Science

Why That Sheep With the Overgrown Wool Is “a Freak of Our Making”

The woman who gave him a haircut tells us how he got this way and what he’s doing now.

A sheep with 80 pounds of wool on his body.
Baarack in need of a haircut! Edgar’s Mission Inc./Handout via Reuters

Baarack the sheep captured the world’s attention recently for looking like a gigantic ball of wool with a nose and legs.

A construction worker found Baarack wandering the Australian bushland and knew from one look at him that he was in need of some help—and some shearing. He called Pam Ahern, the founder of the farm animal sanctuary Edgar’s Mission, who swooped in with the scissors.

Ahern updated Slate on Baarack’s life post-haircut, as well as explained how the bizarre coat came to be in the first place. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Elena DeBré: What did you think when you first saw Baarack?

Pam Ahern: Well, before we came out to rescue Baarack, the chap who found him sent us some photos of the sheep so we could see how big he was. And we looked at these photos and we thought it was just a pile of wool. We go, “OK, we see the wool. But where’s the sheep?” Turns out, the sheep was in that wool!

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Not long after Baarack came here, we realized he was in big trouble. He was so close to passing away. His wool was such a heavy burden on him. He couldn’t see. And he was exhausted from years of struggling to find food and water.

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He was in desperate need of a trimming?

Like you wouldn’t believe. Normally it only takes a few minutes to shear a sheep. It took us nearly an hour. The wool was all matted and really dense. It felt like cutting through really thick felt. The scary thing is that we had to monitor his heart throughout to make sure he didn’t suffer a heart attack, with the shock of having all this burden taken off him.

How did he react to his new hairdo? 

He had spent so much time walking with all that wool, he’d grown used to it. When he stood up without it, he struggled to walk at first. I thought he was going to collapse. But as he took more steps, it was like, “Oh, oh, I feel better now.” Imagine carrying half your weight on your back for years. That’s what he’d been doing.

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So why don’t all wild sheep look like Baarack? 

In Australia, we don’t have wild populations of sheep. Sheep here simply do not survive in the wild. They need to be shorn. We have selectively bred these animals so that they have a fleece that we can actually clip off and use to make things.

Sheep have been domesticated for around 10,000 years, but, originally, they descended from the wild mouflon [a kind of wild sheep] who grow hair according to the amount of daylight. So, they have a long fluffy fleece in the winter and shed it in the summer.

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We’ve bred sheep so that doesn’t happen anymore. But now, they have to be shorn at least annually. Sometimes twice a year.  If they’re not shorn, the fleece just grows and grows until it ends up Baarack’s.

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 So Baarack’s not just a wool supergrower?

No, he’s just a merino sheep that hasn’t been shorn in five to seven years. Sheep grow around five kilos of wool a year [about 11 pounds], sometimes a little less. We found Baarack with 35 kilos [77 pounds] of wool on his back. I think he’s one of those cheeky little lads that wandered off several years ago and just got completely lost in the forest and couldn’t find his way home.

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Baarack is a miracle and a freak of nature. Well, a freak of our making really. He’s a celebration of nature that he’s survived.

How did he survive?

It’s really hard to. For starters, sheep can’t breathe with all that warmth on their back. It’s really difficult for them to see and find food. Sheep are herd animals—and he didn’t have any of his kind around him—which is really stressful for him. He had to make do with the company of wild animals. There’s not much grass in the forest, and there’s barely any water. He’d just been finding puddles to drink water. He’s been a very resourceful boy.

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Is Baarack the only sheep you’ve seen like this?

There’s only one other sheep in Australia that had a record weighted fleece like his. That was Chris. He had 41 kilos [90 pounds] of wool weight. Prior to that, it was Shrek in New Zealand and had 27 kilos [60 pounds] of wool. It’s a prize you really don’t want to win.

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How is Baarack adjusting to sanctuary life?

He should have been terrified of us. Most animals are at first. But from the start, he just walked right up to us and was so friendly. I really believe that Baarack knew we were here to ease his suffering. 

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What has he been up to since he arrived?

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He’s just out there chewing down on grass. He still wears a jacket because having all that fleece come off is super shocking. He’s used to having a lot of heat.

A jacket? Like a human coat?

Exactly, a human coat. He’s actually got two on right now. It’s quite cold here in Victoria. It’s a two-jacket day for him today.

What’s in store for Barrack now?

He’s 8. The typical life span of a sheep is 10–12 years. For the remainder of his days, Baarack will stay here at the sanctuary. And he will get his wool shorn twice a year.

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