Shearing is a profession – and a necessity for sheep – but it has also developed into a sport.
“Associating a competition with this profession, which is not easy, brings people together and makes young people dream,” says Christophe Riffaud, president of the French association of sheep shearing, and a sheep shearer himself.
He has worked for years to bring the competition to France. It opened on Thursday in Le Dorat, a village of 1700 residents the Limousin, French meat country.
The Golden Shears started in New Zealand, which continues to have the best shearers in the world.
French machine shearing champion, Loic Leygonie, spent six seasons in New Zealand learning from the experts.
“It’s really technical. There is a lot of small things, like just the way you move your feet,” he explains. Then, there’s the gear: the comb and cutters. “It’s technical, the way you grind it, to make sure we have a good cut on the wool, there is a lot of technique we can learn in New Zealand.”
Leygonie, 27, is the son of a sheep shearer, from the Lot region, in central France, and he started shearing at age 19. He says France has had professional sheep shearers for only about 15 or 20 years:
“There were shearers before, of course, but they were farmers doing a bit of shearing during the weekend, or for three weeks a year. It’s quite new to be a full time shearer.”
Professional shearers in France are independent, going from farm to farm during the shearing season, spring and summer. And the work is different from the competition, which Leygonie started doing as soon as he started working.
“A competition is a different game. You have to be really good, on not a big number of sheep,” he explains.
Sheep shearing as a sport, is based on speed, but also on technique. Only 40 per cent of a final score is based on speed, the rest is how well the shearer cuts the wool and treats the sheep.
It’s physical, but requires more than strength, explains Gabrielle Guibert, who was eliminated in the women’s all nations competition on Thursday.
Gabrielle Guibert: Female sheep shearer
“It’s also very mental, because when your body cannot do it, it's your mind that says you have to go on,” she says.
Guibert learned how to shear from her brother, and she has been alternating shearing seasons in the Alps with working the ski season in the mountains.
She is one of the few women in the business, in France or international. In the competition, of the 309 competitors, 68 were women. And in the world championship, four out of the 99 participants are women.
World Sheep Shearing Contest, France
Shearers from 34 countries, from all five continents, are competing in the World Championship on Saturday and Sunday. May the best shearer win.
This story was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.