Shearing has always been the highlight of the wool-grower's year – the reaping of the wool harvest – the reward for his efforts. It is traditionally a time of great activity and bustle, with long hours and hot, tiring work for everybody on the sheep station. In the early days sheep stations tended to be much larger and more isolated than now, and with Merino sheep being shorn by blades (that is, hand shears), shearing took considerably more time than it does today. Then it was quite common for the whole flock to be washed before shearing or for the fleeces to be scoured afterwards to improve the look of the wool and reduce its weight for easier transport. Subdivision of properties, the swing away from merino sheep, the coming of shearing machines, improvement of roads, and provision of electric power have all tended to shorten shearing. It can still be badly disorganised by wet weather, but on many properties today shearing is finished in as many days as it used to take weeks.
Until fairly recently, shearing was invariably a summer job, sometime between October and January, with November and December by far the busiest months in most districts. Today shearing is going on somewhere in New Zealand for almost 10 months of the year, with more and more farmers shearing some or all of their sheep twice a year. Most sheep farmers own a woolshed, specially designed for shearing and wool handling, designated as two stand, three stand, etc., according to the number of shearing machines installed. These are mainly electrically driven, although a few engines are still used in isolated districts. The woolshed holds a large number of sheep overnight. This keeps them dry in case of rain and allows for expeditious handling and shearing. Provision is also made for handling and pressing the wool into bales.
Shearing generally starts early, about 5 or 5.30 a.m., and the day is broken up into “runs”. “Knock-off” may be at 5.30 p.m., but actual shearing time is probably nine hours, with “spells” (breaks) between six typical “runs” totalling three hours. These spells are essential, owing to the strenuous nature of the work. Shearers nearly all wear woollen singlets and trousers to absorb perspiration and prevent chills, and home-made sacking “moccasins”, which are soft on the feet and nonslippery on the greasy shearing board. Contract-shearing gangs operate, especially on the east coast of the North Island. Large gangs, often entirely Maori, have their own cooks and shed hands with them, and they undertake the whole shearing and wool handling for a contract price. In most districts, however, the smaller woolgrowers hire one or two shearers, or they may depend largely on sons or neighbours to help out. A “new chum” shearer may feel he is doing well to exceed 100 sheep a day, but many professionals can consistently shear daily tallies of between 200 and 300. The present New Zealand record for machine shearing is 463 sheep in a nine-hour day. Shearing competitions are becoming increasingly popular, where both speed and standard of workmanship count, and the former “greasy shearer” has now the status and reward of a skilled artisan.
- Wool Away — the Technique and Art of Shearing, Bowen, G. (1955)
- Sheep-O — the Story of the World's Fastest Shearers, Mills, A. R. (1960).