Now that spring has sprung, it’s time to shed that winter flab. Down on the farm, the sheep might not be worried about the impending arrival of swimsuit season, but they are itching to drop a few pounds as well. All it takes are the hands of an experienced shearer, and in just five minutes, sheep can jettison 10 or more pounds of their wooly winter coats. It’s the ultimate crash diet.
While Lara Sullivan, a county director with the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association, says shearing is “a dying art,’’ sheepshearing festivals are increasing in popularity across New England, perhaps because they provide a glimpse at the region’s fading agricultural heritage. “People are really fascinated by the demonstrations at the festivals and by the fact that the sheep aren’t drugged. Sometimes they almost fall asleep because it’s not painful at all if the shearer is doing it correctly,’’ says Sullivan, who shears at fairs in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Sheepshearing festivals are full of family fun. While kids will enjoy watching shaggy sheep get their springtime “haircuts,’’ many fairs also offer petting zoos, demonstrations of border collies herding sheep, craft tables, woolcraft and food vendors, and even wooly versions of dog shows, complete with judges and handlers escorting sheep around a ring. For “shear’’ family fun, check out any of these nine New England festivals:
Gore Place Sheepshearing Festival, April 28
The estate that former Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore referred to as “my farm at Waltham’’ returns to its agricultural roots during Gore Place’s annual sheepshearing festival. While some sheep get trimmed with electric clippers, master shearer Kevin Ford demonstrates traditional blade techniques. The festival, which draws upwards of 10,000 people, features Colonial militia re-enactors, period crafters, and draft-horse plowing demonstrations. Kids can take a wagon ride and watch herding dog demonstrations. Tours are available of Gore’s 1809 Federal mansion. 52 Gore St., Waltham, www.goreplace.org, $15, under 12 free
Connecticut Sheep, Wool and Fiber Festival, April 28
At the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association’s festival, which dates to 1909, kids can get their faces painted, make crafts, and pet sheep, alpacas, and angora rabbits. In addition to shearing demonstrations and sheep dog trials, there are educational lectures, workshops, and a fashion show featuring wool-based clothing. Lamb stew and lamb chili are on the menu, along with plenty of fair food. Tolland Agricultural Center, Route 30, Vernon, www.ctsheep.org, parking $5
Wild Wooly Weekend, May 5-6
Along with seeing the Billings Farm & Museum’s flock of Southdown ewes get their springtime haircuts, kids can meet the working dairy farm’s Jersey herd, calves, work horses, and chickens. The festival includes sheep dog demonstrations and woolcraft activities. After touring the restored 1890 farmhouse and viewing exhibits detailing the grueling work necessary to run a family dairy farm more than a century ago, kids may be less likely to complain about cleaning up their rooms. Route 12 & River Road, Woodstock, Vt., www.billingsfarm.org, adults $12, seniors $11, children 5-15 $6, children 3-4 $3, under 2 free
New Hampshire Sheep & Wool Festival, May 12-13
Visitors to this two-day festival can watch alpacas navigate an obstacle course and listen to a lecture on using llamas as guard animals. Judges select the Granite State’s best lambs, rams, ewes, and flocks, and a youth sheep show features both kids and sheep dressed in costumes. There are shearing, weaving, and spinning demonstrations along with sheep dog trials and fleece judging. Teams test their ovine knowledge in a sheep quiz bowl. Kids can make jewelry, necklaces, and felted Mother’s Day cards. Deerfield Fairgrounds, 34 Stage Road, Deerfield, www.nhswga.com, adults $5, seniors $4, under 12 free
Sheep Shearing at Watson Farm, May 12 Watson Farm, which dates to 1789, is still a working family farm producing grass-fed beef and lamb, and the wool shorn from the flock is used to weave blankets sold in local markets. On sheepshearing day, kids can meet baby lambs and chicks and check out spinning and weaving demonstrations. Be sure to explore the 265-acre property overlooking Narragansett Bay. Take a self-guided hike through the pasture where Heritage Red Devon cattle graze. 455 North Road, Jamestown, R.I., www.historicnewengland.org, parking $10
Massachusetts Sheep & Woolcraft Fair, May 26-27
This festival in the Berkshires, nearly 40 years old, draws participants from all over the Bay State. In addition to shearing demonstrations, the fair offers workshops on spinning, knitting, weaving, and dyeing wool with Kool-Aid. The show ring hosts a pageant in which 4-H youths lead trained sheep and lambs. Judges evaluate a wide variety of breeds in the sheep shows, and there are two full days of herding dog trials. Get there early in order to grab a good seat for the competitions featuring puppies still learning the ropes. Cummington Fairgrounds, 97 Fairgrounds Road, Cummington, www.masheepwool.org, parking $10
Wool Days, May 26-May 28
Each spring, the ewes at Old Sturbridge Village give birth to around a dozen lambs, and on Memorial Day weekend visitors can celebrate their coming-out party. Kids can meet the baby animals, see farmers shear the adult sheep, and watch costumed historians, demonstrate the entire wool textile process. At the end of the day, interpreters sprint back to the barn alongside the sheep in the “running of the lambs,’’ Sturbridge’s answer to Pamplona. 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, www.osv.org, adults $24, seniors $22, children 3-17 $8, 2 and under free
Maine Fiber Frolic, June 2-3
Sheep aren’t the only stars at the Maine Fiber Frolic, which also showcases llamas, alpacas, cashmere goats, and angora rabbits. The festival features marionette shows, a cashmere goat show, and a sheep-to-shawl contest in which teams race to weave or knit a wool shawl. If the competition inspires you, bags of raw fleece are available to buy. Windsor Fairgrounds, Route 32, Windsor, www.fiberfrolic.com, adults $5, seniors $2, under 12 free
Taylor-Bray Farm Sheep Festival, June 10
Taylor-Bray Farm, which dates to 1639, was part of the Cape landscape centuries before the lobster shacks, weekly rentals, and rotary-clogged traffic. Visitors can watch the farm’s small flock get a trim, take a haywagon ride, and check out demonstrations of hearth cooking, sheep dog herding, wool spinning, weaving, and rug hooking. 108 Bray Farm Road, No., Yarmouth Port, www.taylorbrayfarm.org, parking $5
Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein.com.