The age-old prac­tice of sheep-shear­ing, up close and per­sonal


In the Ka­roo, where age-old tra­di­tions pre­vail, highly skilled teams of sheep shear­ers travel from farm to farm, work­ing in much the same way as fore­bears did. In their wake they leave con­tented flocks – and bags filled with prized wool des­tined for far­away places.

The view to the east takes your breath away. Vast plains, blue­grey moun­tains, a tran­quil si­lence, Cradock in the dis­tance. This is the out­look from Ka­ree­laagte, a sheep farm on the dirt road be­tween Nieu-Bethesda and the N9. The near­est “big” town is Graaff-Reinet, just less than 60km away in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

It is shear­ing sea­son on Ka­ree­laagte. It’s 30˚C and vo­lu­mi­nous clouds rum­ble to an­nounce an ap­proach­ing thun­der­storm. Oc­ca­sional bursts of sun­light emerge and a gor­geous glow hov­ers over the plains. Ka­roo light de­fies def­i­ni­tion: what some dis­miss as bland semidesert trans­forms into a kalei­do­scope of yel­low and gold, ev­ery shade of green imag­in­able, deep blues, misty greys and dusky pur­ples.

Fran­cois and Ina Botha, own­ers of Ka­ree­laagte for the past 23 years, bought it from the Van Niek­erks, farm­ers for five gen­er­a­tions.

Farm­ing runs deep in the blood of the peo­ple who live on this land. The Bothas farm with merino sheep and Angus cat­tle, and keep horses for both fun and farm­work.

Ina has an amaz­ing rap­port with an­i­mals, and sel­dom is she not han­drea­r­ing an or­phan. To­day it’s a tiny meerkat that runs af­ter her, squeak­ing with de­light and nar­rowly avoid­ing a huge dog’s paws.

This is a real fam­ily farm. Fran­cois and Ina’s three chil­dren – Cor­nelle (25), Fran­cois Jr (22) and Ari­jana(19) – grew up here among the an­i­mals and learnt to care for them with the same pas­sion as their par­ents. Their phi­los­o­phy: if you look af­ter your an­i­mals well, they will look af­ter you. For them, an­i­mals firstly de­serve the best care and love; sell­ing them for profit is sec­ondary.

The chil­dren re­turn home reg­u­larly – Cor­nelle from an au­dit­ing firm in Bloem­fontein, where she’s do­ing her ar­ti­cles, along with her hus­band; Fran­cois Jr, who is study­ing for an hon­ours de­gree in man­age­ment ac­count­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of the Free State; and Ari­jana, who is in her sec­ond year at Potchefstroom Uni­ver­sity. Fran­cois Jr plans to farm full time in a few years.

ON AR­RIVAL AT KA­REE­LAAGTE, you are greet­ing by Ina at the front door with dogs bound­ing around her. The house of­fers views of the hills in the dis­tance beyond an ex­pan­sive lawn. At the large shed nearby, Fran­cois is over­see­ing the shear­ing process

– a fran­tic week-long bustle. Af­ter ex­chang­ing greet­ings we are led to the coal­face.

Six men are seated in the shade out­side the shed, sharp­en­ing their sheers on whet­stones. Spread out along­side them are huge tar­pau­lins cov­ered in bedrag­gled bits of wool dry­ing in the hot Ka­roo sun. These men are part of a team of ex­traor­di­nar­ily skilled sheep shear­ers who travel from farm to farm dur­ing shear­ing sea­son, and have done so for years, like their fore­bears did.

Led by mas­ter shearer Elias Moeti, they hail from a vil­lage near Maseru >

in Le­sotho. From Jan­uary un­til March they leave their fam­i­lies on their own farms to earn money by shear­ing for farm­ers in South Africa. For four to six weeks in April they take a break to re­turn home, then they’re back on the road, al­ways mov­ing from one farm to the next, un­til De­cem­ber. It’s a hard, un­set­tled life.

The in­te­rior of the shed is a hive of sort­ing, the hot air thick with the smell of sheep, lano­lin, ac­tiv­ity. Sur­pris­ingly, in this huge, bustling place, there is just one ma­chine – to com­press the wool into com­pact bales, weigh­ing 160kg to 180kg each, that will be sent to the mar­kets. From there the wool is cleaned and wo­ven and – very likely – show­cased on cat­walks around the world, adorn­ing the cur­rent crop of in­ter­na­tional models.

