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The not-so-golden fleeces of Wicklow!

As a tour guide, bringing visitors through the countryside, one of the frequent questions I get is "sheep are kept for their meat and wool, right?" Wrong. Unfortunately. It now costs way more to shear a sheep than you get paid for a fleece. Today's price is 55 cent per kilo, making an average fleece worth €1.50 while it costs €2 to €2.20 to shear a sheep. A good sheep shearer can shear 200 sheep in a day....

In times past, people wore what they could produce locally. In Ireland this meant linen (flax was grown all over Ireland) and wool. Those of us who grew up in the 60's and 70's all went to school wearing hand knitted wool jumpers and slept under wool blankets. And in those times, wool was a valuable by product of the sheep and while prices varied from year to year, some years, the return was very good.

With the growth in the popularity of artificial fibres, and in duvets, all has changed. Nowadays, Irish wool is considered to be good for the carpet industry and much of it is exported to Lille, in France, for this purpose. When the Chinese market is active, wool prices improve, but according to the expert I consulted for this blog (that would be the brother!), they have not been in the market recently, so the price is on the floor.

Long before the era of "bouncing castles", farm children would have enjoyed being put into the big wool pack - a giant sack suspended by ropes to keep it open to throw the folded fleeces into. Their role was to stamp down the fleeces to enable them be packed in as tightly as possible and it was a fun job, unlike many of the farm tasks. The wool had a distinctive smell, and of course, when you handle wool, you end up with smooth hands, the fleeces being full of lanolin (basically sheep sweat and a base product of many creams).

While most farmers shear their sheep in the summer months when temperatures rise, a growing number of farmers are chosing to shear in the month of December, the time of the year when pregnant ewes are housed. This has a number of benefits in terms of housing management. It is easier to keep the sheep clean and prevent disease, you can see what is happening with a sheep more easily, and the sheep will eat that little bit more to keep warm, which is good for their developing lambs. It is estimated that between 5/6 % of sheep are now "winter shorn".

Sheep shearing is done as a competitive sport in this country, and in my humble opinion, is far more entertaining to watch than football or golf. A mixture of strength and knack, together with a high level of fitness, is required and this is a high calorie burning sport. The man to beat at the moment is Ivan Scott, from Donegal. He has been all Ireland Champion no less than eight times, and is holder of the world record for shearing 744 lambs in 12 hours. Recently, on RTE's television programme, "A week on the farm" he set a new record, credited by the Guinness Book of Records, for shearing a sheep in 37.9 seconds, knocking 1.41 seconds off the previous world record! Worth watching...

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