Shearing gang from yesteryear

First to be called

by Andy Bryenton

On these pages, we’re presented with a vast range of professionals who will come to the aid of local farmers when they are in need. From mechanics to builders, plumbers to vets, there are individuals and companies who traverse the countryside day after day, keeping agriculture working. The first such group in New Zealand history was the mobile shearing gangs, and in their early days, they had the reputation of ‘wild west’ characters.

Indeed, the fastest shearers in a gang were called the ‘guns’ after the quick-draw artists of the American plains. Fastest in each group of these travelling, hardworking (and often hard-drinking) shearers was called the Don (poking fun at the Dons of Oxford University) or the ringer. Farmers needed these men with their specialist skills, as the window of opportunity for getting the mob shorn and the wool factored and off to market was slim.

Much wool was exported halfway around the world, on a schedule decided by the speed of sailing ships. So they were respected, these blokes (in an age before workplace equality, the shearers were universally men), but also mistrusted as roguish characters, with their reputation for swearing and for settling arguments with a bout of bare-knuckle boxing. Preachers might fulminate, but the shearers were vital to the industry.

Top shearers with manual blades were able to power through 75 sheep a day or more. In the 1880s mechanised shearing came to New Zealand, and there arose many tales of top ‘guns’ trying to best the machines with skill alone. Eventually, the machinery was embraced as part of the skill of shearing, and today, the record stands at more than 700 sheep shorn in a day. The spectacle of seeing the best shearers face-off, which had always been bet on and remarked upon, became a real competition in 1870, almost a century before the founding of the Golden Shears. Today, shearers are a professional bunch well removed from the rough-edged colonial days. The old ‘uniform’ of black singlet, lanolin-oiled trousers and wool-bale shoes has become part of the stereotype of the Kiwi farmer. Instead of a gang with manual shears, farmers now call in a fully equipped workforce with the latest in technology. Preachers have less to complain about during the shearing season. They are still a link back to the first ‘who are you going to call?’ in New Zealand agriculture.