Sheep and Sheep ClippingIn the mid-19th century the economy of Auchindrain changed from cattle to sheep. The main product was now wool, for which there was a steady demand at good prices.
When the flock was valued in 1900, it consisted of around 650 animals, half “yowes” – breeding ewes, and half “wedders” – neutered male sheep being kept to produce wool and meat. Two or three fleeces were clipped from the wedders before they were sold for meat at three or four years old. Yowes would be kept until they could no longer produce lambs, and were then sold for meat. Old mutton can be very tough – the traditional filling of a “Scotch Pie” is minced-up meat from older animals.
[caption id="attachment_22949" align="alignnone" width="473"] Details of the sheep flock, 1902.[/caption]
Sheep need to be clipped once a year, in summer, to remove the thick fleeces they have been bred to produce. If left unclipped, sheep can suffer from heatstroke, and their heavy and often dirty fleeces attract flies and hold maggots – an unclipped sheep can die from “flystrike”. The Auchindrain sheep were always clipped by hand using blade shears, a tool like a large pair of scissors.
Blade shears are special tools that would have had to have been bought rather than made in the township. They consist of two sharp, flat blades joined at the top by a semi-circular piece of springy metal. Hand clipping was less stressful for a sheep than electric shears are now; there was no buzzing noise, and less wool was removed.
[caption id="attachment_22951" align="alignnone" width="800"] A newborn lamb.[/caption]
Clipping began at the sheep’s belly, as it rests, partially upright, against a farm worker’s legs. A skilled shearer could clear the wool off the belly in three clips. Then the back legs and tail would be clipped. Next, the worker moved to the back of the neck, head and limbs, finishing his work at the sheep’s rear.
As the fleeces were clipped, helpers – often the children, would pick out or trim off any really dirty parts, like from around the sheep’s back legs – a process called ‘skirting’. The fleece was then rolled up, outside in, and tied with the lengths of wool cut from the legs. Traditionally, the fleeces were packed into very large hessian sacks, mounted on wooden frames to keep them open. Often a child would be placed inside the open sack to tramp down the rolled fleeces as they were thrown in: when the child’s head appeared out of the top of the sack on its frame, the sack was full. The sacks were then stored until they were sold to a dealer. He would trade the fleeces on to be turned into wool.