I’ve always had a problem with shearing. First of all, when to do it? And then, who should do it? Finally, when the shearing is over and your sheep are cool and breezy – what about the fleeces? Pauline, my sheep guru, always gets it right. Her fleeces go off to Wales and
return woven into delightful throws, soft blankets and even stylish hats. I collected my fleeces and sent them to a lady in Dorset with a Navajo loom. After a great deal of time (and money) they returned as a rug that looked, and smelt, like a freshly skinned gorilla. The dogs growled at it and the Hoover bag filled up with wool.
So, this year, as the weather warmed, and the sheep panted theatrically when they saw me, my heart sank. Luckily, one is never without advice in the countryside. First up was Colin, a chance meet in the post office. “Haven’t you sheared them yet?” he asked, “I saw Ginny yesterday and she did hers three weeks ago!” Ginny has a large and lucrative flock of native breed sheep that supply some famous London restaurants. She is revered locally because no matter how much shepherding she does, her manicure is immaculate.
I returned to my sheep and dithered. Mr Addington strode by. “Glad to see somebody thinks of the wellbeing of their sheep!” he rapped. “It’s appalling how these so-called experts whip their fleeces off early, the next moment it’s hailing and then what?” He nodded curtly to me, and went off. I was joined by Frank, the village’s all-round countryman. “You need to shear them,” he said sagely. “Bluebottles will spot your
lot and then ‘zap’!” The hideous spectre of flystrike convinced me. The fleeces must go.
So I progressed to my annual agony over which shearer I should choose. One never-to-be-forgotten year I decided to do my own shearing. I bought a shiny pair of hand shears, read a shearing book, and lined up Dinky on the barber’s stool. It took me a whole hour to shear her, and the rest of the day before I could stand upright again. Dinky looked like a bizarre poodle and wouldn’t come near me for weeks. No, this was a job for experts. The team of bronzed New Zealanders who sheared Ginny’s many sheep at lightning speed wouldn’t even consider my flock of five. Anyway, my pampered princesses demanded tact and niceties during the undignified business of being shorn.
Second choice was Harmony Biggins, a hippy with dreadlocks and a psychedelic Morris Traveller, who’d done the shearing since my failed attempt. He’s expert with the shears, but likes to live unshackled by manmade constraints, so only shears when he feels like it. His answerphone told me that he had gone to a happening in Nepal. I realised with foreboding that the only option left was the Gribble family.
The Gribbles are a tribe of shepherds who live in a dark Gloucestershire valley, and whose forbears haven’t got out much for several centuries. They are highly regarded as sheep shearers, but my problem is that I can’t understand a word they say, which is highly embarrassing. But needs must – I dialled their number, and a Gribble answered. “Hurdle wurdle gurdle?” said the voice. I took a deep breath and explained that my sheep needed
shearing, and how about next Wednesday? “Wurdle gur. Ar,” came the reply. “Great!” I said, weakly, and hoped for the best.
Wednesday dawned fair. My sheep had spent the night indoors, so were dry and very woolly. I hung around hopefully, and, oh joy! Bang on time an ancient pick-up arrived, filled to the brim with Gribbles. They were wonderful – gentle with the sheep and cheerful. The language barrier remained, but they were patient with me, and ordered mugs of hot sweet tea in sign language. They left a neat stack of fleeces, and we parted on a tide of mutually incomprehensible goodwill.
Appeared in Country Living Magazine May 2009. Artwork by Celia Witchard.