Imagine a job in which you must cut the coat off a 200-pound, wriggling creature without so much as scratching the animal or damaging the coat, then repeating that task 100 times or more. For sheep shearers, it’s all in a day’s work and, with the help of WSU Extension, the number of skilled and knowledgeable shearers in the Pacific Northwest is increasing.
In operation since 1977, the Washington State Sheep Producers Shearing School at WSU Extension Grant-Adams Counties (in central eastern Washington) rates a shave above the rest.
“Our school is established as one of the elite schools in the United States.” said Sarah M. Smith, WSU Extension agent and shearing school coordinator.
Offered once a year in April, the five-day school provides beginning and advanced students with sheep shearing, handling and marketing experience and education. According to Smith, the program is unique in its five-day schedule, compared to other sheep shearing schools that offer two- or three-day programs.
“We are the longest school offered,” Smith said. “After two days, it’s still a sheep-versus-shearer struggle. Repetition is what helps you succeed.”
Each year, 16 beginning students and eight advanced students, ranging from 15 to 65 years old and from a variety of income levels, participate in the school to learn or sharpen their shearing skills. The curriculum, which includes morning and evening educational classes and eight hours per day on the shearing floor, prepares students for careers in sheep shearing or for shearing their own flocks.
Smith said the learning process can be slow-going and complicated, with beginning students able to shear two sheep per day at the beginning of the course and 10-20 by the end, compared to the more than 100 per day that more experienced shearers can clip.
“Shearing is like rubbing your head, patting your belly and doing a dance all at the same time,” she said.
For 13 years, Mike McWilliams, certified shearing instructor, has been teaching the school. A shearer since the age of 15, McWilliams has competed in shearing competitions since the 1970s. He was a member of the 1994 and 1996 U.S. Sheep Shearing Teams, and is one of only two instructors in the United States certified by the New Zealand Wool Board.
Marcus Whitman, a full-time alpaca breeder and former shearing student, said McWilliams was a great instructor who demonstrated exceptional shearing skills.
“Seeing him shear a sheep while blindfolded was really impressive,” Whitman said.
Upon completion of the course, beginning students are certified with the National Sheep Shearing Program and rated based on technique, the number of sheep they can shear per day and the quality of the wool clip. Advanced students are recertified, often with higher ratings, which can mean increased shearing salaries.
“Shearing is tough and demanding,” Smith said. “But students leave the school with an appreciation for their skills.”
Whitman noted that while solid shearing skills and a sense of achievement marked his experience at the school, learning a skill that has been taught for thousands of years was the most rewarding part.
“It’s exciting to learn an ancient art form,” Whitman said. “Sheep shearing is an art form, and if we didn’t have a school, like so many art forms, it would disappear.”
For more information about the Washington State Sheep Producers Shearing School, visit the website at http://grant-adams.wsu.edu.