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Shear incompetence of a city boy

Mercifully, there is no photographic evidence of the author shearing. But it didn’t look as assured as this. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Gun shearers make taking the wool off a sheep look easy. But for a city boy, picking up a hand piece and giving it a go proved stressful and exhausting, writes Times-Age editor Seamus Boyer.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Ian Dagg adds cheerily.

“See that bit here, it’s called the hamstring, and if you put your blade through it she’s crippled for life.”

Good to know, I thought.

I’d just finished shearing my third sheep, and hadn’t been paying any extra attention to “that bit there”.

I certainly would on my next one, if I ever shore again.

Not that I hadn’t been taking care, if anything I’d been taking too much, not wanting to hurt the startled-looking beasts.

The result was the odd longer tuft here and there amid some – if I do say so myself – pretty good-looking blows.

Apparently, I’d learned some of the lingo as well.

“Not too bad for a first-timer,” says Ian, a wiry Eketahuna farmer and my teacher for the day, just as the sheep supposedly secure beneath me scrambles up and scarpers.

“They can be a handful,” he adds with a generous and knowing smile.

There’s no way to write this without coming across as a townie wimp, so I’m not going to try.

Before picking up my first handpiece, I’d read the official 1998 shearing handbook Ian had supplied a few days before.

The first thing I’d checked in it was whether I could cut myself.

The second thing I’d checked was whether I could cut the sheep.

Under the section ‘Skin cuts’, causes include badly prepared combs, insufficient lead (whatever that is), and insufficient skills.


“Skin cuts do permanent damage. Sure, they heal quickly but the scars remain,” the book added.

I’m not sure if that made me feel better or worse.

Looking at my handy work huddling together in a corner of the farmyard I could see the odd little nick, but at least “that bit there” was mercifully intact.

After four years attending the Golden Shears as an impressed but slightly confused spectator I thought the time had come to give shearing a go.

You can’t really appreciate how hard something is, I had decided, unless you give it a go.

While I never thought this decision would prove to be my Paper Lion moment, like the legendary journalist George Plimpton, I must admit I thought I might be a bit better at it.

But back in the pen, I was quickly finding that sheep don’t like being inexpertly held.

In fact, they get quite kicky and struggly (but thankfully not bitey given where the heads happen to be half the time).

After studying the handbook, I am aware of the various blows needed to successfully achieve the goal of a wool-less sheep.

‘Belly’ seems tricky, given the proximity of the teats, ‘crutch’ looks a bit gross, and ‘top knot’ quite cute, like giving the animal a little haircut.

Thankfully Ian takes care of the crutch and the belly so I can concentrate on the easier bits.

“You’ll need three blows here,” he says, indicating a leg.

“Maybe another there,” he adds.

“You could probably do another short one there, plus a little tidy up here, here and here.”

Ian is nothing if not patient.

After finishing my three sheep in an hour (admittedly with plenty of breaks to chat about how difficult it is), my arms are heavy and my enthusiasm is waning.

It is scarcely believable that in order simply to enter the open shearing event at the Golden Shears you must have “recorded a shed tally of over 405 sheep in an eight-hour day”.

That’s just over 50 an hour, an astonishing feat.

As we wrap up for the day, and Ian drives me back to my car, I wonder if I’ll ever shear another sheep.

Having discovered how tough it is, how mentally and physically demanding, I’m tempted to throw in the towel.

I have a feeling I won’t be missed by any in the shearing fraternity.

In the shearing handbook under ‘Diet’ it says to avoid “fried food, chippies, chocolate bars, muesli bars and fatty meat”.


There is hope, though.

The very next sentence says to “choose” scones, muffins, cake and biscuits instead, and two cups of tea an hour before starting work.

Now, those are parts of shearing I can embrace.



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