The tell tale signs of shearing are there – the sheep are in the yards, the dogs are tied up to the fence and there’s an assortment of dusty cars and vans lined up outside the woolshed. But why is it so quiet? Is it smoko already?
Walk inside the Glentanner Station shed and the first thing that strikes you about blade shearing is how quiet it is. The sheep are being shorn but there is no racket from shearing machines and for once the radio is at acceptable health and safety levels.
The Mackenzie Shearing gang has been blade shearing Glentanner merinos since 1957. Over that time the ownership of the gang has changed and so have many of the faces, but Glentanner’s owner Ross Ivey thinks it must be a record to have had one group of men shearing the same flock for that length of time.
“They haven’t buggered off because they didn’t like our sheep. And of course there’s always been stories about shearers leaving because of cooks and grog...”
Glentanner has always shorn with blades. At first it was because there wasn’t the electricity to do it any other way. But now it is because Ross believes it is the best for the sheep.
“Glentanner got its own hydro electricity in 1950 but that was just for lights and the range in the house – not heating and there certainly wasn’t enough for shearing plants and electric wool presses. In the 1960s we got the power on but continued to use blades and there has never been machines in the Glentanner shed.”
“We blade shear because the sheep aren’t cut as close to the skin so you are retaining more wool on the sheep. This takes the risk out of them being exposed to a storm because they still have a wool jacket on. It is also not quite so hard on the sheep, so they are not knocked back so much. They used to say over the life of a sheep you get an extra fleece.”
Machine shearing requires the shearer to move the sheep around him. The pace of work is set by the hand piece which heats up unless it is used. In blade shearing the shearer moves around the sheep and, if necessary, can move a short distance along the board with it. After shearing each sheep, the shearer takes a break for a couple of seconds to sharpen his blades.
A disadvantage is that blade shearing is slower than machine shearing. Blade shearers can only shear about 140 sheep a day. It is also harder on the body – particularly the forearms, wrists and hands. The head of Mackenzie Shearing, Tom Rarere, says when you have had a break from blade shearing it takes 3-4 days to condition your body for the work. If you go too hard too early your body will pay.
It isn’t easy to find people prepared to take on the physically demanding, nomadic and seasonal life of a blade shearer, but Tom tries to make it more attractive by making sure the gang gets home most weekends. Young guys usually start out as shed hands and then eventually get asked to shear the last leg of a sheep.
“Then you’ll get the odd shearer who says ‘hold this sheep for a moment’ and then walks away!”
>> Read about blade shearing school
>> Read about blade shearing competitions