On a course organised by the Beltex Sheep Society at Borderway mart, Carlisle, three experts offered tips on preparing sheep for shows and sales. Angela Calvert reports.
Plan ahead was the message from Northamptonshire farmers Carol and Geoff Watson, speaking at a course on preparing sheep for shows and sales.
Mrs Watson said: “When breeding sheep, pick carefully. Select the type of sheep you like – not those you think others will like. If you have to look at them every day, you have to like them.
“In terms of show sheep, start picking them out early – from the moment they are born. As well as having good conformation, a show sheep has to walk well and have attitude.
“Before you start lengthy preparations, ensure sure sheep are correct where it matters – i.e. rams have two testicles, their teeth and feet are correct and feet are trimmed.
“Start the feeding regime early so they are in the condition you want them at sale or show time.
“In terms of shearing, work backwards from the first show or sales dates when you want them to have the ideal covering of wool.
“The final trim is done close to the event. We keep Charollais and sheep being shown in mid-May will be clipped mid-February. Those being sold in October will be clipped in June.
“Some breed societies do not allow trimming or have a shearing date after which no trimming is allowed, so make sure you check with them and know the rules,” said Mrs Watson.
Mrs Watson stressed it was important to wash sheep at least a week before trimming to allow the fleece to settle.
She outlined the way she and Geoff, her husband, washed sheep, but said other people had their own preferred methods.
Soak the sheep with a hosepipe. Then rake through the wool to remove any dags or excessive dirty bits.
Fill a water trough with 800 litres of water mixed with 2kg of washing soda and one litre of disinfectant and lift sheep into it.
Turn sheep over and roll from side to side – doing it this way does not take all the lanolin out the wool. No rinsing is required using this method.
Rinse sheep well if using shampoo, as any detergent left on skin may cause irritation. Even if you use shampoo, washing soda and disinfectant in the final rinse will help set the fleece.
In terms of colouring, Mrs Watson said some preferred to leave their sheep a natural tone while others chose from a wide range of colours.
There was the option of dipping or spraying colour on, but Mrs Watson said they added colour to water when washing, as it then got right through to the base of the wool. Otherwise, when the sheep is trimmed, the wool may be lighter at the base.
Most of the trimming is done with hand shears so it is important they are sharp and looked after well.
Herbie Kennedy, Dumfries, offered some advice on their care. He said: “Shears should not make a noise when you use them. Keep rubbing them with an oily rag and rub a little oil over them after use.
“To sharpen, open them up with your fingers and use a whetstone or a diamond stone in a circular motion along the blades, from the tip to the base, to create a feather edge.
“Always test shears on a piece of wool before starting to trim.
“Handle shears carefully – dropping them will alter the spring of blades. When choosing shears, make sure they do not open too far and the tips are level. If you are left-handed, you will need a special set.”
When using shears, hold them at an angle – if they are level they will leave steps in the wool, said Mr Kennedy.
Only the top blade, with your fingers on, should move. Keep the bottom blade and your thumb still.
If a sheep has excess wool it can be helpful to ‘top’ it out first, taking a layer of wool off from the top of the back.
This will help with preparation later and means there is less wool to wash.
Belly clipping can also be done at this stage, either with a shearing machine or hand shears. Clip along the sides of the belly, follow the carcase line in a curve – do not go straight.
Clip up to the brisket to give the appearance of increased width. Trim around the neck and tail. Any wool inside the back legs can be plucked out.
Trimming the legs and neck is down to the breeder’s preference and can be left.
If the sheep still has too much wool, run over it with hand shears before starting trimming. The first time you trim a sheep it may need a couple of cuts to get the finish on the fleece.
The final trim should be done as close to the sale or show day as possible.
Before starting, use a broad pin carder to rake through the fleece and open it using a downward motion over the body, then rake edges up.
Then go over the fleece again with a small pin carder in a rolling in and out motion, working from front to back so none is missed.
Use an old fork, bent in the middle, to remove surplus wool from the carder.
Mrs Watson said she sprayed the fleece with water before the final trim but some preferred to trim the fleece dry.
As much wool as possible should be taken off by trimming, particularly with carcase sheep, she said, so the judge could feel hard flesh and not wool. Some people prefer to trim carcase lambs with a machine to start with, and then finish by hand.
The aim is to make sheep look as good as possible, accentuating good points and hiding bad ones, so the exact lines followed in the final trim are down to personal preference.
Start at the neck, then around the shoulders and down the sides, working from the top down and then round the gigots.
The back can be trimmed flat to keep width or have rounded edges. Mrs Watson said she trimmed Beltex to create a slope back from the pin bones, but some prefer a rounded effect.
After trimming, go over the whole fleece, tapping it with a sharp carder after having sprayed it with a fleece fix. This will help the fleece hold its shape. This can also be done with a flat board.
“Remember practice makes perfect,” Mrs Watson said.