June 17, 2024

Shearing Sheep

Contrary to the organised chaos of the castle, the farm at Highclere is regulated by the cycle of the seasons in a reassuringly repeated fashion through endless decades. This applies to our sheep as much as the arable crops. Every year in early summer the shearing gang arrives to work their way through the entire flock of 1,400 ewes: each thick woolly coat is taken off in a matter of minutes before the shearer moves on without a break to the next one.

Altogether it is a very organised process. The sheep are brought down from the large park fields and gathered into temporary catching pens before being caught by the shearer. The ewes then always look rather surprised as they are turned upside down for the two or three minutes it takes, after which they find their feet, shake themselves down and leap away as if years have been lifted from them.

Sheep need to be shorn because their fleeces otherwise become too thick and heavy. Each fleece can weigh between three and twenty pounds so shearing also allows the sheep to cool off during hot weather when heat stroke can occur. Of course, in the UK we have yet to see any signs of summer but both we and the sheep live in hope. All the fields here have plenty of shade in terms of the cover offered by the trees but at the moment the tree canopy is mostly being used to dissipate the rain.

Equally, because of their thick fleeces, sheep are also particularly susceptible to insect infestations like flystrike. If parts of their fleece become sufficiently contaminated with dirt and fluids, this attracts the flies who then lay their eggs in the fleece. After hatching, the maggots bury themselves in the sheep’s wool and eventually under the sheep’s skin, feeding off their flesh. Removing the fleece considerably reduces the risk of diseases of this nature because it removes a potential breeding ground for insects.

Sheep have been part of the landscape here forever and, they both graze the land and fertilize it. There is plenty of grass and allowing sheep to roam means fewer mechanical means are needed to keep down scrub. With fewer gardeners than in the past they allow some areas of the farm to continue as an “arcadian parkland” with long distance views and breaks of trees which is what makes the landscape around the castle so beautiful and peaceful for all of us.

The wool trade used to be one of the world’s major economic power bases. For example, Europe’s oldest city, Knossos in Crete derived almost all its wealth from sheep whilst the medieval wool trade in England contributed 30% of the GDP at one point. Today wool is once more recognised for its sustainability: it can be used for insulation, for carpets, for cloth and knitting or even, as at Highclere, for mattresses.

The days after shearing are rather noisy with ewes and lambs constantly calling to each other. The lambs partly recognise their mother by smell. From birth the ewes are always licking and sniffing their lambs, nursing them many times a day. Cleaning off the amniotic fluid in which each lamb is covered at birth helps the ewes to bond with their lamb(s). Shearing therefore mutes one half of this bond which then needs to be re-established – not that the lambs really need their mothers anymore. They are more than able to graze and with all the rain there is plenty of grass.

After a week the fields full of sheep settle down again and as far as passing visitors are concerned, the sheep look like distant white bubbles of whiteness contrasting perfectly with the broad green fields.