Modern day shearers still cutting edge

The interior of a working shearing shed is equivalent to a city gym.

You hear the loud music before you get in the door, and the next thing that hits you is the sweet, greasy smell of wool.

Then you notice that everyone is in constant motion.

It's a production line - the shearer grapples the sheep from the pen and strips it of fleece. The shedhands separate short and daggy fur from the rest and push oddments and fleece into piles. The pressers grab armfuls of wool and push it into presses to compact it down. Then, when they have a moment, they hurry around into pens and push the sheep forward for the shearers to grab more easily.

Shearers pause between animals only to push a button upping their tally and wipe the sweat off their brows. There's very little conversation, but all the unspoken teamwork of a waka ama six or a rowing eight.

New Zealand shearers are the best in the world, and most of them are Maori, shearing contractor Lee Matson says.

"They're very very good at it. It's just bred into them. A lot of them, their fathers and grandfathers all shore sheep, and they enjoy the camaraderie of the team thing."

A working shearer is as fit as a super fit athlete.

"You need a strong back, and a different sort of fitness. When they have a month off and go back into it it's pretty hard on the guys. It takes them a week or two to get fit again. They're still fit, but they're not shearing fit."

Lee's two top shearers are the Thompson brothers, Matt and Danny. He's only ever had one woman shearer - Wanganui's Joanne Kumeroa, who has been a world champion world classer.

"She shore as good as the boys. She's something exceptional that girl, but she's a very sick lady now. She's got cancer and she's living in Australia."

A good shearer can denude 300 sheep most days, while the average person will do 250. Good shearers don't cut sheep. They strip cleanly with each stroke, needing no second cuts and leaving no ridges.

Lee's business, Matson Shearing Ltd, pays them a contract rate according to how many hundreds they shear. Rams are three times the price of ewes and lambs, because they kick. A good shearer can clear $2000 a week, but injury is always a risk. The ACC levy for shearers is one of the highest.

So - shearers make good money, but only when they're working. Sheep can't be shorn if they are wet.

"If it rains, then bad luck. In the winter we can get held up for a week by rain."

The price of wool is "not that flash" at the moment. Lambs' wool fetches about $3.80 a kilo and ewes' wool $2.40 to $2.70. That's not a big margin for sheep farmers. They need to make money from wool as well as meat, and they grumble.

Low wool prices aren't the only change from the halcyon days of the 1970s. Gangs of shearers, with cooks, no longer spend the summer months staying in shearers' quarters and the rest of the year looking for other work.

These days, farmers are varying shearing times. Some shear ewes before lambing, using a cover comb that leaves a bit of wool on them. Some are lambing later, and shearing lambs before they go to meat works. The result is that shearing gangs work virtually all year now. Lee's staff are on a permanent casual basis, and most are available when he needs them.

"Now we get busy in the second week of November to the end of April, then have a bit of time off, and start shearing again pre-lamb in May-June.

"It's more of a job for them rather than just a seasonal thing."

Another sign of the times is shearers' quarters sitting empty all year round in many parts of the Whanganui hill country. Most of Lee's workers live in Wanganui and go out to work each day. They only stay over in shearers' quarters when they're doing a very big job in a remote location.

On a typical work day, Lee leaves his house in Castlecliff's Longbeach Drive and heads through Wanganui to Upokongaro, picking up workers on the way. They arrive at their headquarters at 5.30am. The quarters, down a little Upokongaro cul de sac, look a bit like a motel - a series of rooms in a U-shape around a paved area. They house about seven workers, including cook Kerry King.

Everyone eats a big breakfast there, and staff can also make themselves a packed lunch if they haven't brought one.

Then they hop into vans and head off in different directions for sheds scattered from the Paraparas to nearly Waiouru and across to Mangamahu, Fordell and as far away as Maxwell. They're expected to work from 7 to 9am, then 9.30 to 11.30, an hour for lunch, and so on. Usually they'll finish by 4.30 - unless there's a shed that needs to be cut out.

After work some farmers will shout them a beer, and it's the responsibility of the gang boss, the "ganger", to ensure there's a sober driver. Most of the workers are so tired they fall asleep in the van.

This year, Lee has 17 shearers. Four of them are Welsh. Two of his shed hands are university students, paid by the hour and earning $600 to $700 a week in their holidays.

On Tuesday last week Lee had three teams working - Graham Metekingi's gang was shearing 2000 ewes at Richard Matthews' farm near Field's Track, and Matt Thompson and four other shearers had 1300 lambs and ewes to shear at John Donald's farm.

Both are on Kainui Rd, which is nearer to Waiouru than Mangamahu, and a place of huge, raw-boned, razor-backed hills, sometimes studded with pine plantations, poplars or patches of native bush. .

On the other side of the mysteriously named Burma Hill, and well on the way to Mangamahu, Lee's third gang of three Welsh shearers was making a start on 3000 ewes.

His is one of the bigger shearing businesses in the region - but small on a national scale. He has 30 staff at the height of the season, and is workers shear upwards of 800,000 sheep every year.

Lee has been in the business for 35 years. A 186km drive on winding roads from Wanganui to Kakatahi, up Fields Track, over the Burma Hill and down to Mangamahu, Kauangaroa and Fordell is all in a morning's work for him. The route is known as "going around the block". He's done many hundreds of kilometres in his diesel four wheel drive vehicle and only had one accident - when he fell asleep on the Parapara stretch of SH4 during a particularly busy time.

His daily job is to decide where best to send his gangs, based on what farmers want, the weather and vehicles. Nothing is predictable, and he likes that.

"It can be a bit hectic, a trifle mad. If it was too easy it would be boring."

And having started his working life as a 16-year-old farmhand on Dick Coleman's Parapara property, he loves the hill country scenery.

As as those hills roll by with their tiny settlements, he can rattle off the names of the properties - Waipunga, Aranui, Mount View Station, The Shades.

There are fewer and fewer people out in that country, as small farms become uneconomic and are sold, allowing bigger farms to stay viable through economies of scale.

"One farm had a farm owner, his son and two shepherds and a general hand. [The owner] runs that all on his own now."


- Wanganui Chronicle

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