Yarn With A Farmer – For the Love of Shearing

Welcome back to the latest installment of our “Yarn With a Farmer” series, where we venture beyond the fibers and delve into the captivating world of shearing with the insightful Robin Flood. Join us as we explore the essence of the shearing industry, first hand.

You’ve been involved in the industry for a long time, Robin – How old were you when you shore your first sheep?

I would’ve been 16-17 when I first shore a sheep. Back then there weren’t a lot of learner schools for that sort of thing – this was 1965/66. So you worked in a shed and when they were finishing their last sheep off, you sheared the last leg and then you’d gradually do a bit more or you’d take the belly off and that’s how the shearers got you going. Anyone who was keen to have a go, that’s what they did. As things have progressed, there’s some good learner schools – they were just getting going in the 1960s to early 1970s. A lot of places back then, if there was a fifth stand in the shed, they really liked to have a learner on. A shearing instructor would come around and give a bit of instruction and put them on the right track. You weren’t under any pressure to shear any number of sheep. That’s how a lot of the older shearers got started and then the wool corporation got going and they started training schools and they’ve been going ever since. Now you can sign up to do an apprenticeship – you can do a novice course or certificate 2, certificate 3 or certificate 4. It can take up to two years to complete. You’ll get an opportunity to shear different breeds of sheep – the main ones being crossbreeds and Merinos. Back when I started in Tassie, the bulk of the sheep were Merinos, Polwarths, Corriedales – very few crossbreds – but that’s swung around now, with the price of meat going up and the wool stable, people have gone towards meat. We shear a lot of crossbreeds now in Tasmania.

Were there any initiation processes back when you first started shearing, that you can share with us?

It wasn’t too bad really – they did tend to stir the young ones up a bit when they came in. I can remember one time as a young rouseabout, a bloke had me in the letting-out-pen looking for a ‘long blow’ that he’d ‘lost’ [laughs] – and after about 5 minutes he said, “you’d better get back in here and do your work”. Sheep are made up of six individual sections and the ‘long blow’ is the longest section you shear on a sheep. I’d heard them talking about this but didn’t really know where it was – you learn pretty fast.

When you were a young shearer, did you travel as a group and work around the state, or interstate?

My father and his uncle had a team, so I worked with them. Back in the early times, it was all spring shearing in Tasmania. The shearing would start in September and go through until about the middle of December – that was it. There’d be sixty or seventy shearers around the Ross area in that time, because most of these stations around here were all sheep. Nowadays, most people have gone to a pre-lamb shear, so they shear them anytime from March now through to July and some people that lamb in September will shear in August. The sheep weren’t carrying heavy fleece when they had the lamb, and they get the wool off them early and then they put it back on and then they lamb down. This also means the sheep go to shelter to lamb – when they’ve got full wool they don’t feel the cold much so they don’t tend to find the shelter. With these shearing practices, survival rates of lambs went way up.

Previously, some strikes happened around wages. Is there fair remuneration now for what the shearers do?

I’ve been in the industry over fifty years. The shearer and the owner have a better relationship than they did back in the 1940s through to about the 1970s. The farmers were pretty rigid, but that doesn’t happen as much now. And you have a lot more professional people getting into the industry, but back then people didn’t have much and they were battling. There’s still a few camp out jobs around, where they’ve got a cook on. Because the shearers were paying out of their wages for the cook back then, they could actually dismiss the cook, but they were good cooks. One time I was shearing in South Australia and it was a ten stand shed, so there was one cook feeding twenty in the team plus a couple of musterers and others working on the property. The cook would have breakfast ready to go at 6.20am, then smoko over at the shed at 9.30am and be back at 12pm with lunch organised. Tea at night was 6pm so he wasn’t finished until about 8 o’clock at night.

What are the best and worst things about being a shearer?

I’ve always enjoyed shearing – I’d do it again. I enjoyed doing the shearer training too. When you see the young blokes that you’ve trained go on to make a living out of it, that’s what gives me the most enjoyment. I’ve been pretty fortunate in that my back is pretty good – I used a sling for the last eight to ten years. Some mornings when the alarm went off at half past five, I could’ve stayed there [laughs], but you get up and go. I do know blokes that are in the shearing industry that don’t want to be there and they do make it difficult in a team, but there are a lot of blokes that do want to get out there and make it happen. And there are some good dollars for the blokes that do it well and can travel. And there’s a lot more women now coming in and doing shed hand work and they’re really good at it. We’ve got about six women who work for us and they’re real good shed hands. We also have two women who shear for us – one is going very well and has been with us for about three years. The blokes don’t mind it, in fact she’s shearing more than most of them [laughs]. And as far as the fibre goes, you can’t beat wool – it’s proven.