Sunday 17 June 2018

Shear it, Spin it, Wear it... part 1

It's now June and we have finished shearing the alpacas. Last year, I started shearing my own alpacas and I've been learning as I go and adapting my method ever since. A few people have asked how I shear them, which is the reason for this blog post.

There are several reasons behind the decision to do my own shearing:

It is hard to find a good shearer. The first year we had alpacas, the shearer who had agreed to come never turned up or contacted us to say he could not come. As we could not find anyone else, I let an inexperienced shearer who had more practice with sheep do them. He got the job done but I felt was unnecessarily rough with the alpacas when restraining them. The alpacas did not really look very nice either.

Shearers are expensive, and if you have 10 or fewer alpacas, they will probably charge £20 per head with travelling expenses and a set up fee on top. It quickly becomes a money pit with the cost of shearing rising far above the value of the fleeces. Alpacas are supposed to be an animal kept for its fibre. If the fibre is not worth the cost of shearing, what is the point?

The shearer often cannot come until well into the summer, by which time the animals are suffering in the heat in full fleece or you might even be having to mate animals in full fleece. It is much easier to mate them after they've been shorn, and safer as the males have long thin penises that could get entangled in overgrown fleece. Yearling animals tend to have a growth spurt once the fleece comes off, and are the ones who tend to suffer the most with heavy fleece restricting their vision and getting filthy.

The shearers might only be able to come on a day when it is raining. If you do not have facilities to keep alpacas dry, it becomes very difficult. It is also stressful having to shear all the animals on the same day.

Finally, if you want to understand more about your alpacas' fleeces and what distinguishes a good fleece from a poor one, shearing them can be informative.

If you're going to shear your own alpacas, it's important to do it safely and use appropriate equipment. Alpacas are normally shorn fettered and roped down for their own safety as well as for the benefit of the people shearing them. Above is Fleur who has been fettered and placed on a foam mat, and is ready to be shorn. Fleur wasn't unduly bothered by the restraints, and you can see she has her head up and is looking inquisitively at her surroundings. Below is Bess after being shorn, with the shearing assistant. The job of the shearing assistant is to help put the fetters on and get the alpaca in position, and to hold the head so the shearer can shear the neck and around the ears safely.

Most people make their own fetters from straightforward rope and tie it to something. This year I have added some tiedown points in the entrance to a shed with a flat concrete surface between them. Below is one of the tiedown points with one of the fetters. This set is fixed and usually goes on the back legs of the alpaca. The other set is attached to a rope that can be pulled through the other tiedown point and tied off around a cleat above it.

When attaching the fetters to the alpaca's legs, it's best to have one person halter the alpaca and hold it still. It can help to push the alpaca broadside against a wall with your knee behind the shoulder (do not get into the habit of pushing your knee into the alpaca's loin, as if you do it to a pregnant alpaca you could harm her unborn cria). The alpaca can usually then be walked onto the mat and the fetters attached to the tiedown points. Now, when we had someone come to shear the alpacas, what this shearer did at this point was use the fetter rope to yank the animal's legs out from under it and throw it on the floor. A much gentler way of doing this is for one person to hold the alpaca's forequarters by the fleece and the other person to take hold of the rope, which is threaded through the tiedown point. The first person then lifts the alpaca's front legs off the ground and the second person pulls, which if it's done right, means the alpaca stretches out and the first person lowers it onto the mat. Sometimes they do decide to freak out at this point and fall down anyway, which is why the mat is there, but it's one thing to have an animal fall accidentally and entirely another to have animals fall because of deliberate human action. It is also not nice if a fat, pregnant alpaca manages to fall on part of someone.

Now the restraints and the mats have been explained, it's time to look at the shearing equipment:

A lot of people ask what shears I use, and are they like dog clippers? They're mains-operated sheep shears (Lister Laser) and they're only like dog clippers in the same way as a two-stroke motorcycle is like a car. Whereas dog clippers are unlikely to cause injury other than some minor bleeding if you catch the skin on the ears, sheep shears are seriously sharp with much larger tooth spacing, and have a more powerful motor. Last year I cut my finger badly enough that I had to stop and go back to the house and bandage it. There's also a report of a freak accident in which a sheep shearer unfortunately severed his carotid artery and died. This doesn't mean shears are lethal weapons to be afraid of, just something that needs to be respected and used safely, the same as you probably use a knife daily without stabbing yourself in the stomach. Always read the instruction manual and learn how to set up the shears well before you use them, and always buy quality shears, as if you buy cheap nasty ones, you will end up paying twice, once for the cheap nasty shears and then again for decent ones to replace them with five minutes later. Always keep the power cable of the shears behind you when you are working (if you are right handed, the cable should pass behind your right side, so the cable is never in front of you and at risk of being struck by the blades).

I also have some hand shears (the red-handled thing) and what is called sheep 'foot rot' trimmers (the blue handled thing). These are to trim the alpacas' feet. I usually do this first once the alpaca is on the mat, as I will forget to do it after. You should be able to trim the toenails so they are level with the pads of the feet. Light-coloured animals tend to grow toenails faster than dark ones.

