August 4, 2014
Recently there has been a terrific brouhaha in the shearing world and amongst animal rights activists over a video “exposé” done by PETA in some shearing sheds in Australia and the UK. The videos are violent and disturbing and have upset a great many people. They have upset the animal-loving public, who now promise to never buy wool again. They have upset the sheep farmers, who rely on the sale of wool to make a living. And they have profoundly upset the shearing community, who disavows the authenticity of the videos and have come out with many of their own video clips showing proper and humane shearing methods – those used and respected in the profession.
Unfortunately, the illogical conclusion that the public may have reached based on the provocative tapes is that it is cruel to shear sheep.
Cruelty and abuse can occur in any industry, and does. Exposing such abuses is an important part of reform, in upgrading industry standards, enforcing better training practices, and ensuring that laws are obeyed. I do not know where the videos that PETA filmed were taken, nor who the shearers were who heaped abuse on the sheep. I can say as a shearer, however, that it was apparent in several clips that the shearers were quite inexperienced – not knowing how to hold the sheep in position, and not actually shearing according to the proper pattern that all professional shearers go by. It does make me wonder how these shearing crews were chosen.
The photos and video clips I see posted on a regular basis on the Internet – both by amateur and professional shearers, at job sites and in competitions, show none of the disregard for life in these “exposés”. In fact, they show people seriously engaged in a very, very old craft, taking it seriously, and working hard to do it well. Shearing is hard to learn, physically demanding, and is an essential service to animals throughout the world who depend on shearers to remove their fiber every year.
Not shearing sheep and other fiber animals such as goats, llamas, and alpacas, is not an option. It is cruel and inhumane not to relieve them of their wool annually. In some states, it’s the law that fiber animals must be shorn at least once annually.
I wish it were so in all states.
Every year I get called out to shear animals who have not been attended to in 2, 3, or more years. Sometimes I remove over 30 pounds of wool off of animals who, themselves, weigh no more than 100 pounds. On alpacas and llamas, whose fiber does not breathe, unlike that of sheep, I often find heat rashes because the fiber has felted on top, creating a seal and holding in the heat, effectively cooking the skin underneath. The truly depressing cases, however, are people who cancel shearing appointments because they don’t want to spend the money on shearing. “We’ll skip this year,” they say.
All “fiber animals” are beings that have been engineered by man over the centuries. They are, thus, for better or worse, completely dependent upon men (or women) to remove that fiber on a regular basis. With very few exceptions, fiber/wool does not shed. It keeps growing. And growing and growing. With a good mixture of water on it, wool and fiber ‘felt’ which means that the hairs begin to stick together forming a hard surface. Sometimes felted wool becomes so tough that even the sharpest of shears cannot cut through them. I once sheared a sheep whose wool had formed a hard donut around his leg – and he literally could not walk as a result, until he was shorn.
After water and food, shearing is absolutely essential to the well-being, and, indeed, survival of fiber animals. I believe that owners who withhold this service from the animals in their care ought to very seriously consider their reasons for having them.
As to the shearing naysayers, I say to you this: try it yourself!
I remember seenig a Beyond Tomorrow episode where they used a robotic arm to shear sheep. The sheep were directed down an alley that got progressively smaller, when they reached the end they were basically forced over a saw horse and strapped on. Then a lead was attached at their tail and tongue by hand and the robot arm moved down and proceeded to shear the sheep using the capacitance of the sheep’s skin to direct the arm.Sounds cruel eh? Well if you’ve ever seen what a sheep shearer does by hand it’s actually A LOT less stressful. Of course I’m not sure it’s being used in production, but it was an interesting idea. Apparently they got a lot more usable wool out of a sheep and it was just as fast as doing it by hand.