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On Their Final Farm Trip, Eighth-Graders Help Prepare Sheep for Summer

Friday, May 13, 2016

This week at the Manhattan Country School Farm, the eighth-graders witnessed a big annual event: the shearing of our sheep. The eighth-graders have learned about wool and worked with it each visit in their textiles class since they were in the 7-8s. Now on this trip—their very last as MCS students—they finally got to see this essential first stage of the whole process.

The sheep had grown out their fleeces since last spring, and all looked pretty much like enormous spheres of wool on four legs. Shearing them serves two purposes: it gives the sheep some relief from the oncoming heat of summer, and it provides MCS with a supply of wool for our textiles program. Over the next year, MCS students will learn to spin it into yarn, dye it and weave beautiful pieces of cloth.

Nancy Meyers is a professional shearer who travels to farms all over central New York. She is a wonderful teacher of all things sheep-related, and speaks calmly to the students as she goes about her work. For shearing, she sits the sheep upright and braces its sides with her legs. This gives the sheep a sense of security and each one remains still and docile while it is being sheared.

Nancy has a powerful electric clipper that works through the thick fleece like a warm knife through butter. She expertly works her way around the sheep, sometimes changing its position, but always bracing it in a way that keeps it tranquil. Her movements are subtle but you can tell that her years of experience inform each move, and that if a beginner tried it, chaos would ensue. Nancy first removes the short and not-useful belly fleece, carefully avoiding udders and other sensitive areas, then works all along the sheep’s sides and back, peeling away the fleece in one contiguous mat.

Nancy also trims each sheep’s hooves after she finishes its shearing. And Ed and Cathy give each sheep a quick injection of worming medicine to prevent parasites.

After the fleece is off, the other sheep and lambs have trouble recognizing the sheared sheep. We’re not sure if this is primarily due to the sheep’s scent changing with the removal of the fleece or if it’s a visual thing (new hairstyle), but after shearing there is a bit of confused sniffing and bleating as everyone re-establishes their identity in the flock.

The fleece is brought to the skirting table, where Lynn and the students pick it over, removing any bits of manure or hay.

Then it is gathered up and placed in a sheet so it can hang on the scale for weighing. An average fleece might weigh seven pounds; we had one this year that weighed 11¾ pounds.

Finally, the fleece is bagged up to be sent off to be processed. In a few weeks we’ll receive the cleaned wool back, ready for another year of textiles class.

And the sheared sheep begin growing out their new fleece—another renewable resource on the MCS Farm.