Story: Shearing

Early shearers in New Zealand were generally seen as hard-drinking, foul-mouthed scoundrels. Shearing is now usually done with machines rather than blades, and New Zealand champion shearers, who are among the fastest in the world, are hailed as athletes.

Story by Des Williams
Main image: Shearing gang, 2007

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

The first shearers in New Zealand

Sheep farming started in New Zealand in the early 1800s. The first shearers came from Australia. They usually travelled from job to job, and had a bad reputation for drinking and swearing.

Shearing sheds

In the early days shearing was done outside, but by the 1870s large shearing sheds had become common. They had pens with slatted floors to hold the sheep, a place for each shearer to work, and portholes to push shorn sheep through.

Other workers herded sheep into the pens, gathered shorn wool, sorted it and pressed it into bales. Shearers were considered the most important workers in the shed, and the fastest shearer was called the ‘ringer’ or the ‘don’. Fast shearers were called ‘guns’.

Blade shearing

Shearing was, and sometimes still is, done with blades a bit like large scissors. Shearing with blades was quite slow, but as shearers developed better techniques the average number of sheep each worker could shear in a day went up from 35 to 75.

Shearing machines

Shearing machines that ran on steam power were invented about 1885. Later they were powered by electricity. They made shearing much faster, and could get more wool off each sheep than blades. The most sheep shorn in one day is more than 720.

Some famous shearers

  • Raihania Rimitiriu from the East Coast managed several times to shear more than 330 sheep in one day.
  • Robert Tūtaki from Hawke’s Bay was a fast shearer, and was an organiser for the Shearers’ Union.
  • Brothers Ivan and Godfrey Bowen were such fast shearers because they developed a way of shearing sheep using a minimum number of strokes.
  • David Fagan is a champion shearer who has broken several world records.

Shearing competitions

Official shearing competitions began at agricultural and pastoral shows in the 1870s. In 1961 the Golden Shears competition started in Masterton, and has become New Zealand’s biggest shearing event. New Zealand shearers do very well in international competitions.

Shearing today

Shearing gangs, which have four or more shearers and other shed hands and wool handlers, are contracted out to farmers. Shearers traditionally wore a black singlet, thick trousers and moccasins cut from a wool bale.

How to cite this page:

Des Williams, 'Shearing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/shearing (accessed 22 July 2018)

Story by Des Williams, published 24 Nov 2008