After spending time on a sheep station, one would assume we had quite a bit of up-close and personal time with some sheep (There are some jokes in there, but please keep moving along. We’re a respectable bunch here).
However, 8,000 sheep spread about 40,000 acres means you really need to go searching for some of those furry creatures. And sheep, being the docile and shy animals they are, don’t exactly stick around out of curiosity when people try to stroll up to them.
Sheep shearing is an annual exercise and our time at Almerta Station in South Australia missed it by three days (we wouldn’t have been able to stay there during the shearing anyway as the Shearers Quarters were occupied by workers).
Fortunately, Almerta’s owner, Paddy Rowe, invited us to stop by a neighboring station where he and his crew were shearing.
We arrived at the station mid-morning. While we had only recently finished our breakfast, the shearing crew had been working since 7AM. Sheep shearing is not for the weak (nor for those who like to sleep in).
We entered the Shearing Shed to find Paddy standing in a series of wooden pens, surrounded by sheep. In one hand was a large rattle with metal disks that made a tinny, clanging noise. As two dogs raced about, springing on and off the animals’ backs, Paddy vigorously shook the rattle (A “Tin Dog” he told us). Unsure, though submissive, the sheep crowded into the nearest open pen.
Along one side of the Shed was the shearing area, called the Board. Five muscular though wiry men of varying age were bent over the sheep, each clenching a set of electric shears hanging by a long cord from the ceiling. Clad in sleeveless shirts and long pants, the men worked furiously on the sheep at their feet, barely looking up at our entrance. Music blared from a set of speakers, adding to the din of barking dogs, bleating sheep and the whirring of the machine-driven shears.
The men were sweaty, each concentrating on the job at hand. Paid by the sheep, the best shearers work quickly, racing to shear as many sheep as possible in a run, or two-hour period. A typical shearing day consists of four runs, or eight hours of intense manual labor. A top shearer, called a Gun or Ringer, can shear more than 200 sheep per day.
A shearer grabs a sheep from the holding pen next to his station, embracing the animal from behind before grabbing the sheep’s front legs in what looks like a well-practiced wrestling move. He drags the sheep backwards to his station and begins to shear with long, sweeping cuts or blows.
Like the peel of a potato, the dirty wool is stripped away from the sheep, producing the clean furry softness within that will someday line a pair of UGG boots. The naked sheep, looking like a poorly-peeled orange, its pithy, white skin lined with a thin membrane of leftover wool, scrambles to its feet and exits through a chute to the yard. Outside, additional workers apply an anti-lice solution to the animals’ shorn backs.
The shearer works quickly, turning and twisting the sheep at his feet while his shears fold back the animal’s coat. Watching the shearers bent over and twisted in their labor, it’s easy to envision each worker’s future- one of gnarled and contorted agony.
“It’s like running a marathon every day,” Paddy tells us. It’s plain to see that his supervising position is the elite role in a profession of pain.
We later hear a comparison between shearers and professional athletes. “They need a back-up career,” we’re told. “Once their bodies fail them, they need a Plan B. Few shearers can last a lifetime in this business.”
There are other, less physical roles, in a shearing crew. A couple of people, including the lone woman in the group, scurried about the Board picking up shorn wool and sweeping smaller amounts out of the way. Called a Roustabout, this shed hand keeps busy with whatever odd jobs need to be done to keep the process moving.
Once the fleece is shorn, the Roustabouts carry it to the Skirting Table where two men, called Classers, sort the wool by touch. Quickly feeling and rubbing the fleece between their fingers, they then toss the wool into the appropriate cages.
Paddy handed us some shorn wool to touch. “The softer and lighter it feels, the less wiry it is- the better the wool.” We obediently rubbed the wool, the lanolin from the sheep’s skin leaving a slippery sheen on our fingers.
“Your fingers must be so soft if you touch this all the time,” I said, thinking a pair of unwashed wool mittens were in order.
Paddy displayed his own cracked, dry hands in response. “Nah… sheep shearing actually dries your hands.”
After sorting, another shed hand stuffs the wool into a machine to press it into bales. Once pressed to capacity, the worker pins it shut and lugs the approximately 172 kg (379 lb) bale to a loading area, where he stencils information regarding the station and the wool class onto the canvas. Eventually, the bales of wool will be sent to a wool mill for washing and processing.
Paddy’s wife, Shane, later tells us how the sheep industry is currently under attack for what are considered inhumane practices. The Rowe’s business includes both shearing and crutching, which involves the periodic shaving of wool from around a sheep’s tail and rear legs.
“There are 60 million sheep in Australia,” Paddy adds. “Fifty million of which are Merinos- bred for their wool.”
The Merino Sheep has a heavy, dense, wool coat that requires human intervention to maintain. Failure to remove the wool, especially around the sheep’s rear, can lead to flystrike, a revolting and painful condition where flies lay eggs in the damp wool and the resulting maggots bury under the sheep’s skin to feed. Crutching is different from the more controversial Mulesing, which removes skin from around the sheep’s tail area.
Shane shook her head, “The people protesting have never seen a bad case of flystrike. It’s extremely painful for the sheep and can eventually kill them.”
It’s an age-old question of competing interests, but I didn’t witness any instances of overt cruelty to the animals. Learning about the scourge of flystrike, and knowing the heat of an Australian summer is quickly approaching, it seems that the failure to remove the wool would be the barbaric option.
But given a choice, I probably wouldn’t choose to come back to this world as a sheep.