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Fact Friday: Wool

We know we missed our last couple of Fact Fridays! With us so busy shearing our sheep residents last Friday and the heat of the previous Friday (our hottest day of the year so far) we needed to rest our brains! We’re back this week and inspired by shearing day, we thought we’d tell you a little about our woolly friends.

So, why do we shear sheep? Firstly, this is a need that we Humans have created! Like other domestic animals, we have bred sheep for different traits to develop the breeds we have today - it is believed that selective breeding for woolly sheep began around 6000 BCE. Ancient sheep bear little resemblance to today’s wool sheep, selectively bred for thousands of years for their woolly fleeces after we discovered the many uses that we can put their wool to, everything from clothing ourselves to making sails for ships. The Romans even started to breed them for specific colour traits.

Wild sheep naturally shed their coarse winter coats, scratching their bodies against trees, and rubbing away their extra fluff as the weather warms up - you may have seen our Soays looking a little worse for wear in the spring; these are an ancient breed and naturally shed, unlike our other rescued sheep which are all wool breeds and cannot regulate their excess fleece on their own.

Soay Sheep

So why do we need to take those fleeces off if we’re not keeping them for their wool? The answer is simply for their welfare! Wool is nature’s best insulator, protecting sheep from the extreme cold in the winter months. However, continuing to wear this thick, heavy fleece during the summer can be uncomfortable and stressful, increasing the risk of overheating, parasite infestation such as flystrike, and becoming ‘rigged’ (stuck on their back due to the added weight of their fleece) – yes, there’s truth to this tale you have all heard, sheep can get stuck on their back and as we discussed in our earlier Bloat Fact, this can kill them if not turned over!

Very early sheep farmers tried many different methods of removing wool and sadly some were (and in some places, still are) more painful for the sheep than others, such as stone scraping tools knapped from flint, or ‘rooing’ which involves simply plucking out the wool. We have sheep to thank for the invention of scissors and archaeologists have even discovered beautifully crafted shears in Ancient Egyptian tombs!

Here at the sanctuary, we work with a skilled shearer (using modern painless techniques) who’s known our residents for several years and treats our sheep respectfully and as individuals – he’s even learned some of their names. Our animal care team are also there throughout the process to reassure them and assist when needed.

But not to worry! Just like your hair, sheep wool continues to grow after it has been trimmed and will start to grow back ready for those colder months, growing about six millimetres per month (this varies with breed, nutrition, and environment), and so our sheep need to be sheared annually – some woollier breeds are even shorn twice a year!

We have so many more woolly facts to share with Ewe, but we’ll save those for another Friday. If you have any burning questions you’d like us to answer, we’d love to feature a fact of yours – please send them our way.

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