It’s been a long while since I last wrote and a lot has happened both on and off the croft.
First and foremost, my wife and I are starting a family soon with our baby due to be born in October. I wouldn’t have mentioned this on the blog, wonderful and very welcome news though it is, as I intend it to be about crofting matters only but one of the consequences of our rural life has meant that Naeko has had to leave home, work and the island and is now being kept in the hospital in Paisley for monitoring due to complications with her pregnancy. If her situation doesn’t change she will be there until the baby is born now. If we lived in the city it wouldn’t be an issue so the crofting rural life is not without its difficulties and disruptions at times.
In the last 2 months the main activity I have been involved in is sheep shearing, either learning from observation or from having a go myself. I wanted to learn how to shear my own rather than just pay a contractor to do it and think it’s a skill every sheep owner should know at least how to have a go at should it prove necessary. I asked a few of the Tobermory crofters if I could watch them in action as a few of them still shear old school with the hand shears and they were more than happy for me to join them.
The shearing calendar on Mull runs as roughly as follows: hoggs, tups and any show-worthy contenders get sheared first sometime in June; while the ewes are left a few weeks longer in case the weather turns cold and the chill stops them producing milk for their lambs. The lambs born in the spring don’t need sheared; in their second summer they become the hoggs previously mentioned.
I joined Alan one Saturday morning to watch him hand shear a few show contenders before helping him dose his lambs. When it comes to the sheep destined for the local shows in August they are invariably hand sheared, even if a clipping machine is available, because it isn’t such a close shave and leaves more on the sheep to later tweak to get them looking just right.
After helping with dosing the lambs I headed over to another of his fields to see a couple of friends – the tup lambs that had been in with my ewes over the winter.
About a week later I heard from another Tobermory crofter, Iain, that he was getting his tups machine-clipped by Lachlan MacLean and his son Jamie from Knock farm and invited me along to watch. This was a great experience too seeing the huge strong tups turned over and half their bulk vanish before your eyes – and with the shearing machine and generator going, quite a fast, noisy contrast to the gentle, slow action of the hand shears. As I watched closely Lachlan explained the differences between his and his son’s technique, in part down to Lachlan being left-handed but also due to the fact that methodology has changed over the years.
Then in the middle of June I joined a 2 day British Wool Marketing Board shearing course for beginners in Tyndrum. Of all the training courses I have done in the last year or so in preparation for owning sheep this has been the single most transformative. The 2 days spent shearing taught me so much about sheep handling and gave me far more confidence working with the animals.
On the first day the instructors, 2 of the best in the country people have since told me, Dougie Lambie and Eoin Campbell, began by showing us how to set up our “gear”, explaining the different components of the shearing equipment, then Ewen twice showed us how to shear a blackface hogg – before telling us to get on and try shearing the remaining hundred or so. There were a lot of young guys on the course who it was clear, while we rounded up the first lot into the pens, had been around sheep far more than me so it was extremely daunting when it eventually came round to my turn to grab a hogg and pick up my handpiece.
Trying to remember the technique with a live animal beneath you was terrible at first; I found my mind going blank at times wondering “where do I go next?” before the sheep spotting its chance and thrashed a break for freedom. Holding it and getting it back into a restrained position, all the time bent over meant by the time I eventually got through the first sheep I was exhausted and had back ache. Dougie had told us right from the beginning the first day would be the toughest, and there were times when I thought “I’m just not cut out for this” but gradually the steps started to make sense and the sheep became easier to handle. I was bruised and battered down my legs when I got back to the campsite that night so had a few beers with a big pub meal.
The second day was far easier right enough and as a group we sheared far more then on the first day, so much so the SAC farmers had to bring us down more hoggs to keep us going after lunch. By the afternoon I was able to put all the moves together and shear a sheep without hesitating in the middle and with the sheep comfortable and content to sit. That evening I met my father and brother in Glasgow to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert and on the drive down I felt a great sense of achievement, despite the aches and pains.
With an understanding now of how to shear, albeit with a machine, I felt ready to give my own sheep a go with a pair of hand shears so over a July weekend Alan and I worked together and sheared both of our flocks, starting with his on the Saturday morning, then some of mine in the afternoon, followed by the remainder of mine on the Sunday morning, and finally the last of his on the Sunday afternoon. We had a great time working together; it was slower, and thus more tiring than using the machine, but it was a far more sociable form of shearing as we could talk freely above the snips of the shears and also had a few visits from locals passing by over the weekend, exactly the kind of cooperative, communal crofting life I hoped for.