Shearers speak about diminishing culture

by Lizzie Bassett

Crockett County—The art of sheep shearing may be disappearing, but it is a profession crucial to Texas agriculture.

Shearers from all across the state work for hours in harsh conditions to ensure the comfort and survival of animals in their care.

For shearers, this is a labor-intensive but necessary job that has gotten a bad reputation in recent years due to social media and false information.

Shearing is a skillful art form, preserved by laborers for years, but as with any industry, change requires industries to shift in order to keep up.

Laura Russell has been shearing sheep, llamas, and alpacas for over 29 years, and she loves her job. However, she struggles with being one of the few shearers in her area. Russell’s business, Shear Delight, operates in the DFW area, but she often travels far responding to calls.

“I got tired of seeing these animals dying from the cruel Texas heat,” Russell said. “Not many people want to help the farmers with just 20-30 animals, but they know my name and that I’ll help whenever I can.”

In the past several years, organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have spread falsehoods about shearing. According to Russell, these lies are harmful and lead to significant problems.

“These animals, sheep especially, need to be sheared annually,” Russell said. “Otherwise they will overheat and die. Every animal I shear is one less animal that might die from the heat.”

Another component that has led to the loss of shearers is the fluctuating wool economy. Ozona ranchman Paul Perner, who has owned sheep and goats for many years, has experienced this issue.

“The issue is, none of our wool is processed in Texas anymore,” Perner said. “What used to be a more local thing now hinges on the Australian economy and is processed in China.”

Many years ago, West Central Texas was home to a thriving wool industry.

“There used to be thousands of sheep here,” Perner said. “You could make a great living off sheep, because of how good the wool market was. But now, people view them as too labor intensive and tend to go for sheep that do not produce standard wool.

“I hate to say it, but I really do see this industry as a dying one.”

Despite the significant challenges that come with shearing, some have managed to make a name for themselves as standout shearers. One such person is Katie McRose, owner of San Antonio-based Right Choice Shearing.

Right Choice Shearing, while a successful business, is also home to more than 2 million followers who are interested in videos about the world of shearing.

“I genuinely love doing this,” McRose said. “Connecting with the animals I help is an amazing feeling. I enjoy learning how to maneuver with the animals and work with them in ways that are less stressful for myself and the animal.”

For McRose, a part of her job is letting people know that not all shearers are harsh and careless.

“I think [misinformation is] easily combated by just showing up and doing a good job,” McRose said. “I think one of my biggest challenges is showing people that shearing is a beautiful thing, and not this cruel monstrosity that PETA makes it out to be, honestly.”

Despite all the positives McRose sees with her job, there are also struggles.

“We try to start our season early, around February to beat a lot of the heat, but by the time we get to mid-summer, it’s just brutal here,” McRose said. “It takes a specific person with the right amount of stamina.

“The most significant reason we’re so few and far between [is] learning opportunities. Everyone learns from either a mentor or a class, and both of those are difficult to come across.”

McRose teaches a course in San Angelo annually and there are a few courses run by Texas A&M AgriLife, but the industry needs shearers willing to take on apprentices.

“It’s not a one-and-done skill,” McRose said. “You have to continually adjust to learn.”

Ronald Pope, who works with the Bill Sims Wool & Mohair Research Laboratory in San Angelo, helps host a class for shearers.

“It all comes down to letting people know that shearing is good for their animals so that they can live satisfactory lives,” Pope said. “The shearers we use will only advance with technology. At the end of the day, sheep and other animal owners need to trust that this is what is best for their herds.”

Laura Russell offered a piece of advice to farm owners.

“Get your sheep, alpacas, and llamas sheared annually, please,” Russell said. “As early as possible as well. The better we treat our animals, the happier and better off they will be so they do not have to suffer with matted wool in the scorching Texas heat.”

Sonora Bank March