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It’s Shearing Time!

You’re cuddled up in your wool garments, but sheep are standing in the fields with their warm fleeces sheared off. Why shear in cold weather? Here are 5 reasons why.

Stephany Wilkes Mar 28, 2024 - 10 min read

It’s Shearing Time! Primary Image

The ground is frozen, but this flock of Merinos in Newell, South Dakota is ready for shearing. Photos by Stephany Wilkes

Sheep have a delightful ability to teach me—their shearer—how wrong I am about certain things, and what those things are. This includes the timing and seasonality of shearing and, specifically, why some shepherds shear their flocks in rainy or cold winter weather.

Initially it seems cruel or inhumane. I have heard, more than once, about animal control calling shepherds to say, “Heads up, someone complained about your naked sheep.” A partial shearing called crutching makes sense: we shear the sheep’s belly and backside, cleaning up the areas where ewes will deliver lambs that will nurse, and leave the wool on their backs. But a full shear with winter coming on?

It can’t be inhumane, though. That doesn’t make sense. Shepherds do everything they can to make their flocks’ lives better. No good shepherd—in my experience, 99% of them—would do anything to jeopardize the health, comfort, safety, longevity, and happiness of their sheep.

Woman in pullover and cap holding the head of a freshly shorn white sheep Shearer Katherine Moser pauses with a freshly sheared Merino ewe in Newell, South Dakota.

So why would someone ask me to shear their sheep in winter or, more typically, in late autumn just ahead of winter, especially if it’s raining? Many of the sheared sheep do have barns in which to cozy up, and some breeds (such as Icelandics and Navajo-Churros) get sheared twice per year. Even so, shouldn’t we leave the wool on until warmer, drier weather arrives later in spring? After all, wool is warm even when wet. We can just leave it on!

The sheep have changed my mind. (But first, one caveat: When it comes to sheep, there are no rules, only contexts.)

Wet wool is warm, but is it comfortable?

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