Getting a haircut at Field Days: Young shearer carries on old tradition

NEW HAVEN — You can hear the sheep tent at the Addison County Fair and Field Days long before you enter it. Once you enter, the place is defined by sounds as much as sights.
Over the roar of the huge barn fans — going continually to circulate air, keep down the flies, and cool off animals and humans alike — sheep call to each other, baaing and bleating, some high, some low, in tones and pitches varying enough to fit out a well-rounded community chorus. Up near the fitting stands, you can hear the continual click-click of shears, as various young people prepare their sheep for the show ring.
At the 67th annual Field Days, which started Tuesday and will continued at the New Haven fairgrounds through Saturday, 22-year-old Grace Kuehne works among the sheep, where she feels very much at home. On the first day of the fair she educated and entertained visitors with her sheep-shearing demonstrations.
Around Kuehne on Tuesday the sheep hang out, contentedly enough, in their well-tended wooden pens — dark-faced Romneys with their chocolate-colored wool; the classic “Little Bo Peep” look of the border Leicesters, Oxfords, Columbias and Lincolns; and the small-horned Karakul with their black shaggy coats. The little Karakul lambs’ tightly curled black pelts look, somewhat disconcertingly, like the signature hats, capes and coats made out of them.
Some sleep, some chew, some watch the curious crowds and each other. One of the few lambs still young enough to nurse butts its mother for a snack.
A sign cautions visitors that petting sheep on the head can cause them to be aggressive. Try under the chin first. A 4-H poster tells visitors that “Wool is a 12,000-year-old miracle fiber! It’s renewable. It’s natural. It’s bio-degradable. It’s earth friendly.” Another cites interesting sheep facts, everything from Dolly the sheep cloned in 1996 to the ancient evidence that humans have been raising sheep for at least 11 millennia. (Dogs take the coveted first-place spot for domestication, but sheep are right behind.) Sheep shaped Vermont — close to 200 years ago the craze for Vermont-raised Merino wool resulted in the clearing of  thousands of acres of woodland for pasture.
Kuehne, a Benson resident, starts the shearing demonstration by deftly maneuvering a 150-pound (plus) Southdown ewe onto its rump, its back braced against Kuehne’s legs, its four feet sticking out in front of its body. Poised on its rump, hooves splayed, in a very un-sheeplike posture, the hefty ewe looks for all the world like one of those overfed obese cartoon cats popularized by B. Kliban.
Southdowns, Kuehne explains, are a meat sheep, and so they need to be fully shorn for the show ring so that the judges can take a look at their shoulders, hocks, and haunches up close and personal.
The moment Kuehne wrestles the sheep onto its butt, a crowd of close to 50 kids, adults, toddlers and babes in arms suddenly materializes. The kids watch, all eyes.
“One of the key things to shearing animals,” Kuehne says, before she clicks on the electric shearing clippers, “is to know how to hold the animal and how to maneuver them while you’re shearing. Right now I’ve got my left foot underneath her left shoulder blade; and because I’ve got my foot under there, she can squiggle and squirm all she wants but I’ve got control of her and she can’t roll forward.”
Indeed, the sheep rests there, amazingly docile as Kuehne starts with the sheep’s underside, moving in downward strokes down the chest, under the arms, down and across the belly, and inside the legs. Underside finished, Kuehne flips the Ovis aries onto its side. She uses her whole body to brace the sheep while she shears — legs, back, knees, working just as much to balance and hold the sheep as her right arm maneuvers the high-pitched whirring clippers. Given Kuehne’s assured handling, the sheep hardly lets out a bleat or so much as twitches — let alone makes a run for it. Only once in the 20 or so minutes it takes to completely shear off its fleece does it even attempt to squiggle out of Kuehne’s grasp. The confident young woman wrestles it right back in place, no fuss, no nonsense, and goes right on shearing, as she explains each move to the audience.
When Kuehne’s done flipping and shearing and flipping and shearing, she shakes the fleece and spreads it out for the crowd to see. A little boy asks if the sheep minds being sheared.
“It’s like getting a haircut,” Kuehne answers.
Kuehne, now an undergraduate studying genetics at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been around sheep since she was a toddler. Asked when she first started working with sheep, she laughs and answers, “When I was maybe three years old, when I was first able to walk and put my hands out and touch them.”
Kuehne started exhibiting sheep at Field Days at age five — the youngest age at which children can begin competing.
“I think I’ve only missed two years since I started coming here,” she adds. She learned to shear sheep at a 4-H clinic when she was around 14.
“I went over to Leslie Goodrich’s farm (in Shoreham), and they had a shearer there. He showed us step by step each stroke and what order to go in, and then before we left we all had to take a sheep out and shear ’em ourselves. Honestly, I’d been hacking away at my sheep trying to do it for a few years, but after I went to the clinic and learned how to do it, everything made so much more sense.
“The Addison County fair is almost home to me,” says Kuehne, “especially within the sheep tent. We’re all a big family. We’re all a big community. Everyone knows everybody. Everyone’s looking out for everyone else. Like when I showed up, I had this big round bale, and I didn’t even have to ask anyone. I jumped on the tractor and three more kids jumped up on with me and we just rolled it into my pen.
“So everyone’s always welcoming and willing to help out — we even have community lunches and breakfasts and dinners so you don’t have to pay for fair food all week if you’re here staying in a tent or a camper.
“I’ve always just loved the Addison County fair and especially the sheep community that comes with it.”

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