by Kathy Birt
Amber Petersen of Hampton, P.E.I., grew up with a sheep-shearing father and helped out by bagging the wool. At 14, she sheared her first sheep. By age 20, she had moved away from home and after college began a career as an administrative assistant.
When her father Valdis gave up his shearing circuit in P.E.I., her friend Pauline Bolay of Manitoba took over the circuit and one evening asked Petersen to come along.
“That’s how I got started,” said Petersen. She noted that she gradually gained back her father’s customers because having someone local meant farmers could have the shearing done when they wanted and not when Bolay happened to be in P.E.I.
“Pauline lives in Manitoba and might only be in P.E.I., say, in July,” said Petersen.
With a full-time day job, she shears evenings and weekends, and noted that she is very busy shearing as many as 7,000 sheep in a year. “I do 95 percent of Island sheep farms,” said Petersen, quickly adding that she is the only active sheep shearer on P.E.I.
Petersen said that Canada has a relatively high percentage of female shearers but that male shearers still outnumber female shearers 10 to one. That doesn’t deter the ambitious young woman from taking on approximately 80 Island sheep farms. The active 34-year-old said she is all over the province, from Tignish to North Lake. Never taking for granted that she is the best at what she is doing, Petersen makes a point of attending sheep-shearing schools. She attended one last year in Holstein, Ont., and one this year in Taber, Alta.
There are beginner and advanced schools. Petersen registered for the advanced schools, feeling she would benefit more from them. “These schools are more about changing bad habits I may have formed – to get better and quicker at what I do – and not only make things easier on myself but easier on the sheep too,” she said.
She said the more comfortable the sheep is, the faster she can do her work. She can usually shear for six hours straight, typically doing 20-30 sheep an hour. Always wanting to improve her time and strength, Petersen said she’s working her way up to being able to shear for eight hours.
SECOND AT CALGARY STAMPEDE
Petersen’s competitive edge was put to the test this summer when she competed at the Calgary Stampede, which was something Bolay urged her to do.
“I did my first competition last year in Holstein (Ontario), while at the shearing school,” said Petersen. “They often have the competition at the same time as the schools. I came in seventh in my class. I’m classed as intermediate.”
She explained that the classes are novice, intermediate, senior, and open (professional), the latter being the top class. “In Canada we don’t have a senior class, just because there are not enough competitors,” said Petersen.
Competing in the intermediate class worked for her, with a long-range plan to get to the pros. In the meantime, taking part in the Calgary Stampede competition was a big stepping stone for the P.E.I. sheep shearer. “I competed with nine others in the intermediate class,” said Petersen. “This is an international competition with people from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and the U.K., and of course Canada.”
The shearers are timed and the judges are rotated to ensure fairness.
“If we make mistakes, demerit points are added to the score,” said Petersen. “The lower the score, the better for us. After the shearing is complete, the sheep are looked over by the judges for any nicks or cuts.”
Once the initial wool is off, the shearer takes a closer look to do a second cut. That means cleaning off any areas that were missed initially. “The trick is to keep your blades on the skin and do a smooth, clean job – not leaving little ridges – and without going back to clean off little pieces you’ve missed,” said Petersen.
Any missed ridges and nicks will add demerit points. That is what Petersen works to avoid in her shearing job and in competitions.
“This competition (in Calgary) was not a stiff one for me,” said Petersen, adding that she was out front for most of the heat. “I lost points in the finals and came in second in the intermediate class. My goal was to be in the top five.”
She received a belt buckle and $560, which she said was “not bad.”
Cash like that helps Petersen keep the tools of her trade up to standard. She buys her gear, including sheep-shearing clothing, from the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, and Australia. “Blades and shearing clothing are the things I buy more regularly,” she said. “They wear out faster.”
She said the shearing machine motor, handpiece, and downshaft are the bigger components and don’t have to be replaced too often. Petersen said it’s always exciting to get new gear, noting that it’s best to get it before the old stuff wears out. There is a wide range of prices for the gear. “As with all things, you get what you pay for,” she said. “So I aim for something in the middle range.”
NEW ZEALAND TRIP THIS WINTER
Petersen plans to go to New Zealand for eight weeks this winter to shear. “I’m committed to the eight weeks in January and February and may stay longer,” she said, adding that she hopes the trip will help her achieve her long-term goals.
“I want to be able to do 300 (sheep) a day,” said Petersen, adding that she’s twice sheared 186 sheep a day. “So, hopefully, I’ll get to 200 a day while in New Zealand.”
In the meantime, Petersen will keep busy shearing on P.E.I. and beyond. “I branch out to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on weekends,” she said. “The way it works, I have the option to shear in other areas. I know enough people in the shearing circuit to be able to work in the U.S., Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and B.C.”
To manage the stress on her body and to help her stay in shape for the rigours of shearing long hours, Petersen gets regular massages, jogs, and trains in martial arts. She participates in kick-boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
One Island farmer who hires Petersen to shear is Allison Ferguson of Oyster Bed Bridge.
“Don’t know what I’d do without Amber,” said Ferguson from her kitchen. The former Ontario resident raises Black Welsh Mountain sheep, a rare breed, like most of her livestock. She hired Petersen five years ago to take care of her small flock. She sells the lambs for meat. “I also spin and weave,” said Ferguson. “The wool felts really well and blends nicely with alpaca. I started with four rams and then added 13 ewes.”
While Ferguson kept the sheep occupied in the barn, Petersen went to work by grabbing an animal tightly and turning it over on its back, all the time making sure of its comfort. “This sheep weighs about 70 to 80 pounds,” said Petersen. Having no problems handling the weight, she was done in minutes and went on to the second sheep.
“Shearing sheep is hard work,” said Petersen. “Training your body in a variety of ways is key to keeping things balanced and making sure you have supporting muscles to aid the main ones you are using.”