I recently had the opportunity to work in a woolshed as a woolhandler (more fondly known as 'rousabout'). Knowing how to throw a fleece is vital. I'm still learning. Sometimes they land nicely, sometimes not.
Right is Sandy Batterham mid-throw. He has good height and it looks to be coming down nicely.
I finally got an opportunity to work in a shearing shed … something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
The music comes on, the motors start up … game on! The pace is fairly frenetic … set by the shearers. They get paid by the fleece so they work hard. I didn’t really know what to do but had to learn fast or those fleeces would bank up and you can’t let that happen. As soon as the fleece is off, the shearer’s through the door dragging along the next sheep. The rousabout has to grab the fleece (in a special way) and throw it onto the classing table. The better you throw the fleece, the easier and quicker it is to work.
I did some shockers! They would end up more in a bundle and it was hard to tell top from bottom. Oops. The head is always supposed to be at one end but I truly had trouble finding it a few times. Thank God for the expert classer on hand to help. But I did manage to throw a couple of beauties, very proud of that! And the only way to learn is to keep trying, and so I did.
Once the fleece is thrown, you have to work (usually in pairs) to pull off the skirting, then the neck and shanks and finally you separate the back. There are bins around the room for all the different bits.
Then you start again … in a hurry as the next fleece is waiting. If you do manage to catch up to the shearers, there is wool to be swept, bins to be emptied, bales to be trampled. So it goes for eight hours (with regular breaks of course).
It was tough at times. It makes you pull up for a second when you clamp down hard on an unseen prickle or burr. Perhaps worst of all was that nasty prickly pear whose needles are so fine they are difficult to get out! I can see a seasoned shed hand would need toughened skin. Working with the belly piece to pull out the stained bits (from urine) was not so nice a job … especially when the poor wether was fly-blown. Eek!
The sheep are surprisingly compliant and quiet. They rarely bleat and seem mesmerised by the whole affair. They tell me it’s only because the shearer knows how to handle them. Despite a few nicks and an undignified look on departure (looking very skinny), they don’t really seem to mind. Perhaps they’re glad to be rid of all that weight.
The camaraderie in the shed is uplifting. A good team working hard together brings a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. I think I’ll be back in that shearing shed sometime. It was a little addictive and somehow an experience tied up with my sense of being Australian. After all, shearing and shearing sheds shadow the myths of our past as a fledgling nation created by our hardworking pioneers … and now I’ve shared just a tiny part of it.