Alison Preston demonstrating how to shear a sheep at the Medicine Hat Exhibition & Stampede’s Country in the City. NEWS PHOTO SAMANTHA JOHNSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Alison Preston grew up in the Vauxhall area and currently calls Lethbridge home. Now in her seventh season, she quit her desk job in 2017 to become a full-time sheep shearer.

After such great response last year, the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede asked her to come back again this year to give demonstrations at Country in the City.

Growing up on a sheep farm, Preston had lots of exposure to sheep shearing by watching her father do it.

“When I was in high school, I was doing a 4-H demonstration and I wanted to talk about sheep shearing,” she said. “My dad said I couldn’t talk about it until I’d done it. You can’t accurately explain what it’s like until you’ve suffered through it.”

After learning the basics from her father, Preston stuck it out and met other shearers, who encouraged her to go abroad to learn.

“Not because my dad was a bad teacher, but there are places where they go more in depth,” said Preston “I went to Australia for a two-week shearing school. Australia is the place to go to learn. They have free shearing schools that are paid for by farmers because they believe if you invest back into the industry, the industry will give you better quality.”

At shearing school she was taught how to sharpen her blade, how to handle the sheep, and how to take care of herself.

“They broke it up and then put the whole thing back together. You had to do a whole day just holding the sheep and walking through the footwork before they even let you hold the blades. If you don’t have that basis of footwork, you can’t focus on what the sharp objects are doing.”

From 2017 to 2019 she spent time travelling the world to shear sheep, going to New Zealand Australia, England, and France. When the pandemic hit, she remained in Canada

“You don’t stay close to home; you have to travel in Canada,” explained Preston. “One of the struggles in the industry is getting the new farmers connected with somebody who knows what they are doing and new shearers connected with someone who can mentor them and get them connected to farmers.”

It is a physically and mentally demanding job. For Preston, at this point in her career, the hardest part is getting in her vehicle at the beginning and end of the day. Hours of driving before and after shearing more than 100 sheep – with a fully grown commercial yew in Canada weighing about 180-200 pounds – leaves her muscles tight and sore. It’s all about pacing herself to shear for eight hours a day, taking breaks with lots of water and remembering to eat.

January and February Preston returns to the family place to help out her parents and brother. She starts shearing again at the end of February with small flocks that only require day trips. March is mostly spent in Saskatchewan.

“April I go to northern Alberta because for whatever reason their springs are more temperate in April than ours.”

In May she comes back down south working with 4-H clubs along Highway 3 and Highway 2 and shearing smaller flocks in the mornings.

In June she travels lots, spending time in central Alberta and wherever else she is needed.

By July she is tired and drops down from seven days a week to four days while also taking on some demonstration work and trying to get out to Ontario for a shearing competition.

“This year will be different, about 50% of the flocks that I had for shearing in August decided to sell,” said Preston. “There is no feed, not enough rain, too hot, too many years short, feed prices are too high and they had to sell the sheep because they can’t afford to feed them.”

Normally, she works two or three days a week in August and September, October tends to be quiet with picking back up again near the end of November for pre-lamb shearing for animals that will remain inside a barn until May.

“It’s great because they are in the barn, so I’m protected from the weather.”

By SAMANTHA JOHNSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 31, 2023 at 09:09

This item reprinted with permission from   Medicine Hat News   Medicine Hat, Alberta
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