Australia’s shearer workforce has dwindled from about 15,000 when wool prices were booming in the 1980s to about 2,800.
The pandemic has further reduced the small pool of skilled labour and woolgrowers are struggling to get their sheep shorn.
Australian Wool Innovation chairman Jock Laurie said COVID had made the problem worse.
“The border closures have stopped people moving across borders and stopped the New Zealanders coming in,” Mr Laurie said.
Shearers shut out
Before the pandemic, about 800 New Zealanders arrived each year to help harvest the nation’s wool clip.
While that seasonal flow is beginning to resume, another even bigger obstacle remains — the sheer physical nature of shearing.
Some studies show a shearer expends as much energy in a working day as a marathon runner.
That’s why for decades the wool industry has been trying to find ways to take some of the grunt work out of shearing.
In a conventional woolshed, a shearer plucks a sheep from a catching pen and drags it onto the shearing platform to begin removing the wool.
Sometimes the drag can be a 3-metre or 4-metre haul.
Lack of newcomers
Shearer Norman “Rocky” Reichelt said dragging a sheep, putting it in position and keeping it still was the hardest part of shearing.
Mr Reichelt, now 63, has been shearing since he was 14. Very few shearers last in the trade for so long.
“You can’t find enough young blokes to do it, the work’s too hard,” Mr Reichelt said.
The age-old ‘catch and drag’ action has become more difficult as sheep have increased in size.
Mature sheep often weigh 60-80 kilograms. Rams can be double that.
Australian Wool Innovation, a grower-funded wool body, has designed an alternative with the help of shearing contractors and top-level shearers.
It is a device that delivers a sheep close to the shearer, who only has to push a button to have the animal tipped out almost in position to be shorn.
Naracoorte engineering business operator Chris Haynes said the machine took the catching and dragging aspect out of shearing.
He has started building the modules and dispatching them to shearing sheds around Australia.
Orders have taken off after the technology was demonstrated at a recent wool industry field day at Conargo, New South Wales.
“All I know about sheep is that they make good socks and they taste good,” Mr Haynes joked.
“But I know a lot about engineering.”
Technology changes the game
With the press of a button, the pneumatically powered module moves out from the race and tilts the sheep into an ideal position for the shearer, who then only has to catch and drag it about a metre.
It also reduces the risk of injury to the shearer while dragging out a sheep.
Shearer Ella Picker, 25, was impressed with the technology.
“Being that little bit smaller with not as much muscle as a typical shearer, it’s really helpful with the catch and drag because it seems to wear you out after a long time, especially when you’re shearing sheep that are a lot bigger than myself,” Ms Picker said.
Deniliquin shearing contractor Sam Walker was also impressed.
“You don’t have to find a head to pull the sheep up, anything like that, and she’s there ready to go,” he said.
“It’s quite a comfortable way to catch a sheep and just tip her on her side, and you’re in a position ready to go.”
He hoped the technology would make it easier for shearers to stay in the trade for longer.
Mr Walker said the new machine was one of the biggest advancements he had seen in the industry during his 15 years as a shearer.
There also are other devices that are helping reduce the daily physical grind of shearing.
Bill Byrne of Peak Hill in New South Wales is seeing strong sales for his invention, a shearing platform that also lifts a sheep into position and holds it in place while it is shorn at waist height.
“I do think there’ll be a gradual transition to more easier shearing through using these machines,” Mr Byrne said.
Change is happening, but such is the complexity of shearing sheep that it is more of an evolution than a revolution.
Mr Reichelt will soon celebrate 50 years as a shearer.
He is yet to try the new technologies but is eager to do so.
“It’ll be a good thing for the young blokes and even the old blokes like myself,” he said.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.