Earlier this month we went to visit Lynne and David White, owners of the Ashby Shetlands. The Ashby Shetlands are a prize-winning pedigree flock and we are very proud to have their wool in our Northampton Shear yarn. At the time of writing, the yarn from last year’s clip is almost all sold out – but we were able to witness the very start of the process for this year’s as it was shearing day!
David hand shears the flock over the course of a few sessions. This was the last one, with the last group of ewes waiting to be rid of their warm woolly coats.
The first thing about shearing is timing: you can’t do it until the fleece is ready. When you part the fleece, you can see a kind of tide mark or line of lanolin, which indicates the division between last year’s fleece and the new growth. This is called the “rise” and enables the shears to get in and comfortably cut the fleece making it the best experience for the sheep, and the shearer who doesn’t want lanolin clogging up the blades.
Shetlands naturally shed or “roo” their fleeces; a trait that has been bred out of many sheep. It tends to start first at the neck, which is another sign that they may be getting ready to shear.
One of the things we especially liked about David’s approach was that he wasn’t racing to shear each sheep as quickly as possible and each ewe was relaxed and comfortable.
A lot of the time we see sheep shearing it’s competitive, and sadly the sheep don’t always receive the best treatment as they are rushed through the shearing process. David uses shearing as an additional opportunity to check the health of the flock and the time and care he takes over each individual sheep is quite lovely to see. He checks the udder for mastitis, although he also explained this is usually quite obvious by observing the ewe in the field. He also checks their hooves and trims them where necessary to prevent foot infection.
We learned something quite funny about lambs: they mostly recognise their mothers by sight. So when mum has had what can only be described as a rather dramatic makeover, the lambs don’t recognise her anymore! We watched a ewe after she was released back to the field. Her lambs called for her and she responded, so they ran towards the sound only to run straight past her. Eventually they figure out she must be their mum from the sound of her baa and risk a suckle on her teats, risky because ewes don’t take kindly to strange lambs! But it is her, and their little tails go wagging enthusiastically in the air as they drink her milk.
We filmed David shearing Nigella and you can see the full video here:
There was a fair bit of discussion about how this compares to commercial sheep farming and of course, what Lynne and David does isn’t on that scale. But it is important. Lynne explained that keeping pedigree flocks like the Ashby Shetlands is vital for keeping genetic traits alive. They can pass on their strengths to other flocks and breeds through crossbreeding. The breed standard for Shetlands has a lot to say about the characteristics of the wool, and through careful breeding over more than a decade, Lynne and David are producing some of the finest quality Shetland wool out there.
Lynne takes the fleece as soon as it’s off the sheep to be skirted and inspected. Skirting is when the scraggly and dirty parts of the fleece, usually from the rear end and the underbelly, are removed. These bits are best saved for mulch in the garden! It’s quite fascinating to see how the fleece varies from the rear to the neck, where the finest wool is found.
Lynne takes an average staple from the middle and tests it for strength by holding it between thumb and forefinger on both hands and snapping it. Strong wool will bounce back and not break. When a ewe has had a stressful year from a difficult lambing or illness, it shows up as a weakness in the fleece. The best fleeces are the ones that look like a beautiful cobweb lace curtain when they’re laid on the sorting table.
At this point, Lynne decides what will become of the fleece. Some of it will end up in her own handspun yarn, and hopefully some of it will be coming to us for another batch of Northampton Shear!
Many thanks to Lynne and David for generously sharing their time and knowledge with us.