The Sheep Shearing Dance

The Sheep Shearing Dance

June 3, 2016

Sheep shearing is like a dance. It requires strength, flexibility, a tender touch and the right moves. Once mastered, the skill can open the door to gratifying and high-paying seasonal work.

“I tell my sheep shearing students, ‘You'll never be unemployed',” said John Harper, UC Cooperative Extension Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor in Mendocino County. “And you'll never be poor.”

Shearers can earn $50 to $100 per hour, Harper said, and can start a business with a $3,000 investment in equipment.

“If they can learn how to shear sheep correctly, it's a great little business to get into,” Harper said.

The need for skilled sheep shearers in California and other parts of the nation has prompted the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center to host an annual sheep shearing school, where a diversity of students are introduced to a trade that allows them to work with their hands, out-of-doors, when and where they want.

Although sheep shearing is traditionally a male occupation, Harper said he encourages women to take the course.

“Women have a lower center of gravity. Strength is important, but so is hip rotation,” Harper said. “The sheep's skin is very loose and the blades are pretty powerful. The female students tend to be more cautious and we see fewer nicks.”

Beatrice Thomas, 41, is a typical student. “I came to sheep shearing by way of dance and the arts,” Thomas said. She left her Bay Area desk job about a year ago. “There wasn't a mind-body connection,” she said. “Forty hours at a desk, my body was aching.”

But sheep shearing was a completely different experience.

“This doesn't hurt the same way as sitting at a desk because it feels vital. Every move is important. There's a dance. There's a rhythm. My whole spirit lit up,” Thomas said.

The 5,200-acre Hopland Research and Extension Center is home to a flock of about 1,000 sheep, which provide opportunities for scientists to study their role in land management. They also serve as a ready supply of animals for prospective new shearers to learn the craft.

“We teach students how to shear in a way that ensures the welfare of the sheep, produces a quality wool clip, and keeps the shearers safe,” Harper said. “We received a grant from the National Sheep Industry Improvement Association to purchase new shearing equipment. This allows the students to learn with brand new, state-of-the-art combs, cutters and hand pieces.”

The annual sheep shearing school at Hopland is the only intensive five-day course in the United States, said Hannah Bird, a community educator at the research center.

“It brings people from all over the country and sometimes outside the country,” she said.

The week together helps build camaraderie amongst the newly trained sheep shearers. Hopland sheep shearing alums have created a Facebook group to stay in touch and refer jobs to one another. Several previous students are making a living sheep shearing. One is Stephanie Wilkes, a 2013 sheep shearing student who now runs her own sheep shearing business from San Francisco.

“People always ask me, ‘How can you run a sheep shearing business and live in the city?'” Wilkes said. “But there are actually a lot of sheep in the Bay Area, in Marin County, Solano, and Yolo. I shear in Hayward and as far south as Gilroy. I can go anywhere a car can.”

Lead instructor Gary Vorderbruggen said a key to sheep shearing success is a calm demeanor.

“Sheep don't need to be riled up. If you can be calm and be safe, you will gain speed with experience,” Vorderbruggen said. “It's no different than a dance. It's like a square dance, except you're doing that square dance with an unwilling partner.”

Joining Harper and Vorderbruggen as an instructor for the class in 2016 was Trevor Hollenback. He was first exposed to sheep shearing when visiting a friend's sheep farm in Austria.

“I realized this is a really skilled craft. It's amazing,” Hollenback said.

Hollenback quit his desk job and traveled to New Zealand for training, then returned to the Austrian farm for more practice. Back in the United States, Hollenback opened his own business and began shearing sheep in California and Arizona. He was tapped to be the instructor at Hopland because of his formal training in New Zealand.

“One of the most important things that the students can take away from this course is going to be sheep handling, how to move the sheep around, how to control the sheep on the board,” Hollenback said. “A lot of students came here with very little background in livestock. Footwork, positions, getting the pattern down – all the finer points in shearing – that comes with practice.”

The week-long sheep shearing school at Hopland will be held again in spring 2017. The class typically fills up within two hours of opening registration. Register interest on the UCCE Mendocino website to be notified when registration opens.

This story courtesy of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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