When it comes to shearing sheep, Mandy Fellouzis is a pro.
First, she lures the sheep with food — a process that can take a few minutes. Then, Fellouzis wrangles the sheep into a “seated” position, with its back against her knees and belly exposed. And finally, she picks up her lubricated shears, turns them on, and begins to peel layer after layer of wool away from the sheep’s body. First the belly and the neck, followed by the animal’s sides, and finally the top.
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“One thing you have to keep in mind when shearing sheep is that you have to do it while it’s still a little bit cool outside,” says Fellouzis, who is the administrator at Fox Chase Farm between Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties. She affectionately rubbed Henry, the sheep she had been shearing. “Otherwise they can get sunburned if you do it in July.”
Fox Chase Farm, which acts as a teaching farm for the Philadelphia School District, has been holding festivals in the spring since the 1980s to show the public the process of removing wool from sheep. This year, their festival, which took place on April 27, featured a live band, hayrides, and craft tables for children. Visitors also toured the farm’s chicken coop, which is home to dozens of newly hatched chicks, as well as the barn, currently filled with calves, pigs, and goats.
The farm is one of many in the area that turns this centuries-old farm tradition into a celebration — the Amish Farm and House in Lancaster holds two sheepshearing days that are open to the public in May, including one this week.
This weekend there are three opportunities to see sheep sheared: at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, at Friends of Boileau in Hatboro, and at Howell Living History Farm outside Lambertville, N.J., featuring weaving and rug-hooking demonstrations. Other sheepshearing events follow later this month.
“Being able to see a live animal is really, really huge for children,” says Jamie Burkhart, the social media and events coordinator at the Amish Farm and House. “You realize where some of your clothing comes from and what it feels like. You’re not just watching a video. You’re actually down on the farm learning about it.”
The Amish Farm and House started holding sheepshearing events in the 1970s. The property, which has existed since 1715, has always had sheep on its premises. When the farm transformed into an educational museum about the Amish experience, staff members picked up on interest from the public about the process of sheepshearing.
“A lot of kids are just in awe because they’ve never witnessed anything like it,” Burkhart says. “When a sheep gets sheared, there’s feet sticking out everywhere, bellies sticking out, wool flying.”
Occasionally people are taken aback by how much manhandling there is in sheepshearing, but it’s not painful or uncomfortable for the animals when the shearers use proper technique, according to local sheep shearers.
“You can see very easily if the shearer isn’t doing things properly,” says Steve Branning, who owns Necessity Farms & Dairy in Telford with his wife, Carol. “How you hold the sheep while shearing it is really important. Most shearers use pressure points on the animal to keep them from moving.”
Branning used to shear all the sheep on his farm but switched to using a professional shearer a few years ago as the size of his flock grew. He began posting the events on Facebook after he noticed interest from guests who just happened to be visiting the farm on shearing days. This year, Branning plans on having 70 sheep sheared.
After Fellouzis finished shearing Henry’s left side, she picked up a handful of the wool that had fallen on the ground and began picking pieces of hay out of it. The fibers of the fleece were at least two inches long — a whole year’s worth.
Fox Chase’s sheep were not specifically bred to be wool sheep — they were adopted by the farm after their previous owner died a few years ago — but their wool can still be spun into yarn.
Sheep don’t get sick from not being sheared, but a number of problems can occur, according to the American Society of Animal Science. Excess wool can keep sheep from regulating their body temperatures properly. When their wool mats, it can trap urine, feces, and other substances, attracting pests that can jeopardize their health.
“A professional shearer can shear a sheep in four and a half minutes,” said Fellouzis, who grew up on a farm south of Gettysburg. “But because we explain to people what’s going on while we’re doing it, it usually takes me around 15 minutes.”
She then puts the fleece through a centrifuge to remove the lanolin — a naturally occurring wax that sheep secrete to help them shed water from their coats. One sheep can yield between three and five pounds of wool.
“People today are so far removed from natural processes, so it’s amazing for them to see this,” Fellouzis said. “Being able to come out to the farm and learn about these things, it’s an escape.”