Gwynfor Evans effortlessly sits yet another sheep at his feet, rubs his aching back and bends to the task in hand. Each sweep of the cutter is completed with astonishing speed and accuracy, the entire fleece peeling away within a minute.
The season for shearing sheep is short, but intense, starting in May and finishing before August. At the end of the period Gwynfor and his "gang" of farmers' sons will have notched up some 50 days, shearing around 50,000 sheep between them.
"Mostly we clip small mountain sheep on the hill farms, charging 35p each - mind you, I'd want at least 50p for larger lowland sheep," he says. "The gang number depends on the quantity of sheep. We each clip around 280 a day although one lad once managed 374."
One of the hill farms Gwynfor works at has 2,300 sheep to be shorn in a single day. To achieve this, nine shearers are required. The farmer, Robert Lewis, organises the rest. "For every two men shearing, I need one wool 'lapper' to fold and roll the fleece, keep the floors swept clean and fill the wool sheets." These "sheets" are large hessian sacks strung to the ceiling with capacity to hold 40-50 fleeces each.
Traditionally, the farmer employed extra men to catch the sheep for shearing but lately a catch-your-own policy seems to be favoured. "I can charge a couple of pence more per sheep to do this and it's easier on your back if you can straighten up between each one," admits Gwynfor.
Usually, clipping starts at 8am unless a heavy dew or rain occurs overnight. If the sheep are wet, shearing is held up, Gwynfor grimaces at the thought. "You can't shear wet sheep but we must be finished up, ready for the next farm the following day. We can only wrap it up when all the sheep are done - 5pm if we're very lucky, 10pm if we're not."
Most farms "pitch" their sheep at shearing time (painting the farmer's initials on the backs for identification) and this requires an extra pair of hands. Robert Lewis needs a total of 24 men including Gwynfor's gang for the day.
How well the sheep shear depends on the weather: a warm, dry spring being ideal. A cold, wet season causes the natural body grease of the sheep to cling to the skin, preventing the wool rising and resulting in shearing being "sticky and tough going". In the past, farmers used to wash the sheep a few days before clipping. "They would 'stank' (dam) a brook with sand bags to make a pool then put the sheep in for a few minutes," explains Gwynfor. "Clipping was a lot easier: the water washed out the grease and left the fleece spotless. I can remember helping as a child but the practice stopped over 25 years ago."
On Robert Lewis's farm, shearing is the single most important day of the year with an enormous amount of organising on Robert's part to ensure its smooth running. "Everyone pitches in - neighbours, relatives, even local retired farmers looking for a day out back on the farm, come to lend a hand," he says. "The womenfolk don't have it easy either: it's a long day, with many mouths to feed."
Gwynfor's day doesn't just start with shearing either: "I have to be up at 5.30am to grind the combs and cutters for the machines". And it doesn't end there: " My evenings are spent arranging the gang for the following day - hay harvesting often falls during shearing time so the farming lads won't commit themselves in advance."
Gwynfor started shearing at 16 but it wasn't until he reached 22 that his speed and technique became proficient enough to begin contract work. "Teaming the right style is critical or you'll never become fast enough to earn a decent crust," he says. "You need an understanding wife, too. I don't see much of mine during summer."
When shearing ends in August, Gwynfor packs away his machines and prepares his chainsaw and axe. For the next four months he will be fencing with his brother for the local farmers, followed by hedge-laying throughout the winter until the sap rises in spring and he's called to the wool once more.Reuse content