Trimming is the same as cutting, in hair terms – except less hair is removed. Trimming wool does not help the sheep; it leaves most of the wool in place which is uncomfortable and unhealthy. In addition, the trimmed wool ends would be too short to have any commercial value and would end up in landfill. As wool flocks would no longer have any commercial value, thousands of sheep farmers would go out of business and their flocks would be slaughtered. Those industries dependent on sheep wool would have to turn instead to synthetic alternatives which are very damaging to the environment.
Any animal with hair, fur, wool, etc., benefits from grooming – including humans1.
There are primarily two kinds of sheep, one hair (kemp) and one which produces a woolly undercoat in winter. Hair sheep have been domesticated primarily for milk and secondarily for meat. Wool sheep were domesticated for primarily for wool production, and secondarily milk and meat. There are still wild sheep of both hair and wool varieties. The wild wool sheep and some domesticated primitive wool sheep still shed their woolly undercoat in spring2,3, but the majority of domesticated wool sheep need to be sheared annually as the shedding genes have been bred out.
The majority of domesticated sheep are now kept for meat and milk, and have poor quality fleeces which are often unfit for any use – though some can be used as a natural home insulation. It costs the farmer to have such sheep sheared, and the farmer then has disposal costs. As a result there’s a trend towards breeding natural shedding back into some breeds, such as the Wiltshire Horn:
So yes, whether natural shedders like the Soay, or shearing sheep like Merino, sheep need to get rid of their winter undercoat, and we would use the cast-off or sheared fleece either way. Wool is strong, insulating, water-repellent, breathable, anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, non-flammable, renewable, and (if you buy locally) low carbon-footprint4,5, unlike synthetic substitutes. Its processing is non-polluting and very easy on the environment (sheep graze otherwise unusable land, and improve it), compared with many plant-based substitutes. Accept no substitutes!
I suffer terribly with the cold. From September/October to May/June/July, I am bundled up in thick layers of thermal underwear, light under-layer, jumper and corduroy or tweed trousers, two pairs of socks, felted slippers/fur-lined boots, and often a hat, shawl/blanket and glove combo on top. That’s me sitting in front of the fire. There’s more insulation needed to get me out of the house.
However, for a few days between May/June/July and September/October, it is toasty and warm outside. On those days, I skip outside in a single layer of cotton or linen. Barefoot! Bare-headed! I feel so light that I might float away like a dandelion clock, young and giddy. I am occasionally tempted to dance, but I keep that to my back garden for fear of scaring the neighbours and livestock.
Thus it is with our woolly friends. They are denuded of their heavy, uncomfortable winter attire, and frolic sky-clad in the sun:
Shearing is usually conducted in spring. Sometimes, the weather is still a little chilly, so shepherds will house shorn sheep or give them little coats to wear while they adjust:
NB: in case you don’t get it, the lady speaking was being sarcastic about the cruelty of shearing.
Shearing is expensive. An experienced UK shearer can earn around £400 (€450/US$550/AU$730) a day: £50 per hour, shearing 25–30 sheep an hour. That’s a massive outlay for a farmer who may have had next to no regular income since the previous autumn. You don’t waste that money shearing an animal for slaughter. Far better to send the sheep unshorn for slaughter, and possibly have a sheepskin to sell to the tanning industry. I’m not well up on the prices realised by untanned sheepskin, but after processing a sheepskin can command upwards of £100 each.
* – Hobby farms with up to 4 sheep, and some rarebreed protection farms are exempt, as are Shetland farms. Some hobby farmers and rarebreed farmers sell their fleeces to handspinners. Depending on the breed, in the grease prices can be anywhere from £5 to £30 per fleece, while scoured fleece runs from about £10 upwards. Fully prepped tops, ready for spinning, can be anywhere from £4 per 100g to WHAT THE EVER LIVING FUCK!?!?!
(Actually, Hilltop Cloud isn’t that expensive – it’s just where I did my most recent fibre purchase. Try vicuna.)
Only some primitive breeds still retain natural wool* shedding.
Some, like the Wiltshire Horn, are primarily milk or meat animals. Their wool is short, kempy (full of hair) and usually of poor quality. The Wiltshire Horn has become more popular recently because their shedding saves farmers a lot of money on shearing and disposing of the wool – yes, it costs money to get rid of wool that’s not useful! Here are some WHs mid-shed:
The rams have glorious horns:
But otherwise I always feel they look like they have a skin disease…
Most of the rest are semi-feral Scottish breeds. There’s Soay, a rare-breed becoming popular as lawnmowers:
They’re tiny sheep, with decent enough fleece for spinning and knitting. Look at the weeness!
And the cootness!
They have mental horns too – any number, any shape.
Whoo thay fock are ye gleekin at, Jimmy?
Then there’s the Boreray:
Well, it’s either a Boreray ram, or the first sighting of a live haggis in the wild. Their wool has been described as a bit kempy, short and coarse, but handspinners I know who’ve worked with it RAVE about it. Some is next-to-the-skin soft, and it can have a pretty good staple of around 6″ or so – hardly short! The Boreray is critically endangered: there may be no more than 300 left in the world.
Some other Scottish breeds still have fleece-shedding genes that pop up in individual sheep, or in partial shedding. These include the rare-breed North Ronaldsay or Orkney (a seaweed forager):
The Shetland, which has probably best fleece for hand-knitting, in a wide range of natural colours:
All hail our Dark Lord! These unfairly-disregarded lovelies have one of the densest natural black fleeces in the sheep world, their only competitor being first-shearing Zwartbles. This, of course, means the fleece is useless for dyeing – and many people don’t like to spin or knit with black yarn. I do, though, and it has a good sturdy hand.
Sometimes a shedding sheep will need some help to get rid of their fleece. It’s not necessary to call in a shearer, though: you can just tug the wool off, in a process called ‘rooing’:
* – I’m going to ignore hair-sheep, which shed naturally, because they don’t produce much wool.