A Day with the Sheepshearers of Khizi
Azerbaijan’s oil wealth has fostered gleaming 21st-century architecture, countless luxury hotels and a plethora of exclusive boutiques in the cosmopolitan capital, Baku. But less than two hour’s drive out of the city, life continues at an altogether more sedate pace.
As April moves into May, large herds of sheep prepare to be moved from the lowlands of the Caspian littoral, where they over-wintered to the cooler, upland meadows of the Caucasian foothills. Before this seasonal migration can begin, the sheep need to be shorn of their winter coats. Photographer Orkhan Azim visited Gilazi at the beginning of March in the highly rural Khizi district to record the annual event.
Sakit, one of the sheep owners, tells Orxan: “In the Soviet era, collective farms would shear the sheep twice a year - autumn and spring. This practice was done, not for the good of the sheep but because stringent wool quotas demanded by the government made it an imperative for farm managers.”
“But in the 1990s, after the USSR’s collapse, state-owned farms were abolished, and families began to keep their own animals. Since then, shearing is done just once a year.”
“Initially, it was done by the owners themselves. But nowadays, there are specialists.” Today, here in Gilazi, the specialist shearing team consists of nine men: Anar, their leader, plus Mirkazim, Qiyas, Seymur, Haji, Logman, Ugur, Ilyas and Eyvaz.
They’re all relatives and live in the Aqsu region. That’s half a day’s drive away to the west, but their services are in demand across a large swathe of the country.
Anar estimates that each season they shear between 5000 and 10,000 animals, peaking at as many as 700 per day when things are especially busy.
Per sheep, they charge between 0.75 and 1 Azerbaijani manat (i.e. 45 to 60 US cents), plus expenses to cover travel, accommodation and food. Why the differing rates? Well says Anar, “sometimes when someone wants to go to the pasture faster, then we start with his animals first.”
The men are certainly very adaptable. By definition, the job is highly seasonal, but as the year progresses, they take on various roles. “When it’s sheep shearing season, we shear. When there is a fruit harvest, we pick fruit from the orchards,” says Anar, “we work almost all year round.”