Long journey to Australian title
Glenisla’s Ken French was a teenager in search of pocket money when he first picked up a pair of blade shears.
His father Jack, who ran corriedales on his picturesque property overlooking the Grampians, told Ken he could have the wool off his dead sheep – provided he was willing to shear them.
“I had an old pair of shears and they didn’t cut,” Mr French said.
“My neighbour out the back, Arthur Anderson – who a lot of people around Horsham would remember – was an old-time blade shearer.
“I told him I was having trouble and he got my shears going for me and told me a few things about it. “That’s how I got started.” Mr French had no idea his little money-making endeavour would set him on a path to becoming the one of the best in his field.
Late last month he was crowned Australia’s champion blade shearer for 2017 at the National Shearing and Wool Handling Championships in Bendigo.
He defeated eight-time blade shearing champion John Dalla of Warooka, South Australia.
Mr French, 57, was thrilled to win his first championship.
“Johnny has been the Australian champion since he’s been 19 and no one’s got near him,” he said.
“One year he was telling me he was getting a bit sick of it. He wasn’t really enjoying it because he was finishing that far ahead of everyone else.
“I’m a bit uncomfortable talking about it, but I am pretty happy about getting it.
“I only beat him by 0.7 of one point, but I still beat him.”
Mr French and Mr Dalla have competed alongside each other at international competitions as Sports Shear Australia’s blade shearing representatives.
“Johnny has helped me a lot, because I’ve been travelling with him,” Mr French said.
“He’s been to a couple of world championships before the ones I went to, as well as the ones with me.”
Mr French said making the Australian team in 2014 allowed him access to the ‘guns’.
“The best shearers in the world are all New Zealanders and South Africans,” he said.
“They’ve taken me under their wing and they’ve given me lots of coaching. It’s been unbelievable.
“I’ve actually got a fair bit better in the past three or four years.
“I suppose I have been trying. I’m obliged to now because Sports Shear has invested a bit in me – they sent me to Ireland as well as New Zealand about four times.
“So I’ve been trying and I’ve been learning and it’s been paying off.”
The Bendigo Show also featured a trans-tasman challenge between Australia and New Zealand’s top shearers and wool handlers.
“New Zealand has always been way, way in front but we’ve been getting closer and closer to them,” Mr French said.
“At Bendigo, we got we’ve ever been.
“They won, but there was only seven points between us.
“They also had an open blade shearing the closest competition at Bendigo. Because all the New Zealanders were there they went in it too.”
Mr French added the open title to his national one. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Probably no one cares about that competition, but to me it probably means more than the Australian championship because I had to beat the Kiwis as well.”
Mr French fits in competitions around a busy life on the farm, where he runs about 4000 sheep.
He also blade shears around the district.
Mr French is a second generation farmer. His father was a builder and, according to Mr French, was ‘no help whatsoever’ when it came to learning to shear.
“Dad gave up building when the metric system came in, about 1974,” he said.
“He said he wasn’t interested in metric measurements, because feet and inches were good enough.
“So, he gave up building and bought a farm here at Glenisla with my grandfather. He knew nothing about farming or about sheep. He had to learn from scratch.
“He would’ve been about 42 or 43 at the time. We learnt to machine shear at the same time.”
Mr French said although he first picked up a pair of blades at 14 or 15, he was 30 before he used them to make a living.
His first foray into competition was the result of a mate coming across an advertisement in a newspaper.
“The ad said prizes would be paid in gold and my mate’s eyes lit up,” Mr French said.
“He rang me up and said, ‘you can blade shear, can’t ya?’ and I said, ‘well I can get it off ’em’ – I wouldn’t call myself a shearer’. stud sheep
He said, ‘we’re going to Hay and I’m your manager’.”
Mr French said while the road trip was enjoyable, he suffered food poisoning the morning of the competition.
“I was vomiting away and I was sick as a dog,” he said.
“I only shore one sheep and I gapped my shears. Somehow I still came second. They paid the winner in gold. He got about $900 in one and two-dollar coins – the weight of his fleece. I got silver in fives and tens and I got $100.
“That was my first comp and it’s probably the one I remember most.”
Mr French competed several times, but started taking it ‘half seriously’ at Edenhope Show in 2009.
“I went over to watch John Nicholls, who was in the Australian team at the time,” he said.
“Richie Foster was over there at the same show. Richie was keen as mustard on blade shearing. He said he wanted to organise a heap of comps and have a circuit.
“So I got involved to help Richie’s circuit get going.
“Through that I got into show shearing and ended up getting into all sorts of things without really intending to.”
Following his success in Bendigo, Mr French has won the right to represent Sports Shear Australia for the next 12 months.
The team’s next international event will be the Golden Shears in New Zealand in March.
SHEAR TALENT: Ken French is Australia’s new blade shearing champion. Pictures: PAUL CARRACHER