Close-knit relationships keep shearing craft alive

Presser Michael Hines fills the wool-press in the Glenspec woolshed. PHOTOS: SALLY RAE
Presser Michael Hines fills the wool-press in the Glenspec woolshed. PHOTOS: SALLY RAE
Blade-shearing might be something of a dying art but, as rural editor Sally Rae discovers, there is a woolshed in the Maniototo where it has been going strong for the past six decades.

Ronny Hill could have been soaking up the warmer climes of Australia’s Gold Coast last week.

Instead, the Dunedin-based shearing contractor was in the Maniototo where he woke to crisp frosty days, the temperature sagely described by one of his crew as "minus quite a few".

His family had headed to Brisbane on holiday to celebrate the 40th birthday of his wife Tracey’s sister.

But for Mr Hill, he was sticking to an annual appointment he has kept regularly since 1978 and one that his late father Ron kept prior to that.

For the annual blade-shearing pilgrimage to the Smith family’s property Glenspec, near Naseby, celebrates 60 years this year.

Ron Hill started a shearing contracting business in 1961, based in Kurow, and Glenspec was one of his first sheds.

Ronny, who took over the run with his wife Tracey in 1997, reckoned he had been shearing at Glenspec since 1978 and had not missed a year.

This year, a crew of about 15, including eight shearers, had 9500 sheep to shear.

Maniototo farmer Phil Smith (left) and Dunedin blade shearing contractor Ronny Hill, from Dunedin...
Maniototo farmer Phil Smith (left) and Dunedin blade shearing contractor Ronny Hill, from Dunedin, mark a 60 year association between the two families.
"We just do it every day ’til the job’s done," Mr Hill said.

Relationships with farmers like Phil and Donna Smith — and previously Phil’s parents Basil and Valerie — were something he valued immensely.

"I wouldn’t be doing it now if it wasn’t for the relationships I have. I’ve shorn a lot of places now second-generation. If I didn’t turn up, I’d feel like I’ve let them down," he said.

Mr Hill paid tribute to his mother Aileen, saying running a contracting business was very much a team effort, the same as he had with his wife — "you’ve got to have a good woman" — and just like the partnership of Phil and Donna.

Mr Smith said blade-shearing suited the family’s farming operation; rather than being in one block, the operation was very spread out. It totalled 1500ha, plus the family’s shareholding in the Soldiers Syndicate.

He described it as a "massive insurance policy", as they did not have to worry about snow, rain and wind.

"It’s just a huge benefit for us, stock-health wise. Dad tried cover combs for a couple of years and went straight back to blades."

He also liked the atmosphere in the shed, without the noise of machines, and it meant that the sheep were also very settled and easy to pen up.

The family had an excellent relationship with the Hill gang; turning up every year and staying on site meant they got to know them all well, and a beer and a yarn with the team at the end of the working day was always enjoyed.

"We’re only ever as good as the people we employ. We try and surround ourselves with good people that we can work with," Mr Smith said.

Mr Hill said it was a close-knit crew — they slept together, ate together and worked together so it was important that they all got on.

Freshly-shorn sheep await being taken back to the paddock.
Freshly-shorn sheep await being taken back to the paddock.
At Glenspec, the shearers’ quarters were originally the milking shed for Naseby, where Basil Smith used to milk cows, and it was converted into quarters about 1972.

There were only three blade-shearing gangs left in New Zealand, the other two being in North Canterbury.

The blade-shearing season ran from June until the end of October and attracting blade shearers was "definitely not getting easier", Mr Hill said.

He tried to start a learner each year; they would begin on the press or as a shed-hand before moving on to blades. It was, as he said, "bloody hard work".

But many in the gang were drawn by the lifestyle; they travelled as far south as Waikaka and as far north as Fairlie, with quite a bit of work around Tekapo, and also over to Glenorchy. It was an opportunity to get off the beaten track and travel to high-country stations.

Mr Hill supplied the cook and all the food, except the mutton which was supplied by the farmer. Alongside breakfast, lunch and dinner, there were also morning and afternoon smokos and they ate "like kings", he said.

Food was important as they needed fuel. There was a cooked breakfast at 5.30am while morning smoko tended to include the likes of quiche, pies, savouries, mousetraps and cheese rolls.

Lunch last Wednesday was potato and leek soup and a fresh loaf of bread, afternoon smoko was sandwiches or wraps and baking, while a slow-cooked braised beef and Guinness stew was simmering in the cookshop, to be served up with plenty of vegetables.

Mr Hill got a kick out of giving young people a chance, starting them in the industry and seeing them develop. Many had never previously been in a woolshed.

Asked why he had stuck with the industry, Mr Hill laughed that it was definitely not because of the money, even though he had made a good living from it.

"If I was after the money, I think I’d have tried something else."

Now in his early 60s, Mr Hill said he no longer tried to keep up with his younger counterparts.

"It used to worry me, I used to think ‘he ain’t going to beat me’. Now I’m happy to do 100 a day."

Presser Michael Hines has been doing the job for about 10 years. After leaving the army, he decided he wanted to do something with animals.

Shearer Mike McConnell has been a regular in the Glenspec shed.
Shearer Mike McConnell has been a regular in the Glenspec shed.
While not a farm boy, he grew up in Feilding, a rural town, and he got roped into the shearing industry by a contractor.

He had never previously set foot in a woolshed, and while it was "hard yakka", he enjoyed his job. That was due to the "pretty cool laid back crew", the boss being a "good bugger" and the ability to look around the countryside.

"It’s good honest work and it’s good money," he said.

Asked whether he would ever take up shearing, Mr Hines said he intended to keep pressing wool — he wanted to "stick to what I’m good at".

Charge shedhand Katie Willocks, of Balclutha, is in her fourth season. Her involvement with the gang became when her partner got a job as a presser — he is now shearing — and she was asked if she would like to be a shed hand.

She particularly enjoyed working at Glenspec as the shed was surrounded by such nice scenery, she said.

Her aim was to do her wool-classing certificate.

Shearer Mike McConnell is an old-hand at Glenspec; he was not sure, but it was anywhere between his 10th and 15th time at the property.

Evalyn McGregor is a capable and enthusiastic young shearer.
Evalyn McGregor is a capable and enthusiastic young shearer.

Originally from Albury, near Fairlie, he is now living in Christchurch. He missed last year due to injury after sticking a handpiece in his elbow.

Glenspec was the first shed of the season and it was not the easiest — "it takes a bit to warm up, you’ve got to get your hand fit," he said. It was the people side of the job that he enjoyed.

"The sheep aren’t much fun," he said wryly.

At 22, Evalyn McGregor, from Otautau, is a second-generation female blade shearer, who hit the 100-mark last year. Sporting neatly braided hair and a big smile, she loved "everything" about the job — "all of it", she said.