Shearing Sheep at the End of the World
Shepherds approaching shearing sheds in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
TIERRA DEL FUEGO, Chile — Life at the end of the world can be lonely.
For weeks at a time, Roberto Bitsch and gauchos like him might not see another human being. They see horses, both wild and tame. They see the dogs they work with. But mostly, they see sheep — thousands of them.
Locals mark time by the length of the sheep’s woolly coats here on Isla Grande, the largest of the Tierra del Fuego islands at the tip of South America, closer to Antarctica than to Chile’s capital, Santiago.
Workers from a shearing group taking a break in Tierra del Fuego. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Each year at this time, the gauchos — South America’s cowboys and shepherds — leave behind their portable huts on the grassy, wind-swept steppes and drive their flocks home to the large ranches that dot the island.
Snow falling this month in Tierra del Fuego, where grass is abundant but the wind doesn’t allow trees. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
At the ranches, or at giant sheds, some of them co-owned by several ranchers, the shearing begins: a frenzy of flying wool, bawdy talk and the rare communal meal shared among neighbors who live miles apart.
“Living here is a choice,” said Patrick MacLean, 67, owner of one of the ranches, Estancia Por Fin, and Mr. Bitsch’s employer. “No one obliges us to live in Tierra del Fuego, but I think there is no better place to live.”
A table ready for a lunch gathering in Tierra del Fuego. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Chile produces 24 million pounds of wool annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Much of that wool comes from Tierra del Fuego, once home to the indigenous Selk’nam and Yámana groups and settled by European and Chilean ranchers just before the turn of the 20th century.
Little has changed here since those first ranchers — ancestors of men like Mr. MacLean and Mr. Bitsch — found an island verdant with grass and too windy for trees.
Sheep being gathered a day before shearing. Chile produces 24 million pounds of wool annually. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Mr. MacLean, who owns more than 5,000 sheep, shares a shearing shed with seven other families who bought the building from a large ranching conglomerate in the 1950s. When the sheep arrive at the shed each season, as they did one recent weekend in November, it is cause for celebration. But it is also a time of long days of toil, Mr. MacLean said.
“It’s hard work, and the only way to cope is to keep in a good mood,” he said. “We enjoy being with other people and sharing and listening to jokes.”
Dogs at this year’s shearing. Outside the season, gauchos may go weeks without seeing a person. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
With tens of thousands of animals descending on a single shearing shed, like another in China Creek, coordination is essential. Ranchers must plan — according to weather and lambing cycles — when to move their flocks, how long to keep flocks on specific pastures and how to best shepherd the animals through a network of wooden corrals before being shorn.
Over the course of several days, as many as 35,000 sheep can be shorn by a team of just seven men. The shearers, itinerant workers who typically live in cities the rest of the year, will visit multiple homesteads throughout the season.
Shearing in Tierra del Fuego, where much of Chile’s wool comes from. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
The wool is collected, classified for quality and stored in large plastic bags.
Most of it is destined for export.
Shearing tools. As many as 35,000 sheep can be shorn over several days by just seven men. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Using a pair of electric clippers, a good shearer can shave up to 250 sheep a day, Mr. MacLean said.
Increasingly, young people are leaving the islands, and it is rare to find a gaucho as young as Mr. Bitsch. Now 24, he has a wife and child in the town of Porvenir, about 90 miles from Estancia Por Fin.
Roberto Bitsch, 24, a gaucho who works at Estancia Por Fin, a ranch in Tierra del Fuego, this month. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Mr. Bitsch gave up jobs in the city working at a disco and selling cars to live the solitary life of a gaucho.
Patrick MacLean, left, owner of Estancia Por Fin, with Wilki, who is in charge of taming horses. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
He was drawn to the grasslands, he said, first by a love of horses. He was trained to break wild horses at a rodeo.
But it was a love of solitude that made him a gaucho.
Mr. Bitsch, bottom, taming horses at Estancia Por Fin. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
It is a sentiment shared by his boss.
“When you live in Tierra del Fuego, you do not share your life with many people, and so you must learn to live with yourself,” Mr. MacLean said. “In some cities, like New York, when you wake up and it is sleeting, or raining or cold, you might say: ‘This is nasty.’ I look up and say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ and I put on the fireplace and drink a tea or a coffee, and I read all day. This is our life. For us, it is good.”
Horses, like these from Estancia Por Fin, help gauchos with shepherding sheep. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Tomas Munita reported from Tierra del Fuego, and Russell Goldman from New York.