A military-style operation has been carried out in Fair Isle this week - albeit one in which quite a few of the participants had no idea of either the goal or the method.
Rounding up the sheep from the common grazing began with our orders, which we received at the start of the week: Meet on Wednesday morning at 8.30. And don’t be late!
It is true that many of those who take part in this event (known as the caa) have never seen such a thing before, let alone been involved. They have come to the island as part of the work camps, or to stay at the bird observatory, and it must be daunting for them to find themselves caught in the middle of something so complicated, and so important. It probably doesn’t help then that the morning does not begin with any kind of explanation or ‘plan of action’. At 8.30, when everyone has gathered, islanders simply move off in various directions, some in vehicles, and some on foot. Everyone else just picks someone to follow.
The point of the operation is to gather all of the sheep and lambs from the common grazing, which makes up just over half of the island, into the crü (pen). There are more than 300 sheep in total – around 20 for each croft – plus all of the lambs. Which is a lot of sheep.
The basic plan is to move the sheep southwards towards the hill dyke. Once there, they will be forced along the wall towards the crü, and the gate shut behind them. Simple as that. Or it would be if the sheep all stuck together. Which they don’t. Or if they always moved the way you want them to move. Which they don’t.
The way it is done (in theory) is to create a series of lines of people, equally spaced, all walking in the right direction. Gradually the different lines will join together, until everyone reaches the hill dyke at (roughly) the same time, with all of the sheep in front of them.
I have become convinced, however, that if you asked every person on the island how it is meant to work, you would receive a different answer from each of them. But it does work, and that, I suppose, is the important thing. While a few wily sheep manage to slip through the lines or hide down cliffs, the vast majority end up in the right place.
The caa is done three times during the year. Twice for clipping and worming the ewes, and once to take the lambs away for the freezer. This was the first caa of the year, so the main job of the day was shearing.
Clipping in Fair Isle is still done by non-electrical means – basically with giant scissors – and for those, like me, who are still fairly new to it, it can be a slow, back-breaking job. It was improved on Wednesday though by glorious sunshine, which lasted, remarkably, throughout the day, meaning that, by Thursday, everybody was both aching and burnt.
Wool these days is not a valuable product. Despite the fact that Shetland wool is world-renowned for its qualities, the money we get will not even pay for the time spent cutting it. So this year I have decided to try a different sales route. Some of my fleeces will be going for sale on the internet over the next few days; so if there’s any knitters, spinners and dyers amongst you, check out eBay for your authentic Fair Isle wool.