These days the terms shearing shed and woolshed are used interchangeably, but they were originally quite different. In the earliest days of sheep farming in New Zealand, the animals were shorn outside on boards and tarpaulins, and the wool was baled up and stored in sheds – hence the term woolshed. As their flocks grew, pastoralists soon copied their Australian counterparts and built shearing sheds. The basic layout of shearing sheds, which has persisted into the 2000s, had been developed by the mid-1860s.
Components of a woolshed
Shearing sheds have four separate functional spaces: a slatted area for holding sheep; the shearing board; the wool room; and a storage area for wool bales.
Area for holding sheep
Sheep are held under cover overnight before they are shorn, to stop them getting wet from rain or heavy frost. Shearers will not shear wet sheep, because it is more difficult, and wet wool heats up when baled and can cause fires.
The sheep are fasted for half a day before being ‘shedded up’ for the night. The floor has slatted grating to stop the wool being stained by urine or faeces. The shed normally has several large holding pens that lead into smaller pens, and finally to the catching pens next to the shearing board.
The shearing board
The board takes its name from the early days when sheep were shorn outside on boards. Each shearer has a ‘stand’ – their working place on the board. Shearers enter the catching pen through swing doors and select the next sheep for shearing. They tip it up and drag it onto the board. Once it is shorn the animal is ejected through a porthole to the counting-out pen. Each shearer has a separate pen for their shorn sheep, so the farmer can assess their work and count the number of animals shorn.
The wool room – usually not a separate room, but an area of the shed – is next to the shearing board. As the shearer shoves the shorn sheep out the porthole, a rousie (wool handler) picks up the fleece and throws it onto a wool table for sorting.
The presser works behind the bins where the wool is held after being sorted and classed, using a hydraulic or mechanical press to compress fleeces into wool bales weighing up to 200 kilograms. Once pressed, the bales are stacked. They are later loaded onto trucks and carted to a commercial woolstore.
Morven Hills Station in Central Otago had over 100,000 sheep by the early 1870s. When ‘Big Jock’ McLean built the huge 34-stand woolshed in 1873 he had two doors put in – one for the men and one for him. They were only feet apart, but the story goes that if a man entered through the boss’s door, he was sacked on the spot.
Although modern woolsheds have the same basic working areas as traditional sheds, some features have changed over time. The most marked change inside the shed is the raised shearing board. From a raised board, the shorn sheep are put down chutes near each catching-pen door, which lead to count-out pens under the shed.
A raised board is easier for wool handlers, as they do not have to bend down to pick up the fleeces, and the shearers and wool handlers are less likely to get in each other’s way.
A variation of the raised board is the U-shaped board. This system places each shearer about the same distance from the wool table, reducing the distance that the wool handlers have to move to collect each fleece.
Taking a stand
Shearing sheds are described by their number of stands – the number of shearers that the board can hold. Most modern sheds have three or four stands, while larger farms with more than 10,000 sheep might have six-stand sheds. On the big stations in the 19th century, 20-stand sheds were common. The Teviotdale shed in Central Otago had 40 stands, and nearby Moa Flat had 50.
Woolshed and covered yard complex
Since the 1950s woolsheds have commonly been built in conjunction with covered sheep yards. Covered yards allow the farmer to work in the shade and out of the rain, and at shearing time they can hold sheep under cover overnight and avoid any risk of them getting wet from rain. Wet sheep will not be shorn. Some covered yards can also hold machinery and implements when not being used for sheep.