- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Stuart Matthews grew up on a North Carolina farm, growing tobacco and hogs.

When he was 12, he decided he wanted to do something else, so he started raising and shearing sheep.

For 25 years, he worked as a professional sheep shearer. His profession has taken him to Idaho, Oregon, Australia, Scotland and England.

“It’s not for everyone; you got to enjoy sheep and enjoy the travel,” said Matthews, 53, who now lives in Ararat, North Carolina, on his family farm, raising sheep and shearing on a part-time basis.

“I guess you can say I’ve come full circle.”

Matthews said he now shears sheep from farms as far north as Rochester, New York, to as far south as Birmingham.

Recently, he was in the Shoals area shearing at some local sheep farms.

“We have about 10 farms within a 50-miles radius of the Shoals that raise sheep,” said Charlie Meek, a Lauderdale County farmer and executive director of the Northwest Alabama Resource, Conservation and Development Council. “I had been doing some shearing for a couple of years, traveling about 4,000 miles a year, but I hurt my back and couldn’t shear anymore. There’s just not many shearers, and I found Stuart.”

Meek said Matthews shears about 10,000 sheep a year.

“He is one of the very few traveling shearers in the Southeast,” Meek said. “Sheep shearing is a dying art, there is just not a lot of shearers around anymore.”

Meek said there are shearing schools where the profession is taught, “but 25 percent of those don’t make it through the school.”

According to the Sheep Breeders Directory, there is one shearer in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky.

“You don’t see any in Alabama, Tennessee or Mississippi,” Meek said. “You just can’t pick up a phone and call (a shearer), and when I was hurt I had to get out and find one, and I was lucky to find Stuart.”

Meek said Matthews visits the north Alabama sheep herds once a year.

“There are about 100 head that he shears,” Meek said.

Don and Laura Hunter have 10 Shetland sheep on their farm near Lexington.

“We’ve been raising them for about four years,” Laura Hunter said. “They are small, but have long wool.”

She uses the wool to stuff in hand-made dolls that she sells.

Hunter said she and her husband tried to shear the sheep themselves, but realized they needed a professional.

“It wasn’t for me,” she said.

Hunter said shearing sheep is “back-breaking work.”

“But (Matthews) makes it look easy, and I know it isn’t,” she laughed. “Not everyone can do that. It’s an art.”

Matthews said how fast he can shear a sheep is based on the size of the sheep and the texture of the wool.

“I do 10 to 30 per hour,” said Matthews who uses an electric shearer.

Matthews said he shears from December to August. When he was out west, it was every day.

“Now, sometimes I’ll work … just a few days,” he said. “There were times, working out west, I have worked 60 days straight. But you had to, the herds out there would be from 1,000 head to 13,000 head.”

He said when he started shearing professionally, he was one of the youngest.

“And the older shearers still consider me the youngest, because they’re still shearing,” Matthews laughed. “I know a lot who are in their 60s. Of course, they’re like me, they’ve slowed down a lot.

“This is something that not a lot of young guys get involved in. It takes years to perfect the profession.

“It’s not for everyone, but I’ve enjoyed it. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done. It’s my way of life.”

___

Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/

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