Eight or so years ago, the photographer Nich Hance McElroy walked into a public library in New Mexico where a poster beckoned:?Learn to Shear Sheep!?McElroy was intrigued. In Alaska, where he had begun spending part of each year working on a musk ox ranch (the animals are hand-combed annually, and their collected long hair, or qiviut, is harvested as wool), people often came looking for someone to shear their sheep, too. McElroy decided to check it out.
Domestic sheep, such as merino, do not naturally shed a substantial amount of wool. A sheep with full fleece, farmers say, is at risk for conditions like heat stress, fly?strike, and wool blindness. In the United States, as McElroy would learn in school and on the job, most shearing crews still adhere to practices based on the?Bowen?Technique, outlined by acclaimed New Zealand shearer Godfrey Bowen and his brother Ivan in the 1950s, a method that employs rhythmical sweeps of the shearing handpiece. “It’s a way that does the least harm to the animal, and also has the least wear and tear on the shearer’s body,” said McElroy recently, from his studio in Los Angeles.
When done perfectly, shearers say, as by contemporary master shearer Chris Cornett, they liken the technique to a “beautiful dance—fluid and clean.” The?Bowen Technique also mandates a labor standard of sorts, capping workdays and mapping out a daily routine. “You can tell it was written in the?’50s, because it’s punctuated by all these?‘smokos,’?which are 15-minute smoke breaks,” McElroy said. “Now, I just go drink an Odwalla or eat an apple or something.”
“The schedule that most crews keep, you start at 7:00 in the morning or so, you shear for an hour and a half, take a half-hour break, shear for two hours, take lunch which is half an hour, you shear another hour and a half, you take a half-hour break, you shear for two hours, and you’re done. It’s seven hours with a couple hours break, and everyone’s exhausted, and for the period of time you’re shearing, it’s like running a marathon.”
Shearing also involves a sizable initial investment: between $2,000 and $3,000 for the equipment each shearer must have, and?the ability to travel, either spending hours to reach remote farms or devoting large chunks of time on the road working with crews. Since 2010, McElroy has spent the shearing season (in the United States, this can be anywhere between late spring and early fall, depending on the region) in western Washington and northern California, shearing small flocks for farmers who shear their sheep purely for health reasons, or to collect wool for fiber artists.
“Anyone who’s a shearer is some sort of interesting person,” McElroy said. “In Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, I’ve met shearers who have these hardscrabble lives, but they’re also real virtuosos. And in my other life, I meet people all the time who, when I say I harvest wool, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I had no idea, I kind of thought it just fell off.’ So I started photographing some of the farms and shearers I work with. I want to depict the labor and get people to think about where wool comes from.”
Recently, though, what that labor looks like has changed. “I was always acutely aware that there were less women shearers,” McElroy said. But last year, when he began shearing on commercial crews for a shearer and sheep rancher named Robert Irwin, McElroy noticed more and more women working on flocks—many who Irwin actively recruited. Some were already farmers or gardeners themselves, some were tech professionals in the Bay Area with a back-to-the-land mind-set, some were part-time knitters who wondered why it was next to impossible to find local wool. McElroy began photographing them, too.
“I really think, going forward, it’s going to be women doing farm work,” Irwin told me recently by phone from California. “The last five years or so, teaching guys to do this stuff, a lot of them just don’t have the mentality of waking up and thinking to themselves, ‘I’m going to get better at this.’ The women do. They’re more apt to stick with this; they’re more detail-oriented;?they’re tougher.”
Most of the shearers in McElroy’s photographs have a story about the extremes they’ve gone to in order to protect their animals. Irwin’s sheep, both his own and the flocks he manages for others, are spread out throughout northern California. On a recent night, the winds around his Lake County,?California ranch were blowing up to 50 miles an hour. “Everything was unsettled—the dogs, the sheep, the people,” he told me. “We sensed in the air that something bad was going to happen.” When Irwin tried to check on reports of fire at another ranch, he opened the door to see a wall of fire in their path, with flames that shot up?to 10 feet high when the wind picked up. “It sounded like a jet engine roaring across a racetrack,” he said.
In the days and nights to come, he and his neighbors rallied to action, waking up neighbors in the fire’s path, and transporting animals to safety. They managed to rescue a flock of 530 sheep—”some of them were month-old lambs, still on their moms,” Irwin said—from a ranch in Potter Valley, just before the area was completely evacuated. At time of press, all the sheep were accounted for. Irwin and his wife, Jaime, who is eight months pregnant, were watching the winds closely. “We continue to dodge bullets,” he said. “But this is a good part of the world that still helps their neighbor out.”