Friday, 18 May 2007

Sheep Shearing

I know many of you are wincing at the topic line... It would seem we have a strange affinity to animals, and I am unable to avoid writing about them.
As some of you are aware, we have managed to infiltrate a local church. Er, perhaps I should say we've been welcomed with open arms by one of the local churches. Whatever you want to call it, we have been to the homes of a number of the church members already, and most of these people live just out of town. (*Side note: Going out of town in this case means crossing the North Bourke Bridge. This bridge is considered the dividing line between the rest of New South Wales and officialy being in the outback. This means, not only have we been to the outback, but according to local legend... once you've crossed the North Bourke Bridge, you'll always return to Bourke. Is that a challenge? hehehe) Now, where was I? Ah, yes, visiting people out of town. So we've visited numberous people, attended various gatherings, and been camping in the outback. On one of these visits, we got on the topic of seasonal work, and started joking about how we'd need to shear sheep or pick fruit if we wanted to renew the working holiday visas we have. One of the couples mentioned that they could use us on their property. We jumped at that with comments that we had never sheared a sheep before and would love to try it and see their property. Within minutes we had arranged to visit them in a few days time and they would find us a sheep to shear. This family basically manages a property of 165 000 acres, all on their own. The owner is an elderly lady who visits once every year or two, and because of the drought and lack of income, she can't afford to have anyone else to help run the place. I can't remember the exact number of animals, but they have cattle (around 100?) and sheep (around 4000?), most of which have been sold off because there's not enough vegetation to feed even the ones that are left, and no money to buy any extra food. The animals aren't reproducing because they are getting barely enough food to survive as it is. Anyways, enough sob story.

Fast forward a few days to the 6th of May. After church we rushed home to grab some grubby clothes. (Well, to be honest we really don't have grubby clothes along, we just tried to pick stuff we didn't mind getting dirty or that wouldn't stain if they got dirty.) That in hand, we climbed back into the big family van and set off for the property. About 15 minutes out of town, we come through a gate to a place as dry and stripped of vegetation as any we've seen so far. Down a long driveway, we come upon a good sized bungalow with a yard full of green grass and a fence to keep the animals out. (*Side note: Anywhere you plan on walking barefoot, grass is essential here. They have a proliferation of burrs that grow in the ground, and nothing but a thick layer of grass will prevent you from getting multiple burrs as you walk around barefoot outside. I've learned grass isn't just for looks around here, it's almost necessary if you have little kids running around) We all pile into the house, us and the five kids in the van and Jodi, the mom, all carrying armfulls of groceries. A trip to town usually means a grocery run in the bargain. In that short back and forth with groceries, Laurie managed to get a burr in her foot. That's when Jodi introduced us to a wonderful little gizmo called a "burr picker" that you can get from any pharmacy around here. It's a plastic stick with a straight pointy metal bit on one end and a hooked pointy metal bit on the other end. It was the best sliver-digger-outer that I've ever used.
After a bit of a snack and a chat about various things, we went out and climbed on the four-wheeler. :D Neither of us had ever driven one before. Laurie took the first turn at driving with me sitting behind her. A little rough with the gear changes, but hey, so was I when I drove it. None-the-less, very, very fun. Jodi jogged behind us and Brett had gone ahead to the shearing shed. When we got there, Brett gave us a bit of a tour, and explained the varied jobs that go into shearing a sheep. First all the sheep for the day have to be mustered the day before and put into the yard. If there's any chance of rain, they'll be kept in the covered area under the shed, because you can't shear wet sheep. The shearers each have a station with a set of clippers attached to a rod above where they get their power from. The shearer grabs a sheep from the pen beside the station, drags it out on it's back, and in a complicated set of moves I really can't describe properly, pins it down and tucks it between the shearer's legs in various positions as he swiftly shears all the wool off. Once the wool is off in one big piece, the sheep goes down a slide on it's back and lands in a tight little pen where the number of sheep sheared by that person can later be counted. The shears get paid piecemeal, and a good shearer should get 200 sheep done per 8 hour day. The fleece gets picked up in a very specific way by the... uh... I don't know the name of the person... and thrown onto a special table, where all the stained bits are pulled off and put in a different pile. There the wool get's graded and seperated into piles of the appropriate quality. When there's enough, it all gets thrown into a baler, squished and wrapped tight to be shipped out and sold.
So we watched Brett grab the sheep, drag it over to the clippers and start shearing. He did the stomach, legs, back end, neck, then flipped it on it's side and started that. Then he turned off the clippers and motioned us over. Laurie stepped up and he told her to slide one foot under the sheep's neck. Her other foot had to go behind the back legs, leaning her knee on it's hip. This way she had complete control over the animal while she sheared it's side. So she did that for a few swipes, got tired and passed off the clippers to me. At this point we were getting close to the middle of the sheep's back, so I learned a bit about pulling the sheep over a bit... Man, when you go as slow as we did, it's really hard on your legs. We ended up with the MOST docile sheep... It just lay there, let us do what we wanted, barely twitched, even when we did stupid things like stand up straight without holding it down. It didn't even get overly upset when it got nicked. (Hey, Brett nicked it way more than we did. ) Neither of us finished shearing the sheep. Brett did that. Then he showed us how to pick up the fleece, and we each tried our hand at throwing the fleece onto the table. (this job is often what women will do in the shearing sheds, they also sweep up all the loose bits of fleece, because all of it is worth something.) All in all, it was fun. Afterwards, we went for a short ramble around the farm, checking out the shearer's quarters, an old derelict building, and a few other sights before we had to go home.

1 comment:

MaryAnn said...

That sounded like a lot of fun. It sounds like it could be your next occupation. Heinz is a sheep shearer so maybe when you are back here, you ladies can help him:)