the backline they move to get a line of entrance, then clipping carefully down the sides as cascades of beautifully dry and perfect Finn fleece is freed from the patient sheep. I am always amazed by the colors underneath. Growing fleeces may be tipped with gold by the sun; the fleece may have hidden treasure underneath. We all stand to help catch the soft treasure as it is peeled back with the quiet and slow snip-snip-snip sound that humbly pronounces the great reveal. I am amazed by my children's confidence as they move with exact precision along the anatomy of our beloved friends. There is an unspoken awe in the air. A silent joy but for the occasional bleating as the sheep inquire as to their new routine on occasion.
This year Ida-Down-Dilly, a black Spring ewe, is being shorn for the first time. Ida has been rubbed all over since the beginning of her life. She is used to people picking up feet for fun, hugging her belly, rubbing underneath and will gleefully follow for love and the occasional botanical treat. She is puzzled by the new routine. We put Ida on the stand and begin. She has already been washed... a process which she is not sure she needed, but apparently did not put her off enough to be worried about shearing. The clip begins. My husband makes short work of her underbelly wool with the electric shears... a bit short for use, but remarkably clean. We might be able to save this for something later. The electric shears give her a start! Loud and warm, vibrations tickle through her whole body. Yes, this is not something Ida approves of, and she is not afraid to let us know! This is quickly done, however, with no damage and Ida settles down as the slow snip-snip-snip begins. We talk to her, telling her how beautiful she is. Tall shepherds reach into the covering branches for leaves to offer as treats. Pretty soon, Ida-Down-Dilly is sure she must be in the best place in the whole world! Scratches, cool, treats, family loving and surrounding her. She still glories in this as the last bit of fleece is removed and her feet are clipped.
When Ida is let off the stand, she shakes and is surprised to see that her skin is so light and breezy. She looks to her shepherd in curiosity. She seems a little unsure of herself, and follows her Elizabeth to the chair that holds her fleece. She sniffs. And sniffs again. And looks back at us in wonder. And sniffs again with a nibble. We then take her just that little bit further to her friends. Ida looks back at us in gratitude, then bounces up the slight hill to play and show-off her new found freedom. And we are left with her abandoned soft black gold.
Yes, the shearing season is full of work and pleasure. Seeing our babies thriving, enjoying their emerging personalities and delights, feeling and smelling that sweet wool from their person which also springs from our pasture and care. Dreaming of skipping through the fields or walking the city streets with Ida-Down-Dilly in our hearts and on our sleeves. Fall is a time of great harvest for the shepherd. Clean wool abounds, happy sheep skip lightly on their feet, and our hearts swell with the bliss of it all!
Well, I have written about my good working farm dogs for awhile on our FB Farm page. I figure that I should start giving these stories a better suited home. Forgive me for bringing you in not-from-the beginning. The beginning was a while ago and the now is fresh for writing. Here's to new beginnings! The story below is called "Sheep Monopoly."
Fall on the farm is busy! So many stories slip past never written, but they never seem to stop happening! Like the coon family that kept ripping open feed sacks that Benji and Lorna have been eradicating one at a time. Or the skunk that, thankfully, the dogs alerted us to without assuming the very likely consequences without a sound set of lay and stay skills!
Everyone gets excited on the farm in Fall. The dogs turn about barking and playing and chasing each other like a furry tornado of spinning leaves. They are exhilarated by the change in air and temperature and assume their new tempos in perfect time.
It’s not just the dogs though. It’s time to settle the ewes. Pens have been carefully planned and the rams introduced. The dogs routinely shadow us during chores in case any of the hormonal boys get any nasty ideas in their heads. My children can feel comfortable in the animal paddocks with such faithful friends watching their backs. Even so, sometimes a ram will lose its head and begin to be foolish. Today, one did.
Oh - the rams know better than to mess with the kids, but today one decided to continuously pummel an innocent ewe. Why? Who knows. Frustration at breeding season is an uncertain thing. My Finn rams are fairly predictable. This ram was not a Finn and was not in the mood to question his own drives. Perhaps he wanted the ewe’s share of food, or perhaps he was frustrated that she was already bred? All we knew is that his behavior had to stop right then! The other day when this happened, Benji stepped right up to the plate in no-nonsense fashion and drove this ram into a stall for safety’s sake. Today was Lorna’s turn. We knew that this ram would need to be put directly into the same stall - “Go directly to jail! Do not pass go. Do not collect $200 of grain.” type of deal! All went well. The other sheep were eating in peace while the ram was separated and we were able to care for them as they needed. Until… Offending Ram decided no gate was too strong for him! Apparently, his grain was not good enough for him. He wanted it all! Where was that $200 fodder?
Lorna typically lays while the sheep eat. They are accustomed to her presence and eat peacefully. Today was different. Today, Lorna pounced to action. The ram thought the gate would make a difference to their relationship. Even though Lorna was standing at the closed gate and barking, Offending Ram head-butted full force on our steel gate. Lorna was not deterred. Using that wonderfully problem solving brain of hers, she quickly amended her plan and decided to nip that great wooly head through the gate and demanded order! Offending Ram was stunned… then thought better of his blatant lack of respect and decided glowering in the back of the stall was a much better plan since that promise of stolen goods seemed impossible with such a furry dog wall in the way. Apparently “Dog-Wall” was stronger that the steel gate that he had quickly bent in 2-3 blows. How could that be? Lorna stood to hold the line while Offending Ram was considering his lack of options.
In the end, the ewes ate in peace and were happily released to pasture again. Offending Ram was released humbled, while our family walked back to the house in safety. Offending Ram will not be here much longer. Such is the way of things on the farm, but Benji and Lorna will stay. They will pass go and beyond, and we will never be able to compensate them for all that they give us. One could say that Sheep Monopoly is their game, but this is not exactly true. They only act with this force when needed. Just yesterday, Lorna was licking one of our ewe’s ears. Our collies want to be friends, but are not afraid to practice tough love. I feel, however, that the word “friend” is not strong enough.
This blog chronicles our very full life here on WoodSong Farm. We will share everything from dog to sheep stories, unique wooly works, to animal husbandry tips we pick up along the way. I hope this helps to give you an idea of what our extended farm family and wooly projects are like, and that we may somehow benefit everyone who reads about our journey.