"Chris" the merino sheep pictured before it was shorn
A heavily overgrown sheep had its massive fleece shorn on Thursday by an Australian national champion in a life-saving operation that animal welfare officers said may have set a new world record for a single shearing.
The merino sheep, named Chris by bushwalkers who spotted him wandering alone on the outskirts of Australia's capital Canberra, was rescued by RSPCA officers Wednesday and went under the cutters Thursday.
Some 40.45 kilogrammes (89.18 pounds) of wool was taken off in one large piece from the animal by Australian Shearers' Hall of Famer Ian Elkins in a 42-minute process that he said was "certainly a challenge".
"We had to give it a mild sedative to keep it calm," Elkins told AFP.
"We set the sheep on its back and because it had so much fleece underneath, it was very comfortable. It took me 42 minutes to shear the sheep, which is a long time because it normally takes me three minutes.
"I'm sure it was very, very relieved after all that fleece came off. Sheep are shorn once every 12 months and the average fleece weight is five kilogrammes."
The RSPCA in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which is taking care of Chris as he recuperates -- including wearing a down coat to keep him warm, said they were delighted with the successful shearing.
Merino sheep are bred for their wool, which is used to produce high-end garments, and need to be shorn regularly to prevent serious health issues such as flystrike -- where a coat becomes infected -- and even death, said chief executive of RSPCA ACT, Tammy Ven Dange.
"We're really lucky that we got him when he did," she told AFP. "Had it been summertime and the flies had been out, he might have already succumbed to flystrike."
She said the immense size of Chris's coat suggested it was at least five years since his last trim.
"He's more mobile now, it's easier for him to get up and he is eating already," Ven Dange said, adding that he had struggled to walk before the shearing operation.
It was not known how old Chris was or who his original owners were.
The RSPCA plans to get in touch with the Guinness World Records to see if Chris's fleece might have set a new global best for the "most wool sheared from a sheep in a single shearing".
The current record is held by Big Ben, which was shorn of 28.9 kilograms in New Zealand in January last year.
The fleece will most likely end up in a museum, Ven Dange added, with Chris set to be put up for adoption once he recovers.