Story: Shearing

Page 4. Modern shearing

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Changes

Since the Second World War, several agricultural developments have affected shearing:

  • Aerial topdressing of fertiliser improved hill pastures and led to healthier sheep that were easier to shear.
  • The introduction of covered sheep yards in wetter localities meant that sheep were in better condition for shearing.
  • Crossbred sheep started to be shorn twice a year in the North Island (at six- to eight-month intervals), turning shearing from a purely summer activity into one that occurred for about 10 months a year (excluding mid-winter).

South Island hill and high country

In the dry, high country of the South Island, Merinos were shorn before lambing so they did not gather matagouri and seeds in their fleece. Also as the ewes were more sensitive to cold after being shorn, they looked after their lambs better.

Blade shearing often continued in high country areas because it left sheep with a layer of wool for protection against the cold. If the sheep were shorn by machine, a snow comb was normally used – this New Zealand invention ensured the wool was not cut so close to the skin. It is also used on about half of South Island hill country farms.

Contracting

In the 1960s, contracting took over as the main way of organising shearing labour. A contractor may have 10 or more shearing gangs operating in different sheds on any given day. The gang is managed by the ‘ganger’, who is responsible for the workers and provides the day-to-day link between the farmer and contractor.

The gang

A typical shearing gang has four or more shearers, depending on the number of shearing stands in the shed. Shearers are assisted by at least the same number of shed hands or wool handlers. The shed hands may have their own specialist tasks, such as pressing the wool, skirting the fleece (removing lower-quality wool) or keeping the shearing board clean after each sheep is shorn.

Shed hands also sort the wool so the higher-priced fleece wool is not contaminated by stains, weeds, seeds or dirt, or by the lesser value wool from hocks, bellies and crutchings.

Shearers traditionally wore a black singlet, thick trousers, and moccasins cut from a wool bale. Today's shearers and shed hands wear custom-made, stylish shearing pants and coloured singlets.

Thirsty work

‘Shouting your mates’ is a ritual faithfully observed in all gangs. A shearer finishing the day’s tally on 199, 299, and so on, is deemed to have ‘died on the hole’, for which he or she must buy the others drinks. A wool handler who drops the broom on the board will also have to pay at the end of the day, as will a presser who forgot to take the pins out of the top bale before starting the press.

Shearing today

Champion shearers are now recognised as world-class athletes. Tallies in excess of 850 lambs or 720 adult sheep have been shorn in a standard nine-hour day by New Zealand shearers such as David Fagan, Dion Morrell, Darin Forde, Rodney Sutton, Justin Bell and Dion King. At least 1 million sheep in the South Island high country are still shorn with blades each year, with Peter Casserly’s world record of 327 sheep unbeaten since 1976.

How to cite this page:

Des Williams, 'Shearing - Modern shearing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/shearing/page-4 (accessed 17 November 2019)

Story by Des Williams, published 24 Nov 2008