Cutting it in the world of sheep shearing

It’s always been one of farming’s most physically demanding skills. It’s got a keen competitive following and those that reach the top enjoy almost celebrity status. But while sheep shearing may long have been considered a male preserve – watch out guys, you may have a challenge on your hands.

Shearing has always attracted a limited amount of interest from girls, but things may be about to change. If anyone ever doubted there was a lack of commitment or determination from the ladies, they’ve only got to visit the Yorkshire Dales hamlet of Calton near Skipton and meet Natalie Crisp. This farmer’s daughter’s enthusiasm for shearing is infectious.

“Learning to shear sheep is a great challenge and there’s a great feeling of achievement when you’ve done the job really well. It’s still a male dominated profession and while being a top professional is all about being able to shear large numbers of sheep to a high standard, there’s no reason why women can’t reach that level of skill,” says Natalie.

At 21-years-old, Natalie has been shearing since she was a teenager. And like all who aspire to earn at least part of their living from shearing, she has just spent three months in New Zealand working with a gang in South Island.

Although she only met one other woman shearer while she was there – and despite the odd look of disbelief from some seasoned male Kiwi shearers – Natalie worked long days “rousing” sheep for the gangs. And she even got some shearing in too.

“If you’re serious about shearing you’ve got to go to New Zealand and even though women shearers are scarce you can still learn a lot by watching the gangs.”

Her latest trip to New Zealand – her second visit – was organised by the British Wool Marketing Board. And 2007 has been a good year for UK shearers in New Zealand with several British men taking awards in shearing competitions and beating experienced Kiwis.

For Natalie a typical day in New Zealand saw her gang shearing by 7am with some shearers aiming to clip 300 sheep a day – and even more if they were lambs.

Natalie’s teenage interest in shearing encouraged her to enrol on a British Wool Marketing Board shearing course when she was just 14. Since then she’s been on further courses which have helped her progress from the basic blue seal award through to bronze.

“The fact that it’s reckoned to be more of a bloke thing has just made me more determined to get better. Some people can be rather sexist about it but you have to learn to ignore it and prove them wrong.”

Natalie was keen to master the modern approach to shearing which demands a specific stance and foot movements to enable the sheep to be shorn as quickly and as professionally as possible.

“The way in which sheep are sheared now is different to the method taught years ago. Now you tend to move more into the machine instead of working around it. These are skills that are best learnt through the training you get a shearing course.

“Women can be better than men in mastering the correct footwork that’s required when shearing sheep using the modern training methods,” says Natalie, who is aiming to reach a rate of 200 sheep a day.

“Shearing well and shearing fast is what everyone is aiming to achieve but my advice to anyone thinking about learning to shear is to get the skills right first. Doing a good, clean job is the first priority and once you’re confident at that, the speed follows on.

  • For further information on BWMB courses contact Fiona on 01274 688 666.