Shearers in short supply amid wool Renaissance

Story written by Sherryn Groch for The Land, 6 Feb 2018

The sun is out but it's snowing wool inside the shed, as ten shearers drop the last line of fleece to the floor.

Ian Elkins, Canberra's hall-of-fame shearer, watches on as sixteen-year-old Zac Patterson of Belconnen wrestles the next ewe into line.

This is day three of "shearing school" at Cavan Station in Yass, a five-day intensive workshop run by Australian Wool Innovation, and the work doesn't stop until lunch.

Getting these fifteen new shearers up to grade and able to shear 100 sheep a day is more important than ever, says Mr Elkins.

As the price of wool hits a record-high of $18 per kilogram, the Australian wool industry is enjoying a Renaissance not seen since the 1980s. But it's also grappling with a long-standing shearer shortage.

"There's never enough shearers," Mr Elkins said.

"Right now, there's a spring in the step of everyone in the industry, it hasn't been this good since I started almost 40 years ago.

"Sheep numbers are rising too so we really need shearers."

He wipes sweat from his forehead with a spare singlet. At their stand, shearers can exert as much energy as marathon runners, Zac says. "It's hard work, from the first sheep the sweat starts pouring but it's satisfying," he said.

"And, bloody oath it's booming at the moment, the industry."

Like many here, Zac first learnt to shear in a shed watching his father, along with his "second dad" Mr Elkins.

"When I finish my apprenticeship, I'm planning to spend six months of the year shearing," he said. 

"You can travel a bit with it."

Mr Elkins, who has trained Pakistani shearers for a Crown prince in Dubai, said there was also plenty of work close to home around Canberra.

One of his own regular customers is the famous rogue sheep, Chris, who alluded the shears for six years before being rescued near Mulligan's Flat.

Mr Elkins claimed his record-breaking 41.1 kilogram fleece back in 2015, in a life-saving shave lasting almost 50 minutes.

Here in the shed, each Merino sheep takes about three minutes to shear, if you know what you're doing. Students are taught the most vulnerable parts of the animal, but nicks and cuts are "inevitable", according to Penny Clout, an Australian Wool Innovation trainer.

"They have lanolin in their fleece and their skin so they heal a lot faster than we do," she said.

Right now, to tend to Australia's 70 million strong flock, there are about 4,000 shearers - 100 of which are women.

Wool supply peaked in 1989, and a fall in stock ever since has pushed up prices. A return to "natural fibres' in our products and overseas demand for Australian wool is also driving the boom, with 73 per cent of the current season's exports heading to China.

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, local wool growers have enjoyed a 55 per cent rise in their margins since 2016. 

Ben Stace of the Australian Wool Network said the wool industry in general was plagued by a shortage of young people, but there were now hopes a more confident industry could turn that around. Profits were up at least 30 per cent in the region compared to the past few years, he said. 

"Nobody has a crystal ball but personally I believe there's sufficient demand for the market to remain reasonably positive for the short term," Mr Stace said.

Back at the shed, fifteen-year-old Charlie Price from Crookwell is excited to join the industry, even if "none of [his] mates will sign up".

Shearers are paid per head, at about $3 a fleece, so efficiency is important.

"These guys will shear about 100 sheep between them today, and about 500 this week," Ms Clout said.

"But out there to get a contract, and a stand, they'll need to get to 100 on their own.

"You get your ratbags like anywhere but you get your characters too. That's what I love about this industry."

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