Animal welfare is helping keep the age-old practice of blade-shearing merinos alive on South Island sheep stations
John Bruce – better known as Baldy – first picked up a pair of blade shears when he was 12.
His dad Baldy senior, a shepherd and wool-classer, would send young Baldy off to earn his pocket money shed-handing for the large gangs working in the Southern Alps.
”In the holidays me and another fella the same age were sent over to the woolsheds at night when the shearers were drinking beer to take the bellies off the sheep ready for the shearers the next day. It was good training.”
At 61, Bruce is still wielding the blades with the best of them, training young folk and running a shearing gang.
It’s one of the few still doing the rounds of South Island high-country sheep stations every winter to ready the fine-wool flocks for lambing in late spring.
And while some shearing contractors try to keep costs down by sending their teams to work long-distance daily by van, Bruce deplores the commuting trend.
“Some of these shearers are sitting in a van for three hours, at work for 10 including breaks, and then it’s another long van trip home. That’s 16 hours away.
“It’s pretty hard on them. Some of them even have to take their own food, while the contractor sits at home counting his dollars.”
Food’s a crucial point –a shearer will burn 5000 calories in a day.
Bruce’s gang is old-school by comparison.
“We stay on-station, I take all our food and a cook and we have five square meals a day.
“All we need is kitchen and sleeping quarters. So everyone wakes up fresh and ready for a hard day’s work.”
His craft is ancient: blade-shearing dates back to 3500BC when homo sapiens first learnt how to spin wool.
But it survived the advent of the shearing machine in the 19th century because it can do something a close-shaving electric handpiece still can’t.
“With the blades, we can leave a little jersey on the ewe – about 8mm thick.
“So she’s just warm enough not to be stressed by snow and bad weather but she’ll still feel it enough to lead her lamb to shelter in a storm.”
Pre-lambing shearing in a high-country winter might be seen as cruel in some animal-rights circles but that’s the uninformed view, Bruce says.
Leaving the ewe unshorn could spell doom for her lamb.
“If she’s still got a full fleece when she lambs she won’t feel the cold at all. She’ll stay out in the open and the lamb dies,” Bruce says.
And there are other benefits to leaving the animals with just enough of a blade-shorn woolly jumper.
“The sheep keeps warm so she doesn’t need as much food and she’s not stressed so she produces more milk for her lamb.
“Over five years she’ll have grown the equivalent of one extra fleece compared with a ewe that’s been machine-shorn.”
These days, Bruce says, blade-shearing for him is something of a glorified hobby.
“Back in the early days we shore for 11 months of the year. Now we only shear for three and a half months.”
But those were the days when New Zealand had 80 million sheep. Now there are just 25 million, about three million of them merinos.
At some stations, Bruce’s gang will shear 10,000 sheep – 1000 a day, all going well.
At Cora Lynn station east of Arthurs Pass this month they dealt to 2500 over three days.
The small station, owned by veteran conservationist Gerry McSweeney and his wife Anne Saunders, is in the hands of their ecologist son Michael and his young family who run a high-end tourist lodge on the property.
The merinos and the sheep dogs that wrangle them are a big attraction for the hundreds of overseas visitors hosted by the couple in summer.
The McSweeneys are allowing matagouri to regenerate on the land partly to shelter stock, though it’s seen as the enemy by most farmers.
Bruce has doubts about the practice born of years in the high country.
“We don’t get the heavy snows we used to to knock it back. It grows tall and slows grass growth and lets other weeds come in.”
Nearby Mt Bruce – named for one of Baldy’s forebears – overlooks the boutique spread.
“Not that I get much of a chance to look at it,” Bruce says, “being upside down all day.”
Man v machine
But the blades are easier on the body than machine-shearing, he says.
“With the electric handpiece you’re tied to the down-tube so if the sheep moves you have to control it. With the blades if the sheep spins round we can just stay with it and keep shearing.
“It’s less stressful for your body and for the animal.”
A good blade-shearer and a machine-shearer will take the wool off a sheep in much the same time, Bruce says.
But overall the low-tech process is slower: blade-shearers have to stop and hone their blades for half a minute or so after each sheep.
Which in some cases can make blade-shearing more expensive.
But McSweeney says wool buyers are increasingly attentive to how the animals are treated.
“From an animal-welfare point of view it’s not just better for the lambs, it’s a much gentler process for the ewes.
“You don’t have the buzz of the clippers, there’s just a radio going in the corner, a bit of chat, a bit of music. It’s a much more peaceful experience.”
The downside, Bruce says, is there are no secrets in a blade-shearing shed.
“You can hear everything,” he says.
He’s still waiting – but not holding his breath – for an increasingly green-leaning world to recognise the value of wool as a clean fibre and the long-predicted revival of the wool trade.
“I don’t see wool making a comeback in my lifetime.
“There are so many pretty garments out there made from recycled lemonade bottles and if you’ve got three kids to clothe and you can do it for a few bucks at the big red shed that’s what you’ll do.
“Everyone gets a bargain except the planet.”
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund