Sheep Shearers of the Sandveld

Summer’s end in the Sandveld and the migrant sheep shearers show up at Kersefontein…

Words and Pictures: Anita de Villiers, www.anitadevilliers.co.za

Kersefontein_6617 “There is no more honest a job than shearing a sheep,” are perceptive words from Julian Melck, owner of Kersefontein Guest Farm.

In a world hurtling towards the future at a whirlwind pace, Kersefontein is a throwback to times most people only read about in books. It’s a place where old traditions flow effortlessly into everyday life.

Found on the bank of the Berg River in the Sandveld region of the Cape West Coast, between the historic village of Hopefield and the coastal fishing town of Velddrif, Kersefontein was purchased by Martin Melck in 1770. For eight generations, the farm has been handed down to the sons, with Julian Melck the present owner. Farmer, qualified advocate, pilot and musician are just some of the credentials of this multi-faceted character, who has been described aptly as a modern Renaissance Man.

The Cape Dutch homestead, outbuildings and farmyard form the hub of the daily ins and outs of the farm people and their families, friends who pop in, guests who stay over, film crews who seek out the patina of this place grown beautiful with age, as well the chickens, pigs, horses, cows and sheep.

A quirky course of events led to South Africa becoming the first country outside Europe to own merinos. In 1789, the King of Spain, who had the sole right to send merinos out of the country, donated two rams and four ewes from his Escoriale Merino Stud to the Netherlands. But the inclement Dutch climate did not agree with the woolly aristocrats, and the House of Orange passed them on to Colonel Jacob Gordon, military commander of the Cape. An interesting anecdote is that Gordon visited Kersefontein in December 1785 where he made a sketch of the farm that is now in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam.

Gordon recognised the unique opportunity and proceeded to breed a pure merino race on the southern tip of Africa. By the time the faux pas had to be rectified and the sheep sent back to Spain, there were enough offspring to ensure the future of the South African merino breed and to lay the foundation of an internationally recognised wool industry.

As one of the oldest agricultural industries in the country, it earns foreign currency in a competitive world market. Interestingly, Australia received its first merinos from the Cape Colony during British rule, kick-starting what would become the biggest sheep and wool industry in the world.

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At Kersefontein, more than a thousand Dohne merino sheep are shorn twice every year, a process that lasts for almost a week, depending on the weather. The Dohne merino was locally bred specifically for a sourveld environment, and is a breed that produces soft white wool as well as meat. Delays of the shearing are possible, as wet sheep cannot be sheared. It is the seasons that sway the rhythms of this working farm.

Come spring, when the Sandveld is carpeted with wildflowers, and in late summer when the landscape is painted in shades of wheat and buff, the farm’s pulse rises to tango tempo with the arrival of the sheep-shearing team. This crew of men, highly skilled in the art of shearing, wool skirting, classing and baling, travels from one farm to the next to fulfil an age-old farming practice of removing the fleece from the sheep. Members of the team hail from as far afield as Lesotho, and are led by a ‘captain’, who liaises with the farmer, and takes responsibility for his colleagues.

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The shearing process starts with the farmhands on horseback, rounding up the sheep and bringing them into the holding pen adjacent to the shearing shed. These are adroit horsemen, most of them from families that have been on the farm for generations, riding horses that also work the Hereford cattle on the farm. Julian himself is also a rider, and breeds Boerperde on a small scale, continuing a tradition started by his forefathers in the early 19th century.

Kersefontein_663EX7An individual sheep is caught in the holding pen and the remonstrating animal is brought to the shearer’s station in the shed where the tools of his trade are set out: blade shears and sharpening stone. Like scissors, the shears have two blades but with the hinge nearest to the opposite end of the sharp points. With this tool the skilled hand shearer delivers a neat and clean cut without damaging the fleece or the sheep. Part of the shearing ritual is the regular sharpening of the blades on a sharpening stone.

If there is a sheep farm lurking somewhere in your past, being at Kersefontein during the shearing season triggers all kinds of nostalgic sensations and emotions. South Africa is unique in that it still practises blade shearing on a large scale, and this heightens the sense of witnessing a ritual many generations old. Other wool-producing countries mostly use electrical shearers and the fact that, for them, hand shearing is a dying art, is wistfully bemoaned.

No wonder then that South Africa dominates the blade-shearing category in international shearing competitions. Our two-man team of Mayenseke Shweni and Zweliwile Hans were crowned 2014 blade-shearing world champions. In the words of Mayenseke: “With the blade you control the sheep through its skin, which is much more comfortable for the sheep. I love to shear with blades.”

It is this sentiment that translates into the poetry of motion once the shearer sits and grips the sheep between his legs and deftly starts shearing, first the belly and head, then the legs, then the fleece (back), his skill measured by the absence of nicks to the sheep’s body, a minimum of stress to the sheep, a neat and clean-cut fleece, and the speed of the operation. A shearer shears between 40 to 45 sheep per day. Shearers are paid per sheep, so there’s quite a hum of energy in the shed.

The sweepers join in the dance with their witch-like brooms, constantly clearing wool tufts from the large expanse of floor. Eager to escape, shorn sheep are steered into a second pen where a somewhat quiet lot seem to contemplate their back and sides. From here the sheep are returned to the fields and the ewes are reunited with their lambs.

The fleece is taken to the wool table where, with a nonchalant flick of the wrist, it is thrown onto the slats that are spaced about 12 millimetres apart. Small pieces of wool and bits of debris, such as thorns and dust, fall through the slats to the floor. The wool-skirter tidies up the fleece by removing dirt and dried manure, and the classer is responsible for grading the wool according to its length and fineness. This is done by sight and feel. When this process is complete the wool is placed into wooden crates, or the wool press, and then pressed into bales, which are weighed and marked once they are full.

At the end of each day, Julian counts the tokens each individual shearer has collected and kept after each sheep shorn, and the kraal of shorn sheep is also counted and verified by Julian and the team captain. All too soon the week runs out, the job is done and the shearers pack up their tools and belongings to move on to the next farm. Next year they will be back, and the year after, and the year after…

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Did You Know?

  • The merino sheep has the highest production per head, yielding 3-5kg particularly in dry regions like the Sandveld.
  • The South African merino has been bred for minimal skin folds, which improves yield and makes shearing more efficient.
  • Merino fleece is soft and is bright white, which allows it to be easily dyed in any fashion colour. As a result Cape wool is in high demand, the bulk exported to Europe, America and the Far East.

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