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Sheep Shearing On Amherst Island

Editor’s Note:  Yes,  you are right, Amherst Island is not officially part of the Thousand Islands, and TI Life has a rule on, above, or beside our Islands on the St. Lawrence River. But when photographer Steve Stutz called to say he was heading to Amherst for the Annual Sheep Sheering day – I said, Please take lots of photographs and tell us all about it.  For this is one excursion that seems to be a must on a spring calendar!  Thanks Steve for doing this and thanks to Topsy Farms for sharing their story.
Sheep on the way to the barn the day before shearing starts Summer
Photo by Steve Sturtz ©2017

If you want to find happy, come to Topsy Farms  on Amherst Island and meet the eclectic group of family, partners, farm hands and friends for the sheep shearing day. You will not find a more congenial, outgoing and, yes, happy group.

The eagerness of all involved was evident when we boarded the earliest ferry to the island, 6:30 to be exact, and met a sheep shearer on his way to the farm. Gerald Gemmill, from Inglehart, ON, had worked with an aged shearer from Smiths Falls, ON, when he was twelve years old. He continued on as he got older, and then began learning new techniques from Don Metheral, the other shearer for the day. Don had just returned from New Zealand where he came in 23rd in the World Class Sheep Shearing contest.

The barn started to fill up with exuberant family and friends. Everyone had a job and the operation was smooth, exciting and well-executed. Jacob Murray, the Barn Boss, moved quickly through the barn, doing anything that needed his attention, assured that the rest of the workers, his brother Kyle, his young sons, Nathan and Michael, farm hand Will Adam, and yes, a singer, Ali McCormick - all worked in unison to get the job done. Soon more joined them.

Sally Bowen, a partner and mother to Jacob and Kyle, appeared just before the first visitors arrived. She had organized the visits to the farm to allow for optimum enjoyment and safety of all. Shyanne Shurtliffe, who is studying to be a nurse, was the tour guide who took groups of visitors around the establishment. Jack Little, a high school student, also pitched in, jumping from one job to another, as needed. Both have worked at Topsy Farms for about two years.

Smooth, rhythmic shearing of a trusting lamb.
Photo by Steve Sturtz ©2017

As Don and Gerald began the shearing, everyone stepped in with a job and everyone shared jobs that they saw needed to be done. Was it their respect for the others that encouraged this silent cooperation? Or was it loyalty, or sheer love for the job? Whatever this elusive reason, it was translated into a sharing with others as the first guests arrived to watch. Despite the frantic dance of the work, despite the many tasks that needed to be done at once, and despite the love and care each sheep received as it passed through the process, every guest that came to the farm was also treated to undivided attention. Each person that asked a question drew one worker away from a job. No matter, though, because that worker answered everything with great knowledge, kind attention and outgoing friendliness.

Far left, Kyle Murray, answers questions as Jack Little tosses the wool onto the skirting table. Ali McCormick, in the background, watches for the next batch of wool while Will Adam, his back to the camera, shares his knowledge with guests.
Photo by Steve Sturtz ©2017

The wool that was sheared by Don and Gerald was collected by one of the workers in the barn. Grabbing one end, it would be tossed in the air and brought down gently onto the skirting table. Then every available hand surrounded the table to remove the dirty ends from the wool. At this point the wool is graded and sorted. Over to the left, two burlap bags were suspended and draped down to the next floor below. The lesser quality wool went into one of the bags which will be sent to the Canadian Wool Cooperative. The other bag contains the best wool and heads to Prince Edward Island, to the only woolen mill left in Canada. There it is made into the gorgeous wool blankets and wool products, some of which you will find for sale at Topsy Farms in the Wool Shed.

Of all the outstanding things I saw, the one that touched me the most, was the love and care that each sheep received. These were well-looked after animals. Even the shearers commented on how healthy and well-fed the sheep were. Everything in the barn was created for the sheep’s comfort. From the ramp that brought them up to the shearing room, to the pens they were kept in, all spoke of how well-designed the area was in relation to the sheep’s needs.

Jacob Murray explained that sheep don’t like to be alone so when there is only one sheep in a pen, they move more sheep to join the one that is left alone. One of the workers often jumped into a pen, to keep a lonely sheep company and safe until others arrived. There was even a small window cut between pens so they could see each other. That is proof of the care that these sheep receive at Topsy Farms.

Healthy, well-fed sheep in one of the many fields at Topsy Farms.
Photo by Steve Sturtz ©2017

But, it doesn’t end there. I wandered outside as the shearing got underway in time to see a tractor bringing a bale of hay to the newly sheared sheep in the field behind the barn. Comfort food for sheep! This is where I met Christopher Kennedy, a shepherd and partner at Topsy Farms. Christopher has been at the job of looking after the sheep for 42 years. The ten month old sheep that were the first to be sheared looked very content despite the loss of their warm winter coat. Christopher explained that the shearer used clippers that left about 10 mm of wool on the lambs.

The special clippers in Gerald’s hand leaves enough wool on the lamb to keep them warm.
Photo by Steve Sturtz ©2017

He cared for them even further than that, to say that they would be put in a warm barn each night until they became acclimatized. This was the reason that only the first 250 sheep were sheared today and the rest of the thousand ewes on the farm would be sheared in April. This would provide enough shelter for those in need. The weather is what kept all of the sheep so healthy, Christopher said. With the fairly mild weather this winter, the sheep were able to metabolize all of their food rather than use the energy to keep warm.

The Wool Shed

Before you leave Topsy Farms, you should visit the Wool Shed.

Sheep in front of the sign for the Wool Shed
Photo by Steve Sturtz ©2017

The newer version of the shed, which was moved to allow for roadwork, is bright and welcoming. Check out the gorgeous wool products for sale. Wool breathes and traps air. So any pure wool product is cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer. The lanolin in the blankets, robes, throws and pillows deters mites. Run you hands through the colourful, fireproof, hypoallergenic blankets and I will guarantee you will buy one. I did. Or try their selections of meat and honey, all products of Amherst Island. Ian Murray, another partner at Topsy Farms, is usually in the shed to greet visitors and answer questions.

Put shearing on your calendar as a must-visit in the spring of each year. It is a perfect way to welcome the change in seasons. In the meantime, while you wait for the next season to come around, visit their website , sign up for family events and read the newsletter. You will come away knowing that this farm and this island is a happy place to be.

By Elizabeth Farrar

After retiring from teaching elementary school for 33 years, Elizabeth Farrar was retrained as an artist blacksmith at Sir Sanford Fleming College at the Haliburton campus. To this day, she continues to draw from the model in various drawing groups. Photography, collecting marbles, decoy carving, and writing study guides on various subjects, has kept her busy through the years. As a facilitator for a Kingston writing group, Elizabeth enjoys writing in any genre, which includes ghost writing several books, one of which may soon become a movie.

Posted in: Places, Nature, People
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