Shearers short on the Monaro

Stephen Burns
By Stephen Burns
January 7 2022 - 9:00pm
The long blow: Graeme Thistleton shearing in the Greenland shed, Bungarby. Photo: Greg Alcock

The shortage of shearers is a major problem for the wool industry and Merino breeders such as Monaro-based John Alcock are concerned for their future if they can't attract enough young people into the shearing sheds to replace those who have retired.

The lack of shearers in Australia was in part masked by the number of shearers who came across from New Zealand and eagerly worked in the sheds.



But the travel restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, that avenue of labour was seriously curtailed.

Mr Alcock and his son Greg breed Merino sheep at Greenland, Bungarby, and to some extent can shear many of their flock themselves.

Woolgrowers can also crutch their own sheep if they are unable to get shearers but when Mr Alcock estimates at least 35 people have left the shearing industry on the Monaro, the problem might only get worse.

"We have had a few shearing schools to introduce people to shearing and shed work," he said.

"It teaches people how to shear properly but not many seem to take it on after they have learnt the basic skills."

Mr Alcock admits he doesn't have the answer but did suggest varied rates for the different types of sheep could help.

"There needs to be a difference made in the award," he said.

"While cross-bred lambs are paid at the same rate as Merino ewes or wethers, we are finding some shearers who won't shear grown sheep when they can shear cross-bred lambs."

Mr Alcock also thought the current welfare system was too generous.

"It is not just the shearing industry," he said.

"The lack of labour is right across all agriculture and jobs in towns, but we can't keep relying on bringing people in from overseas to do our jobs."

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Shearing and working in shearing sheds is a place where skilled people can earn good money, but Mr Alcock pointed out with the current shortage, some of the older shearers on the Monaro have been enticed out of retirement to pick up a 'bog-eye' once again.

One such ex-shearer is Graeme Thistleton from Nimmitabel, who spent more than fifty years in the sheds before pulling up due to ill-health.

He started in the sheds in 1968 where his father worked as a shearer, and followed the time honoured practice of working as a roustabout finishing off the sheep at the end of each run until he got a learner's pen.



That was in 1971 at Coonerang, Nimmitabel, mainly shearing Merino wethers and for owner Bruce Tozer and he joined Schofields Shearing Team in 1972 and continued with them for many years, as well as shearing direct for local farmers.

The last blow: John Alcock taking the wool off at Greenland, Bungarby. Photo: Greg Alcock

After shearing in nearly every shed on the Monaro, he had to retire in 2008 when his knees gave out and in April 2018 he was struck with bowel cancer which took three years to clear.

"For 35 years I shore for the Bridgewater Pastoral Co, Nimmitabel," Mr Thistelton said when recalling some of the sheds he has seen.

"But now with the shortage of shearers John Alcock asked me to come and help with his shearing."

He admitted it was hard but not as daunting as might be thought because he had continued to keep his hand in shearing his own sheep.



"The first day back I shore 104 Merino ewes and when they started on the wethers I was able to shear 80, which wasn't too bad," he said.

"The wethers had a lot of wool on them and the wet season didn't help."

Mr Thistleton said he could shear 200 a day at his peak but was content to shear 120-150 depending on the sheep.

He had learnt to shear with the narrow combs and remembers the controversy surrounding the introduction of wide combs - an event which threatened the industry during the early 1980s.

"I liked the wide combs when they were introduced in 1984," he said.

"They were the best thing that happened to the industry."



Another improvement Mr Thistleton is grateful for is the evolution of the plainer bodied Merino sheep when compared to the heavy skinned sheep he learnt to shear on.

"There were a lot of rough sheep when I started but I've still had a good time," he said.

"I think the sheep these days are a lot straighter and with longer staple length so they are still cutting a lot of wool but are a lot easier to shear."

Besides helping out in the shearing sheds, Mr Thistleton is also behind a shearing competition to be run during the 2022 Nimmitabel Show on February 5.

"It is for shearers 60 years and over and I gave $600 in sponsorship," he said.

"I'm not sure we will get 60 shearers but am hoping a dozen might enter."



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Stephen Burns

Stephen Burns

Journalist, Wagga Wagga

Jackaroo on Merino sheep studs in the Riverina, a lifetime working on the land with sheep, cropping and cattle. Graduate Charles Sturt Uni with degree in Business and a Dean's Certificate. Graduate C.B. Alexander Agricultural College

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