FREEPORT, Maine — The first rule of sheep shearing school: Don’t put your hands in their mouth.

They may look cute, but sheep kick, bite and can bleat your ears off. And they are jumpy — especially when an electric cutter is buzzing around their head.

It’s little wonder that Brandon Woolley, one of Maine’s top shearers, says “the life expectancy of shearers isn’t all that long. They get worn out. It’s tough on your body, it’s tough on your back, it’s tough on your legs and arms.”

The physical demands of this age-old skill didn’t deter a barnful of farmers, spinners and students from learning to shear recently at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. Professional shearers guided them through the springtime fleecing of the flock. The Maine Sheep Breeders Association and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension hold workshops every spring when sheep need to be shorn.

The goal is to remove the animal’s wool in one fell swoop, which is easier said than done. You have to catch them, calm them, flip them and grab the shears. Sheep shearing is not for the weak or pain averse. Before lunch, one woman walked away bloody, another bruised.

The working life trajectory of shearers ends at about 50, but as with tech jobs, upstarts are getting into the game.

Some, such as a college student attendee, hope to start a business.

“There seems to always be a need for qualified shearers to get out there and harvest the wool,” said Richard J. Brzozowski, a food system program administrator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension who was facilitating the class. “It’s an interesting skill. Even if you don’t end up becoming a professional shearer, you do know about wool.”

That’s what attracted Pamela Sweetser, who raises a “spinner’s flock” of 11 in Presque Isle. She has heritage breeds and spins her wool into hats and scarves under her Snow Country Creations label. But with just one shearer in Aroostook County, she figured it was time to learn.

“I like to partake in all aspects of wool,” Sweetser, who rattled off the steps it takes to get from sheep to shawl, said.

After a hands-on instruction with Woolley, it looked like she aced it. But without getting the wool off in one piece, leaving behind what’s called second cuts, she bagged the fluffy, white fleece and admitted sheepishly, “I’m a long way off from shearing wool that’s worth using.”

Maureen Fleming, who has a Shetland sheep farm in New Hampshire, also wants to know more. She is selling fleeces to fiber artists and needs quality wool.

After wrestling with a sheep, she tried her hand and had a workout in the process.

“The trick is to gently handle the animal to keep them quiet and calm. Make them feel they are safely held in place and don’t have the option to bolt,” she said. “There is no substitute for the experience of someone who’s been shearing thousands of sheep.”

With those numbers dwindling in Maine, and some farmers taking their sheep miles away to get fleeced, the more trained, the better.

“Shearers are dropping by the wayside,” Woolley said. “They are retiring and giving it up. It’s just too much for them.”

A blade shearing school takes place April 15-16 at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, 707 Shaker Road, in New Gloucester. The $120 per person fee includes a shearing manual and lunch. To register, visit umaine.edu/livestock/sheep/sheep-shearing-schools. For more information, call 581- 2788.

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.