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Shearing. Ardi-moztea

In Basque, the common term for the action of shearing is ardiak moztu. The terms lanea moztu (Mendata y Sollube-B), lanea triskillau (Sollube), ilea moztu (Ernio-G), ilhe-moxtea (Etxebarre-Z), ilhe-bizkarratzea (Zuberoa) and ardiak eskilau (Orozko-B) were also found. A person surveyed in Ajuria (Muxika-B) also used, to refer to shearing, the expression ardiak mutildu, which was also recalled in Gorbea (B) and Bernagoitia (B).

The shearing took place in the barn, the pen or at the front of the outbuildings were the sheep were housed or also in the field where the flock grazed.

Shearing time, ardi-mozteko sasoia

The majority of places surveyed reported that the shearing happened towards the end of June.

In Aramaio, Sierra de Badaia, Valderejo, Treviño (A), Legazpi and Sierra de Aizkorri (G), they specifically referred to St. John’s Day, on 24 June, as the most appropriate date for shearing.

In the towns bordering the Oiz massif (B), shearing was carried out once the sun was warm, around St. John’s Day.

In Ezkio (G), the wool was sheared between the end of spring and the start of summer, usually around St. John’s Day. The same custom was found in the Aralar in Gipukzoa where the most appropriate time has always been during the waning moon closet to St. John’s Day and has always been carried out on the high pastureland since time immemorial.

In Ernio (G), they always used to shear on the eve before St. John’s Day and the shepherds would round up their flocks on the mountain. According to the people interviewed, the shearing had to be done during the waning moon because if there were any cuts while removing the fleece, they would bleed less and heal faster; the new wool also grew back much better. The feeding of the animal and the time of lambing also influence the amount of wool. The ewes that have lambed later have had less food for themselves and they do not have as much wool as those that lambed early.

Precautionary measures

The shepherds explained that shearing the wool meant a significant change in temperature in the ewe’s body and care had to be taken to make sure that the animals did not get chilled.

In the Tierra de Ayala (A), the people surveyed remembered the harmful effects of the shearing before June as the animals would get colds and even die as the livestock was not fed and looked after as well as today. A warm day was chosen for that work for the same reasons. Some shepherds took the precaution of keeping the bottom layer of wool on the ewes so they were more protected, so the rain could be shaken off it rained and that provided them with some warmth. Shearing the fleece in that way was known as “leaving them in a vest”, while completely shearing them was known as “leaving them in the buff” or “leaving them starkers”. Furthermore, a certain order was followed in the work, with the ewes that did not have lambs being sheared first, until they were all done.

Shearers, ardi-moztaileak

The shearer was sometimes the shepherd himself, particularly if he had a small flock, who did the work by himself or helped by the members of the farmstead or neighbouring shepherds in a bartering system and the established practice sometimes consisted of contracting the services of travelling shearers, from nearby or further away towns[1].

In general, it was noted that when the work was performed by a group of shepherds, it was more festive in nature and nearly always ended with a celebration or dinner.

The wool, artilea

Wool was highly valued in the past, which meant that agreements were reached to buy it while it was still on the animal’s back. It was used to make mattresses for the home or for the neighbours who often would order one for weddings. A small part was usually reserved for the shepherds and their families to weave household garments. There was, and continues to be, wools of different quality. The majority of the production was and is still sold today to brokers or directly to professionals who use it in the textile industry.

Sheep manute, ardi-zimaurra

The manure produced by the sheep was highly important in the life of Basque shepherds in the past as it was used as fertiliser and to pay the rent of the pastureland. At the time of transhumance during the winter to search for food for the flock, as well as paying an amount of cash to rent the pastureland that was the most common payment system, there was also payment in kind with the shepherds giving the workers the manure of their sheep to be used as fertiliser and the whey to feed the pigs[2].

Leoncio de Urabayen provides a compelling piece of information. In the second decade of the 20th century – he points out – in the Pamplona basin, shepherding was not a good business and “only the manure kept them going”. This was also reported in our surveys. In Roncal (N), a shepherd explained that in the past when they left the Bardenas at the end of spring and left for the pens, they sometimes made more money from selling the sirrio or manure and the cheese than from selling the lambs. In Bernedo (A), it was reported that the manure from the high pastureland and the village streets was auctioned around St. Michael’s Day on 29 September. In Bajauri, Obécuri and Urturi (A), the sheep manure was considered to be the best. A shepherd from Nabarniz (B) remembered that it was sold as fertiliser in the past.

  1. In the flocks looked after by the Basque shepherds in North America, the wool was sheared by teams of shearers, usually Mexican and North-American Indians, who worked a circuit by areas of sheep and they were contracted to work on a piecework basis. The shepherd took his animals to the temporary or permanent pens for this task. The operation was carried out shortly after lambing, which was between the end of April and May. The sheep were then marked with paint. William A. DOUGLASS; Richard H. LANE. Basque Sheep Herders of the American West. Reno: 1985, pp. 175-176.
  2. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Vida pastoril vasca: Albergues veraniegos. Trashumancia intrapirenaica” in OO.CC. Volume V. Bilbao: 1974, p. 397.