Kōrero: Rural workers

Whārangi 2. Itinerant workers

Ngā whakaahua

Some workers – including shearers, harvesters and drovers – moved around from place to place for work.

Shearers

Shearers had a regular calendar. Many worked in Queensland, Australia, in June and July, moving down to New South Wales from August to November. Then they boarded a ship to New Zealand, where they could work from November to February. Much time was lost to travelling, and shearers worked perhaps two-thirds of these 30 weeks. Shearing was done with hand-held shears, which put immense strain on the hands, wrists and arms. From the late 1880s shearing machines were introduced, which made the job a little easier and allowed more wool to be taken off the sheep.

Māori were prominent in early shearing gangs, especially on the North Island’s East Coast. They worked in extended-family groups, including women and children, rather than the male-dominated gangs in the rest of the country. Māori shearing gangs are still prominent in the industry.

Musterers

Musterers specialised in bringing sheep off the high country in autumn for shearing. They mostly worked on foot, each with a team of five to seven dogs. A mustering team usually comprised the station’s head shepherd and four to six contracted musterers. The packman brought in the gear to the musterers’ huts by packhorse. He also cooked meals and killed a few sheep for mutton and dog tucker.

Musterers walked huge distances trying to find all the sheep, often climbing and descending through rough bluffed country.

Drovers

Drovers were contracted men who took stock from one place to another, often to farms, or to the saleyards or freezing works. They rode horses and used dogs.

Missing mates

Poet David McKee Wright touched on the lonely life of the itinerant worker who made friends and never saw them again in his ballad ‘While the billy boils’:

‘He went to a job on the plain he knowed of and I went poisoning out at the back,/And I missed him somehow—for all my looking I never could knock across his track. /The same with Harry, the bloke I worked with, the time I was over upon the Coast,/He went for a fly-round over to Sydney, to stay for a fortnight—a month at the most!’ 1

Rabbiters

Introduced rabbits became a scourge in the 1870s. They competed with sheep for grass, and in places their burrows turned the ground into a moonscape. Rabbiting was mainly seasonal work, with rabbit-infested runs employing 50–100 men for short periods over winter to kill rabbits. Some large Central Otago runs had their own permanent rabbiters.

At first rabbits were hunted using dogs, and their burrows were dug up. However, numbers exploded, and large-scale poisoning became the only practical method. When refrigeration was introduced in the 1880s, a rabbit industry developed and animals were trapped for their meat and skins. Schoolboys often earned pocket money by shooting rabbits.

The professional rabbiter was a lonely man, often living in a tent down by the trees near a river. Rabbiters were common in rural areas until the late 1940s, when the government introduced a levy on rabbit skins to devalue the pest. In 1947 control of rabbits was given to locally-elected rabbit boards, which levied farmers and organised their own control methods, with part-funding from the government.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. David McKee Wright, ‘When the billy boils.’ In New Zealand farm and station verse, 1850–1950, edited by A. E. Woodhouse. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1967, p. 38. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Rural workers - Itinerant workers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rural-workers/page-2 (accessed 18 August 2019)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 24 Nov 2008