Yet it all starts here, with a process that is done en­tirely by hand, in a smooth se­quence. The sheep wait be­hind a door un­til the shear­ers are all ready, at which point the head shearer sig­nals the start. One by one the an­i­mals are re­leased, grabbed and held firmly by one leg with their rumps on the con­crete, as 10 months’ worth of wool is care­fully re­moved.

Shear­ing a sheep takes less than five min­utes. Then its fleece is thrown off the plat­form onto a short­ing ta­ble to be col­lected and graded, and the sheep is sent down a small tun­nel that leads to a pad­dock out­side. It must feel won­der­ful to shed about 5kg of wool, con­sid­er­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures in this area eas­ily reach 40°C.

“So much joy,” Ina says, “that yes­ter­day, one of the sheep leapt over the fence like a kudu and frol­icked up into the kop­pie be­hind the house.”

BOTH INA AND FRAN­COIS are qual­i­fied wool graders, Ina hav­ing grown up in the Graaff-Reinet district and Fran­cois near Ma­clear.

The wool is graded ac­cord­ing to its length – the graders are so skilled, they need no rulers. Qual­ity is mea­sured in mi­crons (’80s hair trends come to mind). The strength of the fi­bre is also recorded, af­ter which it is sorted into bins run­ning the length of the wall. Three of them, la­belled Lox 1, 2 and 3, con­tain the dirt­ier lit­tle bits: the sweat­stained sec­tions (who knew sheep sweat?); the kui­fies, or fringes; and the “mis en pis” (the grubby sec­tions around their nether re­gions). These are the tufts we saw dry­ing in the sun out­side.

A quiet calm reigns, in­ter­rupted only by the oc­ca­sional baaah of a sheep or a shout from the head shearer. There might be a small strug­gle to get a sheep in the cor­rect po­si­tion, and then the ra­zor-sharp shears slide silently along the con­tours of the an­i­mal’s body. Con­cen­tra­tion is etched into each shearer’s face as they prac­tise this age-old skill to per­fec­tion. It’s mes­meris­ing: ev­ery per­son is do­ing their bit, no­body misses a beat.

Re­mu­ner­a­tion takes place via the co-op, and bonuses are given – one sheep to slaugh­ter for ev­ery 1 000 sheep shorn.

It’s back-break­ing work and the shear­ers are sinewy and slick. It must be tough be­ing away from their fam­i­lies for ex­tended pe­ri­ods.

The team we met has been com­ing to Ka­ree­laagte for years, stay­ing about 10 days at a time, un­til all 4 000 sheep are re­lieved of their wool, be­fore mov­ing on to the next farm.

The Ka­roo is a mag­nif­i­cent place, sin­gu­lar in its huge skies and clean air, its hos­pi­tal­ity, dirt roads and iso­la­tion, folk­lore and sto­ries – and, as ex­pe­ri­enced on Ka­ree­laagte, its age-old tra­di­tions and the peo­ple who pass them on from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. They are masters of their craft.

ABOVE Full-time em­ploy­ees on the farm Ka­ree­laagte also work in the shear­ing shed. Here, Anna Ram­a­tola sorts the wool, sep­a­rat­ing the soiled bits from the rest. RIGHT Merino sheep, ready to be shorn.

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE For a sec­ond, sus­pended in the air, a fleece looks like an­gel wings as it is thrown from the shear­ing plat­form onto the sort­ing ta­ble; Ina and Fran­cois’s daugh­ters, Ari­jana and Cor­nelle, take the horses for a dip in the farm dam to es­cape the sum­mer heat; Ari­jana feeds Vanilla, an or­phan calf that is be­ing hand-reared at Ka­ree­laagte; and Al­fons Moketsi takes a mo­ment to sharpen his shears.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT Bales weigh­ing up to 180kg are des­tined for the wool mar­ket and, from there, the world; af­ter shed­ding 5kg of wool, the re­lief of the an­i­mals is pal­pa­ble; us­ing a whet­stone takes some skill; the road to the farm, with a dra­matic view of Kom­pas­berg (at an al­ti­tude of 2 504m, one of the high­est moun­tains in South Africa).

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