Cut short: shear num­bers can’t keep up

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - RICK MOR­TON

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.

LYN­DON MECHIELSEN

Shearer and crew boss An­drew Ross, cen­tre, with gra­zier Scott Coun­sell, right, and roustabout Joe Bow-Brown on a prop­erty near Bar­cal­dine

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