On a recent rainy April morning, Kevin Dunham wrestles a young ewe from a small pen in his sheep barn. The sheep, weighing somewhere between 150 to 175 pounds, goes limp as Dunham begins to shear her long coat, starting from her legs and turning her around as he works.
Dunham’s daughters Fiona, 2, and Saoirse, 5, wait nearby with a garbage bag to collect the bounty – a long, continuous strip of wool as big as a blanket and at least three inches thick.
“It’s just like the most amazing fiber and it’s really underutilized,” Dunham said.
Countless sheep, near and far, owe their gratitude to Dunham for keeping the wool out of their eyes. He travels everywhere from Olympia to the U.S.-Canada border, often serving flocks with fewer than ten sheep. He shears from 80 to 90 days of the year, mostly during the spring, which amounts to about 1,500 sheep shorn per year.
“It’s full-service,” he said. “Trim the nails, give them a haircut and let them go for the year.”
Most sheep need to go through the ritual only once a year, although some breeds need it twice. Dunham’s own flock are Coopworth sheep, a modern New Zealand breed. He currently has nine ewes and 16 lambs in the barn. Some of the lambs will be kept for breeding. The rest will be harvested in the fall. He uses part of his sheep’s wool as mulch for fruit trees, but he’s also been known to give some away.
This is Dunham’s sixth year as a sheep shearer. He picked up the dying art at a two-day shearing school in New York, where he had an apprenticeship on a farm. He moved to South Whidbey in 2016 to start his own farm, which focuses on meat, and continued learning from a Welsh mentor.
Dunham said there’s a steep learning curve to shearing. When you don’t have good technique, he explained, sheep will try to stand up in the middle of the shearing or push off of you.
“It’s super repetitive but it’s endlessly interesting because every sheep’s different, every time, so it never gets boring to me,” he said.
It’s the peak of the season, which means his schedule is packed. He’ll be heading to Lynden this week to shear a herd of 150 over a two-day period, giving him a chance to break his personal record of most sheep shorn in one day, which is currently 68.
That’s nothing, Dunham explained, compared to the world record, which is 872 in nine hours. But 68 in one day is a huge improvement from the days when he was training and could barely do five. He laughs when he recalls how tired he was.
He charges $10 per sheep, plus some additional set up costs that include travel costs.
“It’s definitely a need for people with sheep,” he said. “I think there’s more sheep around than people know.”