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Dublin: 18 °C Friday 3 July, 2020
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Everything you ever wanted to know about sheep-shearing... A city-dweller's guide

There are special shoes, for instance… Hands up who knew there were special shoes?

The view from the Hopkins’ farm [Jenny Russell]

IT HAD SEEMED like a good idea back in the newsroom — spending half a morning getting to grips with the business of sheep-shearing, with a view to educating the city-dwelling cohort of TheJournal.ie’s readership.

However, faced with four hulking great beasts in the wilds of Bohernabreena (still in Co Dublin, admittedly, but well outside the comforting confines of the M50) the notion suddenly seemed a little less inviting.

“We’ve actually picked out a few smaller ones for you,” farmer Liam Hopkins says. Thankfully, he’d been briefed that a journalist of some kind would be paying a visit, and possibly trying his hand at shearing a sheep or two. Several of the more docile animals had been hand-picked for the role.

The entire day was being set aside for shearing on the Hopkins farm, which covers around 200 acres in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Expert shearer, Gorey-man George Graham, had been brought in for the day to work his way through a barn-full of livestock.

Set up at the front-end of the barn — the shearing enclosure consisted of a holding pen, a generator (to power the shears) and a small working area, covered in wooden boards. Liam corralled the animals from larger pens to the rear while his father Jim, and sons, David and Ben, cleared the wool from the area and stacked it to the side.

The four rams next in line for a haircut needed a little persuasion, but Graham— who makes who makes his living from the trade, travelling between farms in Ireland and further afield — had them expertly fleeced and bounding off bewilderedly within the space of a few minutes. 

“Anybody can shear a sheep,” he explained, reassuringly.

It’s all about the handling, but if you can hold a sheep properly and control a sheep then, yes, anyone can shear a sheep.

So where do we start?… Short-back-and-sides?


(Youtube: TheJournal.ie)

It’s still a little early in the season, Graham explains. He’s spending around six hours on the Hopkins’ farm, shearing some animals and ‘crutching’ others in preparation for the world shearing championships in Gorey next month (essentially, clearing the wool from around their nether-regions).

Some bigger farms we take a day. Other times we do three or four in one day.

In Australia and New Zealand you can be on the same station for maybe two weeks with maybe eight or ten shearers but that’s not the way things work in Ireland.

The first of May is the unofficial start date for shearing — but it varies in different parts of the country, depending on location and terrain.

It’s around the start of May that people would start shearing lowland sheep. But sheep generally really get fit and good to shear round about the first of June, when the weather gets warmer.

In the West or even in the South they lamb in April usually. It’s colder there, so the sheep wouldn’t be as fit to shear until June, July and even into August in some cases.

So why is springtime associated so closely with shearing?

Well you’d be upsetting young lambs bringing sheep straight in for shearing, so its better if they have a few months before shearing time.

The sheep we’re sheering today — they don’t have lambs, they’re around 13 or 14 months old, so we’re mainly preparing them for the championships.

And those championships are kind of a big deal. On top of the day job, Graham’s also chairman of the event, known as the ‘Golden Shears’ — “the Olympics of sheap-shearing,” as he describes it.

Next month’s competition will be the first to have been held in Ireland since 1998 — and the nation’s sheep-shearers are (apparently) busy finessing their skills ahead of the off. Team Ireland will be headed up by Donegal man Ivan Scott, who claimed the world record two years ago. (744 lambs in eight hours, since you ask).

It’s a serious business, worth as much as six million euro to the local economy — and competitors from around 30 counties will be descending on the South East to battle it out.

The expert shearers taking part are judged on time and technique, Graham explains, with penalty points imposed for ridges or sections of wool left behind.

And what’s the difference between a regular work-a-day shear and a competition-speed shear? George demonstrates…


(Youtube: TheJournal.ie)

Before we jump back in the car for the arduous trek back to the office, we have to know — why the moccasins?

Well these are something every shearer would wear. You use your feet a lot, and you have to be able to feel your feet, so you know where the animal is and can control it.

Moccasins — not just for hipsters, after all.

All Images, videos & editing: Jenny Russell

Read: Two ministers, some sheep, and a city centre photo-op. What could go wrong?

Read: An adorable sheep-goat hybrid has been born in Kildare

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