Yorkshire vet Julian Norton tries his hand at traditional shearing with the Wild Wool Shepherdess for This Week on the Farm

The last few months have seen most of us trying out new tasks

Julian has been shearing sheep the traditional way with the Wild Wool Shepherdess
Julian has been shearing sheep the traditional way with the Wild Wool Shepherdess

Huge swathes of Britain have, inexplicably, turned their hands to the making of sourdough, like nascent bakers in the making.

And we have all surely had a go at taming the flowing locks of our family by snipping in a more or less haphazard fashion at an attempt at a haircut. Judging by the chaos on the heads of many, hairdressers are certain to boom again.

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But this week, it was not snipping hair, nor baking bread which was my challenge. I was heading down the A1 to learn how to shear a sheep!

Elizabeth, aka The Wild Wool Shepherdess, was my mentor and tutor for the day. She introduced me to her flock, which consisted of primitive breeds based on Icelandic and Shetland cross ewes.

Whilst these traditional breeds would not win any prizes in the butchers’ shops, it is for their wool that Elizabeth keeps them.

It was lovely to meet a farmer with a passion for the old-fashioned ways. Elizabeth shears her sheep and makes rugs and felted products from their lustrous fleeces.

Of course, on this traditional farm, there was never going to be noisy and hectic mechanical clippers.

We each grabbed our hand-held shears and picked a couple of ewes who were most in need of a trim. I watched and learned as Elizabeth snipped, following the contours of her ewe and readjusting her feet to support the sheep.

She hadn’t broken any records for speed, but that was not the point. We could hear the birds singing and feel the muscles and sinews of the sheep relax as the thick, lanolin-rich fleeces fell away in smooth, clean waves.

Before long, it was my turn and I took a deep breath before making the first snip. Of course, the blades were sharp and pointy and one false move could lead to disaster.

With the sheep sitting comfortably, I began. The outside of the back-left leg was first and I remembered the instruction to pull the skin taught to define the junction between sheep and fleece. I was soon in my stride and the process turned out to be easier than I’d imagined. Much like unpeeling a satsuma, there was a natural line to slice through, from which the fleece fell out and away from the sheep.

The rhythmic sound of the shears was pleasantly relaxing. Just as pleasing was the production of a fully intact fleece lying on the grass and an unscathed sheep, considerably smaller than she’d been ten minutes before. Her flock-mates looked confused (if that’s possible for a sheep) as I put her back in the pen, as if she was a newcomer. Maybe that would be the same response I’d get upon returning to work after my long- awaited haircut!

After a quick sandwich for lunch, it was time to turn the fleece into a rug! This process involved applying more wool to the back of the fleece and rubbing it with warm water and soap to allow the woolly fibres to interlock, forming a felt backing. It was the same process used one thousand years ago by the ancient settlers of Asia and the rampaging Mongols as they conquered land and sheltered in tents made of the same felt.

It struck me that the success of those ancient civilisations must have been due to the sheep they tendered to and the versatile, warm and waterproof wool they produced.

You can see how I got on shearing my sheep and making my rug on This week on the Farm on Channel 5 on Tuesday, August 4 at 8pm.