Jamie Mackay runs The Country...on the radio.

Jamie Mackay's 'From the Lip': shearing memories of Sir David Fagan

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Shearing legend Sir David Fagan concedes defeat to Prime Minister Bill English at the World Shearing and Woolhandling Championships. Photo - NZH
Shearing legend Sir David Fagan concedes defeat to Prime Minister Bill English at the World Shearing and Woolhandling Championships. Photo - NZH

Like all the young lads I went to boarding school with back in mid-seventies, the thing I looked forward to most on my 15th birthday was getting my driver's license.

Rugby, girls and the prospect of beer, although a special part of our shallow social fabric, played second fiddle to the freedom a driver's license afforded you.

One of the most painful failures of my life (and I've had a few along the way) happened when I duly failed my driver's license test because I was unable to successfully complete a reverse parallel park in the main street of Riversdale. I didn't even know what one was. I'd never seen one done in Riversdale. To this day I don't think anyone has ever done one in Riversdale!

Suffice to say my father was none too worried. He thought I was a menace on the road but attempted to dull the pain by giving me a belated 15th birthday present he claimed would serve me well for the rest of my life. It was supposedly the gift that would keep on giving.

So what was the aforementioned gift? Why, it was none other than a brand new Sunbeam shearing handpiece.

And with my newly acquired pressie quite literally in hand, I was duly dispatched to the farm of well-known shearing identity Alistair Keown to learn the fine art for a fortnight.

I can honestly say, without fear or favour, that it was physically the toughest two weeks of my life. We would muster a mob of ewes and lambs in at night, wean the lambs, shear the ewes the next day, then crutch the lambs in the last run of the day.

Thus began a love/hate relationship with the noble pursuit of shearing. I hated the ewe shearing and loved the lamb crutching; the latter being a much more cost effective and less back-breaking way of making money for someone with mediocre skills on the handpiece.

I was reminded of my shearing connection last week when I was afforded the honour of being the MC for the World Shearing and Woolhandling Dinner. It was the glitzy affair that kicked off the World Champs in Invercargill, with 32 nations competing.

It was a far cry from my lowly beginnings in the world of competitive shearing. I remembered back to my time as a helper for the New Zealand Lamb Shearing Championships in Riversdale, initially adding up the judges' scores manually and then out the back in the catching pens when the former task was computerised.

I was there in 1979 when a skinny 17 year-old King Country kid, David Fagan, won his first shearing the title, the Intermediate New Zealand lamb shearing title on a warm January night. Today that man is now a knight.

I can also vividly recall being reprimanded and somewhat intimidated by Sir David's older brother John Fagan for not presenting the lamb in the correct position so he could get the quickest possible catch from the pen.

John was rural sporting royalty back in those days because not only did he win the Golden Shears, he also completed the unique double of winning the Golden Pliers national fencing competition at Fieldays. He was an agrarian version of Jeff Wilson and would have been a superstar had the New Zealand Rural Games been in existence back then.

Fast forward to 1992 and my first foray into the journalistic world, post farming, was covering a world nine-hour lamb shearing record attempt by David Fagan at my neighbour, Alan Shallard's farm.

The day dawned cold and misty. The lambs were slow shearing. By lunchtime, after three of the five runs, Fagan looked a beaten man. He was well off the pace.

But there was some divine intervention on two fronts. The Almighty saw fit to let the sun break through. Then Fagan senior (John) delivered a thundering midday sermon, in the massage room, for the gathered congregation to inadvertently overhear. I seem to recall it was along the rather simplistic motivational lines of, "no f###ing Fagan has ever failed in a world shearing record attempt and you're not about to start today".

So 810 lambs later a new world record was set (breaking his great mate Alan MacDonald's 805 tally) following an afternoon of some of the most intriguing and exhilarating sporting theatre I've had the privilege to witness.

In the intervening quarter century I've followed competitive shearing with more than a passing interest. The backbone of our national economy was built off the sheep's back and off the back off some very strong shearers' backs. Where once there was more than 70 million sheep to shear annually, there now remains less than 28 million.

The sheep farming industry is at a cross roads. Disappointing lamb prices and the dismal return for strong crossbred wool further threatens those dwindling sheep numbers.

Here's hoping it doesn't threaten the emergence of the next David Fagan, for shearing truly is a remarkable sport.

- The Country

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Jamie Mackay runs The Country...on the radio.

Jamie Mackay runs The Country. Well actually his former Southland sheep-farming mate Bill English does that but Jamie's apolitical so we won't mention it. Mackay is a rural legend in broadcasting with over 20 years' experience. Jamie enjoys the finer things in life such as a quenching pint of Emerson’s pilsner, a leisurely Friday afternoon game of golf, and mercilessly teasing Dom George about everything from his appearance to his social standing.

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