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Shearing Time @ Mount Melsetter Farm

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The full title of this property at Schoombee outside Middelburg  is marketed as ‘Mt Melsetter Karoo House and Hunt’, but when the shearing team arrives it’s all about the sheep – and the fleeces.

This year, the manager, Mike Ferrar, opts to have machine shearers in because everyone wants to shear at this time and enough hand shearers are hard to find.

Hand shearing doesn’t cut as close as machine shearing does, so machine shearing can only really be done at the height of summer, which is why Mike opts to do it now, while it’s still so hot.

lowmel0001The rain is threatening, so Mike and his stockmen have corralled a whole bunch of sheep in a stable block, under cover from rain. You cannot shear a wet sheep.

There are rituals in shearing.

The shearers keep tabs of how many they have shorn by dropping a stone in a tin.

Also, for every 1 000 sheep sheared, the shearers get themselves a slagdier – a sheep for slaughter.

lowmel0006The animals are shorn stomach first. The most valuable wool comes from the sides of the animal. There is someone whose task it is to throw the wool onto the lanolin-covered sorting table – it’s a delicate skill.

We walk around the shearing shed, looking at the chutes and gates and bins and slatted sorting tables. The sheep awaiting first cut in the morning are virgin ewes that have never been sheared before.

Their fleece is called Hogget’s wool. According to Wikipedia: “Hogget is the name of the first shearing of a sheep older than 7 months, and is the best wool that animal will ever give. It still has the unsheared lamb’s wool, yet it is longer. This is the fleece hand spinners want to use.”

lowmel0004Mike Ferrar is very proud of Mt Melsetter’s sheep. The former big-city lawyer is revelling in his comparatively new role of Karoo farmer. He is discovering a practical, ‘handy’ side to himself.

“I have an outbuilding full of legal papers, but they are worth far less to me than being able to fix a stable door.”

“Farming has allowed me to be creative in ways that I couldn’t really be in law. Changing professions has allowed me to awaken dormant elements in me.

“I’ve really been getting into it since 2005. The learning curve has been so steep it almost falls over backwards, but I’m loving it.”

lowmel0008The next morning, we’re all up early.

Today is shearing day. Mike and farm worker Warrie Louw ride off to bring in a herd of sheep from a neighbouring camp.

The sheep come in a solid moving flock towards us – like a shoal of fish, moving together. Moodie the border collie is working hard to stop the strays from wafting off. There are whistles and quiet commands.

The sheep are guided through the river drift and up to the pens in front of the shearing shed. In a sleight of hand involving strategic quiet intervention and the dog darting back and forth, the sheep are eased into a narrow switchback of pens. Once in, they are left to calm down. What a beautiful display…

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