Sheep Shearing 101: Why Aspiring Shavers Flock to This California School

4 min
These sheep are next in line for a buzz from first-time shearers at the UC Cooperative Extension Sheep Shearing School in Hopland. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

This is not your average beauty school.

Your clients can be pretty cranky. Sometimes they’ll even walk out mid-haircut. And you have to hold them down -- with only your legs -- while wielding an industrial-size clipper.

“We try to get the students shearing the first day because they make a lot of mistakes,” says John Harper, head of the UC Cooperative Extension Sheep Shearing School in Hopland.

The Mendocino County school, about 50 miles north of Santa Rosa, offers a weeklong course held once a year in May.

Harper and other instructors teach what’s known as the New Zealand style of shearing. It causes the least amount of stress for the sheep and the shearer. And it involves some fancy footwork.

Beginning students work in shearing teams when they first start out. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Harper says if you can make the right moves with your feet, everything else falls into place.

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“We're dancing instructors,” says Harper. “It’s like 'Dancing With The Stars' on steroids, but with sheep.”

Around this time of year, hundreds of thousands of sheep in California need to have their wool shaved off. But Harper says there's a shortage of sheep shearers worldwide.

That’s why he started the school in Hopland about 25 years ago.

Dan Macon of the California Wool Growers Association says the growing popularity of backyard flocks in California (usually just a handful of sheep) is adding to the demand for shearers, too.

“Infrastructure of the sheep industry is a key component,” says Macon. “Having people with that kind of skill and willingness to work hard is desperately needed.”

The trade is gaining some traction.

Students learn what's called "The Dance," a series of foot steps that help control sheep while shearing. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Harper says that over the past decade, the school has gotten so popular that the online registration for it usually fills up within minutes. Another surprising trend? More women than men have been taking the course the past few years.

Harper says that hasn't always been the case. Sheep shearing is traditionally a male-dominated job, but women shearers have a distinct advantage.

“Women tend to be more flexible at the hips and a lot of the movements require that kind of flexibility,” says Harper. “Women also tend to have a lower center of gravity, which helps with holding the sheep.”

But even with this advantage, it’s still hard work.

Katy Gonda, who lives in Marin County, has taken the beginning class twice.

“I'd shear half a sheep and then I'd be so physically exhausted that I'd tag out with someone else and they would finish the sheep,” says Gonda. “At the end of the week I could shear one sheep by myself.”

Gonda says she fell in love with sheep shearing after that, and couldn’t stop talking about it with friends and family. She’s back this year to take the advanced course.

Elena Torres carefully navigates the heavy-duty clipper over the sheep's leg. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Elena Torres, from Puerto Rico, is a complete newcomer to shearing. Torres has always had an interest in agriculture and animal husbandry. She says her first day was a bit overwhelming.

“When you first get into the pen they kind of fight you a little bit, they run around the pen and you think, 'I'm never going to be able to pull one out, let alone shear it,' and then to finally get to shear it and be like, 'Oh, OK, I can do this,'” says Torres. “It's the most rewarding experience.”

In the end, Torres was one of about two dozen graduates from the sheep shearing class of 2018.

The fruit of the school's labor: several pounds of freshly shorn wool. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

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