With a head count of 75 million sheep, the second largest sheep population in the world, and traditional sheep shearing bush songs like Click Go the Sheers, Australia is definitely known for its sheep farms!
I’m a sucker for those timid but wild beasts and am always telling my husband to pull off the road so I can get a photo! I’ve even written about them in one of our songs, where I dream about one day owning a sheep farm. So, a few years ago, when we meet a sheep farmer named Trevor Thomas and his family at the Bendigo Blues and Roots festival, we made sure to stay in contact in hopes of one day visiting their sheep farm in Bordertown, South Australia. Their oldest daughter, Sarah and I exchanged Instagrams and eventually we wound our way through Bordertown for a lovely afternoon meal and tour of the farm.
Bordertown, SA sits about 18 klm from the South Australian/Victorian border and is the halfway point when you drive from Adelaide to Melbourne. It’s a small town of about 2500 population and the hub for many of South Australia’s farmers. This part of the country is ripe for agriculture, specifically cereal crops such as wheat, barley and oats, as well as, livestock such as sheep, cattle and pigs. The terrain is flat, with thinly lined trees here and there, similar to the landscape of Nebraska in the USA. At night, you can see the stars all the way down to the earth’s horizon and on clear day you can see a good three miles out.
The Thomas farm was established many generations ago and is home to hundreds of sheep and a few large wheat fields. When we arrived, Trevor invited us into the shearing shack where we got a little homeschool lesson on the in’s and out’s of this very manual process of shearing.
Sheep shearing 101: Cutting or shaving the wool off of a sheep is called shearing. Shearing is similar to getting a hair cut. However, shearing requires skill so that the sheep is shorn efficiently and quickly without causing cuts or injury to the sheep or shearer. Most sheep are sheared with electric shears and the fleece is removed in one piece. A professional shearer can shear a sheep in less than 2 minutes and the world record is 37.9 seconds, set in 2016 by Ivan Scott from Ireland.
Sheep are usually sheared once per year, before lambing or in the spring before the onset of warm weather. Sheep with long fleeces are sometimes sheared twice a year. Shearing prior to lambing results in a cleaner environment for the baby lambs. It also keeps the fleeces cleaner.
We were in the shack for approximately thirty minutes and during that time we saw about 20 sheep get their annual hair cut. It was intense but the shearing team, (a father and son) were so calculated and precise that the sheep barely had time to really understand what was happening before it was all over and they were ushered out of the shack in to the greater holding pen. They would then be washed in a special liquid that would help clean and heal any nicks or cuts and finally set out into pasture.
As the sheep were sheared, Trevor explained the process of taking the wool to market and which would eventually bring the wool into the hands of spinners and finally to the yarn shelves across the country.
It was intriguing to be in able to learn about this fantastic tradition of sheep shearing! However, the highlight of our visit was sharing a meal around the farmhouse table prepared by three generations of Thomas ladies! The aromas were delightful as they had been cooking all morning and the spread they made was that of a Christmas feast!
I asked if it was a special occasion and they answered, “no, that this is what they make every day for lunch during shearing season.” The three coarse meal, of roast chicken, lamb and veggies, potatoes, and a salad also including a delicious homemade dessert. It was part of their offering to the sheep shearers for their hard work, which by the way, the shearers only had thirty minutes to eat and get back to the shack. That thirty minutes was so fascinating however, as we were able to ask all sort of questions about daily life on the farm, how they handle the uncertainty of weather patterns, global warming, farming technics, the costs and factors that make up good farming practices.
It’s one thing to learn about these sorts of things from a text-book or a TED Talk and a wholly other thing to actually sit across the table from those you are curious about and unpack ideologies, preconceived notions and ultimately talk about dreams for the future. Thankful for kinfolk like the Thomas family, willing to take in us weary travelers and allow us to engage, even if just for a moment, catching a little glimpse into their every day, extraordinary lives.