It’s a chilly Autumn morning, at the start of October last year. We’re stood shivering in the yard of a local mountain barn, wellies on our feet, scarves wrapped round our necks, the baby bundled up beneath layers of cardigans nestled on my chest. The farmer and his helpers have been up to their elbows in sheep and wool since first thing. The yard smells of machine oil, manure and sweat. The trimmers buzz, the sheep bleet loudly as they scrabble around on the cobblestones and the workers say very little. The air is thick with dust and fibres, and as a light drizzle starts to fall, I wonder if it really was a good idea for us to bring the baby up to this barn this morning. But he is unperturbed by all the excitement and sleeping soundly in the scarf, no doubt lulled off to sleep by the whirring of the shears and the shouting of the men as they wrangle each ewe from the barn and across to where the shearer is working furiously.
” Numero 50017. 50176. 10237, laisse le cou.”
“ Numbers 50017. 50176. 10237, leave her neck.”
It takes less than two minutes for the shearer to undress each sheep. The farmer and two of his helpers gather up fleeces as they fall from the animal to the ground. After a few minutes, the farmer approaches me, with what looks like a cloud in his arms. All be it, a very grimy cloud, covered in bits of straw and dung. He gestures to me to touch and I reach out across the gate. The wool is still warm from the sheep. Running my fingers through the locks, I imagine this must be what it feels like to pluck just-laid eggs from a hen’s nest. Oddly intimate. A few seconds ago this fleece was part of a living animal, protecting it from the elements all year long.
For this sheep farmer, who raises his flock not for the spinning mill but rather the slaughter house, shearing day is the end of the production line (for the wool) and just another necessary aspect (and expense) to his farming year Now the wool has been removed from the sheep, it’s status as a protective covering for an agricultural product (sheep) has been reduced, to that of a category 3 animal by-product. Current EU legislation sees no difference between the sack of warm fleeces in the farm yard and catering waste, slaughter house waste & “former food”. Meaning it’s value as a precious, renewable and sustainable agricultural resource has depreciated to that of an item of (at worst) hazardous agricultural waste or (at best) an animal by-product. At least the wool from this clip, destined to be turned into thick woollen blankets by the local blanket makers, is still considered valuable enough to just about pay for the expense of the shearer. But sadly it is not the case for many farmers and their fleeces here in France, in my native Britain, indeed all across the EU. Often just the cost of transport versus what a farmer is paid for raw fleece often makes it economically invalid to send wool to be spun in mills. Which for a local wool enthusiast like me seems like a very sorry state of affairs.
By half past ten, the men are halfway through the flock and they pause briefly to drink a slurp of coffee, brought out on a tray by the farmer’s wife. If she is nonplussed to find an British girl in waterproofs stood somewhat awkwardly in a corner of the farm yard, she is surprised to discover I have a three month old baby snuggled up on my chest. Before we are allowed to leave, she ushers us in to the cosy warmth of the adjoining barn, where a fire is burning merrily in the grate and a big pot of garbure (the local hearty mutton stew) has been slowly bubbling since first light. The shearing will soon be over, but the day is not yet finished. The men (and lone lady shearer…) will soon be joined by various wives and family members to sit down and enjoy a hearty lunch by the fire as the freshly shorn sheep are left shivering out in the drizzle. Twice we are invited to stay and join them at their table. As tempting as it is, the babe is starting to stir and we’d rather get back down to the valley. We don’t leave empty handed however. As we prepare to leave, the farmer hands me three bags full of lovely greasy fleeces (2 white fleeces & 2 black) to take with me back down the mountain.