Shearing in Murphy’s blood

Dick Murphy has retired from shearing just shy of his 70th birthday. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
Dick Murphy has retired from shearing just shy of his 70th birthday. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
He's walked 13,000km in and out of catching pens - the equivalent of striding from New Zealand to Canada - and half of that distance has been backwards, dragging a sheep.

But the time has come for Dick Murphy to finally hang up his handpiece after fleecing the wool from an estimated 1.85million sheep and crutching about 470,000.

"If you saw them all in one mob, I would never have started them," Mr Murphy, who turns 70 this month, quipped at his Waimate home last week.

He also reckoned he had shifted more than 100,000 tonnes of sheep on to the shearing board, spent more than 4000 hours washing and grinding 220,000 shearing cutters and 6000 combs, and spent 9000 hours travelling to and from work.

While Mr Murphy might have shearing in his blood - his father Pat Murphy and maternal grandfather Stan Morton were both shearers - he was initially dissuaded from pursuing a career in the sheds.

"My mother said to us when we were kids, ‘I don’t care what you boys do as long as you’re not shearers’. Three of the four of us promptly went out and became shearers," he said.

After leaving school, Mr Murphy initially worked in a bank in Timaru and he quickly discovered that a career in the office did not suit him.

"I was a real country boy and shy. I hated putting a tie on to start with."

Shearing was a profession that was familiar to him. He also had a cousin who had a shearing run and school holidays were spent wool-handling and pressing. It was a career that many people - including himself - drifted into, he reflected.

He spent several years working at the meatworks at Pareora and in sheds during the off-season and started off shearing a few during the lunch break. Next thing he knew, he was a shearer at the age of 21.

Mr Murphy recalled how he was only shearing while he figured out what he wanted to with his life and he quipped that he still had not answered that question.

He liked the work, enjoyed the camaraderie in the shed with colleagues and farmers, the social side of it, and the lifestyle suited him "down to the ground".

And in those earlier years, the sheep were much smaller than those being shorn today which he reckoned were "half as big again".

For 25 years, he had a shearing contracting business. While he loved the shearing side, he was less of a fan of the organisational aspect to the business.

After a stint in Australia where his brother had a shearing run, during which time he got someone else to sort the organisation, he decided he liked shearing.

In recent years, Mr Murphy has worked for Waimate-based shearing contractor Warren White, who operates Waimate Shearing with wife Sandy.

It was the run that Mr Murphy used to have, albeit with another owner in between. When Mr White was away, Mr Murphy would run it for him as he knew all the farmers.

Latterly, he has been winding down his shearing career and was Mr White’s "spare" shearer. "I just mentally prepared myself for work and was pleasantly surprised when the phone didn’t ring," he laughed.

In the early 1980s, Mr Murphy was selected for the New Zealand shearing team which he joked was his "main claim to fame".

"I couldn’t shear for ... so that was quite a good effort," he said.

A clean shearer, he was not particularly fast and he was never going to be a regular team member, he reckoned, but competitions helped "freshen you up".

He has been a long-serving committee member of the Waimate Shears and paid tribute for Mr White, the driving force behind the shearing pavilion at the Southern Canterbury A and P showgrounds, for what he had contributed to the industry.

For 20 years, Mr Murphy ran learner shearing courses for South Canterbury and North Otago, something he considered a service to the industry. Many participants were farmers’ sons and he estimated probably 10% went on to become shearers.

Mr Murphy reckoned his only regret was tolerating sub-standard washing and toilet facilities on farms, back in the day - something which had been addressed in latter times.

In his retirement, Mr Murphy would be heading to Western Australia with wife Janene who has been cooking for their son Mike’s four-month shearing run.

He was going as "assistant cook", having gone last year when Mike phoned and asked him to come and help Mrs Murphy. He was there for four days - "Mike had me with a handpiece for two of them".

But Mrs Murphy kindly said her husband was more of a help than a hindrance and his contribution would continue to be washing dishes and peeling potatoes.

Shearing industry trainer and personality Gavin Rowland described Mr Murphy as an inspiration and role model for many young shearers.

"I myself used to watch this open shearer ... shearing in finals along with other South Canterbury guns of the time when I was a young senior shearer and thinking that’s what I want to be," Mr Rowland said.

Then he got to work with Mr Murphy through training and got to see the professionalism and passion he brought to the job and the respect he gained from those young shearers he crossed paths with.



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