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Shearing’s golden girl

Jills Angus Burney during filming of She Shears documentary. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

The only woman to ever beat David Fagan, Jills Angus Burney is a world record shearing champion and familiar face at Masterton’s international Golden Shears competition.

Burney is also one of five women to feature in the ‘She Shears’ documentary, which follows the experiences of New Zealand’s leading female sheep shearers.

Growing up in an agricultural town like Feilding, Burney was exposed to farm life early on, but none in her family had been shearers.

Her interest in the sport was peaked after watching Kerry Johnston at the Feilding field days.

“I can remember thinking what good sportsmen they were. It was really the physicality and the co-ordination and skill which attracted me to the sport.

“They were fit, they were strong, they manipulated and moved the sheep in a way which [displayed] amazing skill . . . it’s like watching someone dance when they’re doing it really well.”

Moving to Wairarapa when she was 15 years old, she started a year later at Waimapu Station out Bideford way and continued shearing for various stations around the region.

Burney went on to earn an unofficial world record in 1989, shearing 614 lambs in nine hours – she held the title for nearly 20 years before Emily Welch beat it by shearing 648 lambs.

Masterton’s Jills Angus Burney, left, with She Shears director Jack Nicol, and Waikato shearer Emily Welch at the film’s premiere at Regent 3 Cinemas last year. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

She said there are many women involved in the shearing industry – from wool handlers and pressers to shearers themselves.

“When I began shearing in the 1980s there were like three women and 15,000 men doing it in New Zealand.”

Female shearers were rare, though not totally uncommon.

“I’ve been teased about being a pioneer but there were other women around me.

“It was a very exciting time for women in the late 70s and early 80s – they put a challenge to our generation to change how people saw women’s roles on the farm and in society.”

She entered her first competition at Masterton’s Golden Shears in 1980 under another female shearer’s name and today will be her 40th time at the event.

She’s practising ahead of her 60th birthday next year when she will qualify for the veterans round.

“I’ve been waiting since I retired from full-time shearing, almost 25 years ago, to do so.”

Burney said there’s only ever been one woman who made it to the top 30 in the Open shearing at the Golden Shears but she’s excited by some of the female talent coming through this year.

“Just this summer I’m noticing some girls hitting 400 sheep in eight or so hours.”

The difficulty for female shearers competing against men in open heats was getting from the junior to the senior grades, she said.

“The resistance hasn’t changed, you just have to want it.”

At the New Zealand Shearing Championships in Te Kuiti this month, a female-only competition has been organised.

She said it was important that women show their support of the female-only grade – a first in the country.

“It’s critical that women turn up.”

In December Burney finally got her wool certificate from Lincoln University – more than 45 years after first starting.

“It was about finishing what I started,” she said.

Burney wasn’t allowed to take agriculture at school, but she said 50 per cent of those in the industry are women now.

She said it was good for the industry to be seen to be accepting and modernising.

Burney was proud to be involved with the ‘She Shears’ documentary and said it was an incredibly positive story about the wool industry and rural communities.

Her experiences have taken her across the world, shearing in Australia and the UK where she built up her skills.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learnt what I did through shearing,” she said.

Out of the woolshed, Burney is a trained journalist and a practising barrister specialising in employment, ACC, mediation and grievances.

She lives on a lifestyle block just outside of Masterton in Homebush.

“I don’t think the lifestyle has changed that much. I’ve still got my cows and my flock.”

‘She Shears’ will soon feature in Australian theatres but is available online via the website, sheshears.com/screenings

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