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).