Cut short: shear numbers can’t keep up
Blood, sweat and shears built Australia. On the sheep’s back, wool barons were produced and the mother country was clothed.
But fortunes shifted and the wool industry is now struggling to find shearers precisely when it needs them. As producers celebrated a record wool price last year, census data revealed the number of shearers across the country fell to 2842, the lowest in a century — down from 15,000 in the late 1980s and 3000 in 2011.
Andrew Ross, a 23-year-old from Barcaldine in Queensland’s central west, took over the running of a contract crew from his father and now manages a team of men most of whom are older than he is. They have been run ragged ever since.
“Normally we’d get a few weeks off over Christmas and January but we’ve been flat out,” Mr Ross said from a shed between Ilfracombe and Barcaldine.
This is the new normal, especially up north, as producers struggle to find workers to clip their sheep.
Australian Wool Innovation Ltd shearing industry development manager Jim Murray concedes that some regions are struggling.
“There are definitely geographical and seasonal shortages and Queensland is probably suffering the worst of it at the moment,” Mr Murray said.
In many ways, Queensland’s central west is the romantic heartland of the sheep industry. Totems to a grand industry dot the landscape.
In 1892, Jackie Howe sheared 321 sheep in seven hours, 40 minutes using blade shears on a property outside Blackall, setting a record that stands today.
The year before, the great shearers’ strike laid the groundwork for the modern
Labor Party under the shade of a ghost gum in Barcaldine.
Today, a hint of aboveaverage winter rainfall in the area and dog fences have allowed graziers to run more sheep on properties, boosting numbers in line with a trend across Australia.
There were more than 180 million sheep shorn in Australia in 1991-92, although this fell to about 73.7 million in the last financial year as the wool price hit a record level. While the number of sheep more than halved in this period, shearer numbers fell by a factor of five.
Mr Ross and his crew, including 21-year-old Joe Bow-Brown, are working through 10,000 head of sheep but finding enough workers, especially young ones, is proving difficult.
One lasted a day before walking out and going to work in a kitchen.
“A lot of my generation are too scared to just get out and have a go,” Mr Bow-Brown said.
“I’m the only one in my class who didn’t go to ag college but now I’m the only one who is still working in the industry. This summer is the first time I’ve trained someone who is younger than me.”
Mr Bow-Brown wants to become a wool classer, but that requires a special, expensive course. “I can’t do it right now off my own bat,” he said. “I’m hoping I can get someone out here to put me through it.”
Mr Ross said minimal efforts by the federal government to boost shearer numbers were a waste, because young people had better offers elsewhere.
Shearer and crew boss Andrew Ross, centre, with grazier Scott Counsell, right, and roustabout Joe Bow-Brown on a property near Barcaldine