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Shearing without shears hits snarls

Barbering wool off burly sheep is not exactly shear ecstasy. For one thing it is arm-pumping, backbreaking work. For another the animals can be as rambunctious as a shaggy teen-ager sitting down to his first military "whitewall."

But, alas, help may eventually be on the way.

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Jumps in the cost of shearing are spurring the search for new ways to steal a sheep's coat other than using familiar hand-held electric clippers.

One method under study in Australia, the world's leading wool producer, is chemical defleecing. After being fed a certain chemical, the sheep shed their wool the way a snake does its skin. The process is still being perfected, however. One snag: The sheep often lose too much of their coats, leaving them vulnerable to sunburn or cold weather.

Another alternative being explored is "robot shearing." The wool is clipped by a mechanical arm that follows the contour of the animal. So far the space-age method has proved slower than old- fashioned elbow grease.

"At this point in time nothing beats the good old Aussie shearer," says Harold Pleasance of the Wool Corporation's textile technology department.

A good shearer can clip more than 100 sheep a day. Down on the McDonell farm , north of Melbourne, shearing starts in October. A team of three shearers, part of a roving band of professional clippers, will trim the McDonells' 6,200 flock in a few short weeks. They earn about 65 cents a he ad.

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