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  • Writer's pictureHighland Croft

Start in the middle

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

Life is full on at the moment, and the weather isn't helping. It's shearing time, and it's raining - not a great combination when you're a shearer like Tom with your books full, your phone glued to your ear and people lining up their sheep to get shorn.

The summer means shearing non-stop for Tom
There are plenty of sheep needing shorn at the moment

Don't get me wrong - he loves it. But it's hard going: some people don't have sheds at all, some people just have small lots, other times you're expected to chase sheep in yourself prior to shearing them (note to potential customers - this is not advised if you're trying to stay in the good books with your shearer!). And while we are thinking every year that there will be less sheep the next year, the opposite seems to be the case.

With an entourage of two kids and a pug in tow, it's a bit more difficult for me to come along and do the wool and I don't go out to many places anymore. I still love it though, it's always quite sociable and the best places are obviously those where you get fed. But my trademark shorts don't look like they'll make an appearance this year.

Sheep shearing has turned into an outing for the whole family
It's all hands on deck in the shearing shed

Somehow Tom has managed to keep going though, finding dry sheep everywhere thanks to people watching the weather forecast and the sky with eagle eyes and getting the woollies in by the skin of their teeth.

You can't shear a wet sheep because the lanolin grease on their skin combined with the moisture will get into your knees and joints and cause arthritis - something many shearers suffer from later on in their career. It's also not advisable to pack wet wool in sheets to take it away to be sold.

Tom and I used to go to New Zealand and Australia, shearing sheep and wool handling respectively, spending half the year there and returning to the UK in spring. So we never had a winter for a few years in a row. These days though, with the croft and all its animals and the kids, travelling long and far has become a distant memory.

These days Tom is busy enough with his own shearing run, covering a huge area reaching from us on the East Coast of Sutherland to the West Coast and everywhere in between. Though it looks easy, learning to shear takes five years fulltime work and your first 1000 sheep will always be hard to do. It's a hard and skilled job that not many people are prepared to get into these days. There are easier ways of making more money. Plus in order to learn properly, you need to go to New Zealand, where there are enough sheep to fill your eight hour working day, every day.

Working in a big shearing gang with several shearers and shed hands (and sometimes even a classer) is an experience, however a far cry from how we do it in Scotland. Here, the wool isn't worth anywhere near as much and hence isn't treated as preciously as Down Under.

Sheep are waiting to be shorn.
Black wool isn't worth any money

It always surprises me that wool isn't valued more in a time where our environmental conscience is acutely sensitised and we take great care to eat organically. Now that people are waking up to the detrimental effect our love for fast and cheap fashion is having on our planet, I wonder why we still hesitate to turn more to wool for our clothing, our house insulation, our carpets. It is a natural raw material that regrows every year - without the pollution and great water consumption that cotton brings.

And while white wool can still be utilised somehow, black wool, sadly, is of no commercial value, as it can't be dyed. I don't like waste in general, so I give the black and brown fleeces of our Shetlands and Hebrideans to a local lady who creates artworks with felted wool. I wish I had more time and skills to spin our wool and knit them into lovely jumpers for all of us. But at the moment, running a croft and rearing lambs and children, is enough to keep us busy.

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