Six sweaty blokes doing bloke work.
I’ve never seen shearers at work before, and there were a few surprises.
First was the age of the shearers. Most of them were so young! Shearing is back breaking work, so logically it’s not something you can do forever, but I’d sort of imagined shearers would be like the drovers I’ve met – old and gnarled, with lots of tall stories. One of the blokes in the shed today said he’d been doing it for 37 years – he loved shearing and didn’t want to do anything else. He loves travelling around the country (or countries – many shearers work in both Australia and New Zealand), he meets lots of people, and as a bonus the pay is good. It’s a pity about the actual work, which, amongst other things, ruins your back. Two of the shearers today were using harnesses to support their backs. “We’re the old ones” they told me. The rest looked like they were under 25, with a couple still in their teens.
Second was how skinny sheep are without their wool. I was told full grown sheep can be carrying up to 5 kilos of wool. That’s a lot of wool – particularly in an Australian summer. No wonder they’re so skittish and energized once it’s gone.
The third surprise was how fast the shearers are. Sheep were coming in and going out of that shed rapidly. As well as the 6 shearers there were 6 people sweeping up and sorting wool, and another one doing the bailing. It was a very busy shed. I timed one of the shearers and it took him 1 minute 33.7 seconds from the time he pulled the sheep out of the holding pen until he pushed it down the shute to the outside. I know the record is just over 45 seconds, but that was for a one-off shear. These blokes are shearing like this all day – for 8 hours. They don’t break stride. With their 2 half hour breaks and an hour for lunch, they’re at that shed for 10 hours. Then they back up again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. When they started the lambs this afternoon I timed the same shearer again. 58.3 seconds for a lamb. That’s a lot of shearing in an 8 hour period. Between the 6 of them they shear around 1,400 sheep a day. That’s 233 sheep each, or 29 per person per hour. Each and every hour. That’s 2 minutes per sheep, including getting them from the pen, shearing them and getting them down the shute. And of course there’s time needed to clean and/or change combs. And to wipe the sweat from your brow. You can’t slack off.
Bizarrely, and showing up my origins as a city girl, I found the wool itself a surprise. I’d always just thought about a fleece as being like a sheep skin. I mean, the sorters pick it up as a whole, and throw it across the sorting tables. But really, it’s like hair. Once it’s shorn the softer underside shows all the individual pieces, and the only thing holding it together is all the knots, dirt and oil in the outer part.
I felt a bit like I was in a Tom Roberts painting! The process of shearing, and the actions of the shearer and the way they stand have changed very little since Shearing the Rams was painted. Neither have the shearing sheds. They’re still corrugated iron, with wooden floors polished from all the lanolin, and the thousands of soft-soled shoes that walk back and forth over them in non-stop motion all day long. The doors to the holding pens are stained black from the sweat and grease where the shearers push against them with their hands and shoulders. The only difference is the electric shears hanging from the ceiling.
I know that PETA are campaigning against the wool industry because of cruelty to sheep. I read on their website that they witnessed incidents where sheep were punched in the face until their noses bled, and that the speed of the shear leaves the animals injured and traumatised.
I’m not going to dispute what they’ve said, because I’ve only seen the one shed, and I agree that quite a few of the sheep today were nicked in the process of shearing, and that many of them didn’t appear to enjoy the process. Some of the sheep were worse behaved than toddlers getting a haircut! But not once did I see a shearer punch a sheep or deliberately injure it in any way. Why would they? This is their livelihood.
The worst cruelty I saw (or heard) was the music. Techno and rap pumping out at high volume all day.
The reality that I saw is that the shearing shed is no crueler to the sheep than it is to the men who shear them. There is no way I would do that work hour after hour, day after day and year after year.