Why Shear Sheep?
Sometimes people question the need to shear sheep at all. Isn't it more humane to leave them be? A proper answer to the question begins with a little history.
Sheep began to be domesticated about 12, 000 years ago when ancient farmers in Mesopotamia tamed the original wild Mouflon. Over the millennia, different breeds have been developed as people have tried to maximize traits they have seen to be positive and desirable and minimize those traits felt to be less so. Primitive sheep had what is known as a double coat, long hair fibers with shorter wooly fibers beneath. Think of the feathers of a bird. By about 6,000 B.C. the Persians began selecting sheep for the downy wool fibers in order to produce woolen garments. The hairy double coated pelts could be useful, but not for fabric. However, the wool fibers, when separated from the hair, could be made into felted fabric and spun into thread and yarn. Wool became a prized part of the economy of civilization and sheep husbandry spread quickly across the world.
As sheep began to be bred specifically for the production of wool fiber, mankind had to address the way the fiber is collected. Hair sheep shed and there is no need for shearing, but wool continues to grow and needs to be cut or shorn from the sheep. Primitive, or unrefined breeds, possessed the "rooing" trait. At a certain point, the growing wool develops a break and the fleece falls away from the skin in clumps. Anciently, the wool could be collected from the fields or plucked gently from the sheep. However, the hair fibers still needed to be separated from the wool fibers and the quantity of the more valuable wool fiber was less. Sheep began to be selected for wool rather than hair. This was certainly more productive in terms of wool, but the sheep lost the ability to naturally shed their wool. Genetics can be quirky that way. Hence the necessity of shearing or cutting the wool from the sheep. Some breeds of sheep, notably the Shetland breed, still possess the rooing trait, but most modern breeds do not have this ability and need to be shorn.
We need to recognize that the course of domestication and the breeding of sheep across time and civilization has created the need to shear sheep. The sheep cannot shed it's fleece and a buildup of wool can cause serious health problems for the animal. To refuse to shear a sheep is neglect on the part of the shepherd. Leaving the wool in place creates a number of problems.
Foremost, a full fleece creates a warm, moist environment next to the skin. Such an environment is attractive to insects. Fly-strike (the technical term is myiasis) is a maggot infestation in the wool. Flies just love stinking, rotting material to lay their eggs. Poor skin condition along with matted or felted organic material creates the perfect environment for fly-strike. The condition is extremely irritating to the sheep and can be fatal if left untreated. Sheep keds, also know as sheep ticks, are a common parasite that are more prevalent in sheep that have not been shorn. The bites are very uncomfortable and a heavy infestation can leave a sheep vulnerable to other conditions and infections. The bot fly is another insect parasite that often leaves an abscess in its wake. Full fleece hides the condition and when untreated, the animal is again susceptible to secondary afflictions. Regular shearing exposes such problems and ailments, allowing the shepherd to treat the condition and the animal to heal.
When lambs are born to a ewe in full fleece, she is less able to see and suckle her lamb. Lambs sometimes latch onto the fleece instead of a teat and the lamb weakens from lack of nutrition. There are also mobility issues for sheep that are left unshorn. For instance, breeds that grow wool on their head can become "wool blind." This condition is where the wool hangs over the eyes and impairs vision, leaving the sheep vulnerable in a number of ways.
The action of shearing doesn't hurt the sheep, it is just like getting a haircut. Sheep, like children, don't like being handled and will sometimes struggle to regain control. We acknowledge that humans can sometimes be brutal. But that, of course, need not be. We sometimes hear of instances of abuse when shearing sheep. We strongly condemn such a thing! It may seem better to just leave the sheep alone with the coats they were born with. But this is ignorant and short-sighted. The shearing process, when done carefully by a concerned and skilled shearer, is a relief to the sheep and a necessary task for proper flock management.