‘I was helping pack away wool when I was about five’
Jane Hanks speaks to a top sheep shearer about the challenges of making a living in the trade and the thrill of competition
Loïc Leygonie from Cuzance near Souillac, Lot, is the French sheep shearing champion 2018 and part of the France team which won the 6 Nations Sheep Shearing competition held this year at Mayrac, Lot.
The competition, like its rugby equivalent, is held every year between France, Scotland, Wales, England, Northern and Southern Ireland.
Most often Scotland and Wales are the champions but this year Loïc Leygonie was thrilled that his country won, proof, he says, that they are improving.
The 26-year-old earns his living as a professional sheep shearer, a job he is passionate about and he explained why, in this day and age, when very few sheep are raised for their wool in France, his job is still important:
It is really for the well-being of the reproductive ewes, which are bred for the lambs raised for meat and kept for several years. They have to be sheared once a year in a season which can stretch from January to August because of the heat in summer and the parasites which could get into the wool.
If we didn’t cut off their fleeces their wool would continue to grow and it would be dangerous for them. It is an essential part of sheep farming.
How did you become a sheep shearer?
My father is one so it is in the family. I watched him from when I was little. Some farms I go to now, remember me helping pack away the wool when I was about five years old. I always liked it and it seemed an obvious choice to continue.
My father started when he was 18 years old to earn a bit of pocket money but then there were shearers who retired and so it turned into a job.
My father worked with my uncle who lives opposite. His son, my cousin, has taken it up, myself and my little brother too, so it is really a family affair.
I make my living solely from shearing. There are about a hundred of us like me in France and another 200 who combine the profession with other jobs.
How did you learn?
I learnt from my father but there is also an Association des Tondeurs de Moutons which puts on training courses and refresher courses so I learnt a lot of technique there.
How do you shear a sheep?
I think the most difficult thing to learn is how to hold a sheep, so that it does not move, it does not fight to get free, and it is not hurt. We block the animal just with our legs, it is not tied up, it is free.
After that, manipulating the electric shears is not difficult. You have to learn how to use the shears, which are sharp, but if you hold the sheep correctly you will not hurt it. The sheep must be well balanced between your legs so that the shoulder, the back and the thighs will lie flat and the shears will not run along a fold in the skin and cut it.
The fleece comes off in one piece, so how do you know where to cut so as to achieve that?
The wool grows like our hair. The difference is that the wool is much thicker and as it grows it becomes tangled and so if we cut it off near to the skin it will hold together.
If we come back to a ewe just a few weeks after it has been shorn the wool will have just begun to grow again and it will be just like us with very short hair.
But as the wool grows longer, the fibres become intertwined. We move the electric shears along the skin of the animal and the cutting combs are set so as to cut the wool at the correct distance from the skin.
What characteristics do you need to be a good shearer? I imagine you need to be strong.
Yes, but it does not depend on being really strong. You do though have to be physically healthy and you need to be supple as you have to bend over a lot and you need endurance. You need experience in the job to do it well.
How many sheep do you shear in a day?
We estimate 250 per person per day. We shear about 40 in an hour. That is just an average, because it depends on the type of sheep and the amount of wool. We might do 50 in an hour when it is easy and 25 when it is difficult.
What do the judges look for in the competitions?
There are three criteria. Firstly, we are judged on how we cut the fleece. We must do it in one go. If we re-pass it means we have cut the wool in two which is not good.
The second is the final look of the ewe. The judges check that the cut is regular, that the animal is not injured and that there is no wool left on the animal.
The third is the timing. A complicated mathematical formula takes into account all three points to come up with the final score. For the final of the French Championship there were 20 ewes and I sheared them in 14 minutes 40 seconds.
But what you must understand it is not just a question of speed. I was not the fastest. Someone else did it in 14 minutes 10 seconds but I had the best mark for the quality of my work and so I won the competition. You have to balance speed with the way in which you shear.
I train for the competition and do that often with my brother. It is good to work together to help each other improve our technique.
What do you like about this job?
Many things. As well as enjoying the act of shearing there is the contact you have with the farmers. I work in the Lot, the Dordogne and the Corrèze and every day we change farm so I travel around my region and I like that.
That is from spring to the end of summer when we work six days out of seven, and often leave home at 7am and get back at 8pm. Then the autumn is calmer and we can go on holiday. In the winter, from the beginning of December to mid-February I often go to New Zealand to work. They have the best shearers and introduced the technique I use so I learn a great deal from them.
It is very different because they have huge farms with five or six thousand sheep and so we stay several days on one farm. This year going to New Zealand will help me prepare for the World Championships which will be held
in France in 2019.
What happens to the wool?
It is a bit sad. There are no major treatment centres any more in France, so that 80% of the wool goes to China where it is washed and treated. It is cheaper there and chemicals are used which are forbidden here. Who knows, perhaps some of the treated wool comes back to France.
Here, the quality of the wool is not very high as the sheep are bred for their meat, but it still has a certain value. Some years ago the farmer was able to use the money from selling wool to pay the shearer, but the wool price has gone down so that is no longer the case. We hope one day the price will go up again.
Do you think the profession has a future?
As long as sheep are kept for meat, farmers will have to employ shearers to shear their ewes so I believe there will always be work.
It is a passion. I love the daily job, and I can combine it with my love of sport by taking part in competitions. I can travel and there are always daily challenges.