When you've finished doing your alpaca's feet, you might want to trim its fighting teeth if it's an entire male and has them. Heavy-duty dog claw clippers seem to work well enough for this. Then you are ready to start shearing. Take the halter off the alpaca if it is wearing one.

The proper way to shear is to remove the 'blanket' (the highest-quality fleece from the animal's body) first and then remove the lower-grade fleece from the rest. For the first alpaca you shear, you will probably just want to get the fleece off safely, and for that reason it's probably best to start with an animal with a poor-quality fleece so you have more experience when you start on the more usable fleeces. Bess in the pictures above has a revolting fleece approaching 40 micron AFD that is not fit to be used for anything apart from stuffing, which is why her fleece wasn't separated. The 'proper' way to shear is also to do the best quality and lighter coloured animals first so the fleeces don't contaminate each other, but as you are starting you will probably only do one animal a day, so if the shearing kit gets cleared away after it probably won't be an issue.

Even if you are not separating the fleece, you should probably still shear it in the right way in order to practice. Start by shearing the alpaca's undercarriage to separate off the coarse hair (which needs to be put with the rest of the rubbish) and setting a line for the edge of the blanket. Work up using blows along the side. Google 'blow diagram' to see pictures of how to do this. Roll the animal from the starting side onto its chest, and then onto the other side, pushing the blanket away from you as you work, in order to shear the blanket in one piece. It helps to have a clean tarpaulin on the opposite side of the animal to where you are working to put the fleece on. Once you have finished shearing the blanket, it's best if possible to remove it and put it on a wire table, or something of that sort (a wire gate-thing balanced on two buckets seems to work) spread out with the cut side down so any second cuts can fall out.

A second cut occurs where you run over an area you already sheared and cut off little tufts of fleece. These little tufts make the fleece a nuisance to work with and reduce its quality, so you should avoid getting them in the blanket as much as possible.

After the blanket fleece is out of the way, you can then tidy up any areas you missed on the body and shear the neck. You will need the shearing assistant to hold the alpaca's head and ears.

The legs, tail, and head of the alpaca are usually left longer and blended in either with the electric shears or with hand shears. Leaving coat on the legs helps prevent horseflies biting the alpacas and making them bleed in the heat of summer, and tails help to protect the alpacas' bottoms from sunburn. I don't think the fleece on the head does anything much, but leaving a 'bonce' avoids them looking like llamas and looks more balanced.

Fleece in bags in a shed

After you have finished shearing the alpaca, put the halter back on, take the fetters off, and put the alpaca back in its paddock. The blanket fleece needs to be rolled up with the cut surface outwards and put in a paper bag somewhere safe (inside the boxes on the left in the above image). The other fleece goes into clean chicken food bags.

Dos and Don'ts:

Do take your time. Just do one alpaca a day to start with, and don't shear in inappropriate weather or if you don't feel well. If you become tired or are in discomfort from the physical exertion, stop and continue another day.

Do familiarise yourself with your animals' anatomy before you start and be very careful around risky areas, specifically under the chest where the legs meet the body, around the eyes and throat, and around their bottoms/willies/udders. Alpacas do not grow fleece around their 'bits' so it should be easy to see and avoid them if you know where they are.

Don't worry excessively about neatness and presentation initially. Getting the fleece off safely is more important than how the animal looks. This can come once you have more experience.

Do start with easy to handle alpacas where possible. The most difficult alpacas to work with tend to be pregnant hembras. They hate to be handled and will spit and kick. Some of them will wet themselves all over their fleeces. If possible, shear them a week or so after they give birth, before they are remated and after they have had time to establish a bond with their cria. This depends on your breeding schedule, however, and if they are not due until summer or autumn, they will need to be shorn pregnant. Wethers are probably the easiest to start with, followed by young males and maiden females and working studs.

Do get the vet out if you accidentally cut an alpaca and the bleeding does not stop after five minutes.

Do try to wear suitable clothing. Avoid anything baggy that could get caught in the shears and damage them. Wear something that won't restrict your arm movement, but don't shear shirtless or in a bikini top. Don't wear shorts -- you will spend a lot of time moving around the alpaca on your knees on the shearing mat, and if you accidentally put your weight on the shears or any other bits of equipment you will fare rather better if you have jeans or something sensible on. (ignore the picture of the shearing assistant above; he cares more about how he looks than about practicality)

Do not attempt to shear alpacas that are not properly restrained. If the alpaca moves suddenly, the shears can cause serious lacerations, and if an alpaca kicks your hand and you end up with the shears in your face, it's not going to do you much good either. There's a video somewhere online in which someone attempts to shear an alpaca apparently alone and with no restraints. Be aware that information available on the Internet is worth what you paid for it (and that includes this blog). Watch how professional shearers shear and consult as many sources of good advice as possible before you start. Never work with shears out of shouting range of another competent adult.

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