Starting out in the world of shearing can seem daunting but The Scottish Farmer caught up with young clipper Calum Phillips to find out how he has started an early career in shearing.

Growing up on his family’s sheep and arable farm in Glenbervie, Auchenblae, Calum didn’t have a huge interest in shearing initially.

“I actually went on my first shearing course because I didn’t want to be the only one in my family that couldn’t shear. My dad had done a local course at Dalbog Farm, Edzell, 10 years previously. My sister Pippa had also decided to learn the year before so I was just annoyed at being the odd one out.”

The Scottish Farmer: Calum learned to clip on a course in 2022 organised by the British Wool boardCalum learned to clip on a course in 2022 organised by the British Wool board

Calum did a beginner’s course at Dalbog through the British Wool Marketing Board in 2022.

“I didn’t have any real interest in it – I just wanted to see what it was like. Because my dad had learned he had all the gear for it so I thought I might as well try as the option is there. When I finished my course I was very enthusiastic and had brought in 21 sheep to clip the night I got back.”

Calum admits, however, that it started out as more of a struggle than he had hoped.

“I only got through eight sheep before I had to stop because my back and legs were hurting,” he said. “After a break I did another six before I needed to stop again and then I finally did the other seven. I was annoyed about how slow I was but that is part of learning. I would help out at the farm and with the amount I was doing compared to the contract clippers, I would have only been saving us £30 but it was all practice.”

It was local shearer and sheep farmer John Blackhall from Durris that put Calum on his first shearing contract.

“I was able to spend the summer clipping with John and then at the end of the year he put me on working at Thainstone mart and the local abattoirs shearing bellies,” he said. “I was able to do that all through the winter and it helped me get the practice in of working with the sheep and manoeuvring them into position. I started at Thainstone in December and then by February, I was getting work at the abattoirs. By March, John offered me a contract to clip with him over the summer.”

The Scottish Farmer: Calum helps to clip his sheep at home as well as with local farmer John Blackhall in the summer monthsCalum helps to clip his sheep at home as well as with local farmer John Blackhall in the summer months

Calum also chose to do another training course, this time with Robbie Hislop down in Langholm.

“I wanted to sort of level up my skills and this course was more of a beginner to intermediate course so would allow me to develop my experience. After I went on the course I was able to shear 100 a day but I was then able work up to get that to 160.”

This year will be Calum’s third year clipping with John over most of the summer.

“I normally start at the end of May and it sees me through until the start of August. Last summer, working with John I clipped between 5000 and 6000 sheep. I’m hoping to be able to increase that number this year.”

Calum is part of a team of four clipping at John’s.

“I find it’s much better when there is a group of us. Shearing on your own can become rather mind-numbing after a while and it can feel like no time is passing at all.

“You can easily get into your head about it – especially if you are struggling with a sheep and it is wriggling and kicking you. When you are shearing as a team and the person next to you is getting the same treatment, it can make you feel like it isn’t just you.

“When I am shearing bellies at the marts and abattoirs I am often on my own and so it is really easy to think negatively and start to beat yourself up about how you are doing. Being among the group means I can get tips and see how everyone else is getting on. John often has a playlist going so we can all get on with it. However, when I am on my own I normally wear my headphones and play my own music.”

Just this last winter Calum clipped up to 20,000 bellies at the marts and abattoirs.

“The first year I did it I clipped about 9500 sheep bellies so seeing those numbers improve is really rewarding. I think it is important to remember that shearing is a slow process and that it takes a wee while to build up to being able to get through the same numbers as the big guys.

“My first year doing it I was only able to fully clip 40 to 50 a day. After my second shearing course, it took me three weeks to get that up to 100 and by the end I was clipping 160 a day.”

Calum is also grateful for all the connections he has made on clipping contracts and courses.

“One of the best things about shearing is the people you meet along the way. I have so many friendships that I have made through shearing which is as good a reason to get into it as any. I have met all sorts of people from all over that I would not have met otherwise.

“It also means that if John did not want to take me on over the summer for some reason, I could easily find a contract with someone else. You develop a real network of folk through the clipping circles which can make it easy to grow your business if you are just starting out contracting.”

Currently, Calum works on his family’s farm in Glenbervie five days a week where they have 750 North Country Cheviot and Cheviot Highlander cross ewes. On the arable side they also grow 100 acres of barley.

“Dad has another job that means he can’t work full time on the farm so I am doing most of the labour and running it day to day. I’d like to think that as I have got older I am included in more of the decisions with the business and my involvement is just as important.”

In the future, Calum hopes to take over the farm alongside his sister Pippa.

“Obviously dad has to work outside of the farm so ideally I would maybe want to grow the sheep side of the business if I took over. I don’t care too much about the arable side so I would be more interested in increasing the sheep numbers and taking more rented grazing. If I can grow the contracting side of things, that could also be a good way of bringing a bit more income into the farm.”

At the moment, Calum is mainly focused on shearing and with the upcoming summer season ahead he hopes to enter a few competitions.

“I have put an entry into the Royal Highland but that’s the only thing I have entered so far. I am hoping to do quite a few shows locally such as the Angus Show but I haven’t put an entry in yet. I always used to watch the clippers at the Highland growing up so I am quite excited to give it a go and see what I will get out of it.”

He is also going back down to Langholm this summer to do another course with Robbie Hislop.

“I think with the opportunity there to further develop and train it’s good to be able to keep improving under the guidance of an instructor.”

Calum highlighted that one of the biggest things for him was getting the contract to work over the summer and winter.

“Getting someone to take you on in the summer is definitely daunting but once you have something you meet so many people through it. It leads to more work and more opportunities that you maybe would not have had the chance to do before.”

When it comes to advice for newer clippers, Calum believes it is a good thing to try – even if you might not think you have an interest in it. He also stresses the importance of patience, especially in the beginning.

“I think if you have sheep or work with sheep you should always give it a go. I did not think it would be for me and then I did a course and now I find it addictive. You could be like my sister who wanted to learn and then after the course never clip a sheep again. You just never know until you try it for yourself.

“It is also so important when you are just starting to learn to not become frustrated about how many you can do. It does get easier the more you do and the more practice you get. You definitely feel more accomplished when you become sore after clipping 100 sheep instead of only managing to clip eight.”