Over the past few years I have been photographing shearing in a number of Shearing Sheds in the New England Area. The eventual plan for these images is to produce a coffee table book featuring this uniquely Australian vocation and our beautiful and historic local sheds. I recently penned a few words for a New England Living Magazine that featured my photographs. They are below if you would like to have a read.
In all corners of the globe Cathedrals, (or an alternate version of such) sit opulently on prime real estate and operate as the holy headquarters of the local religious denomination. They are a gathering place, an archive of knowledge, a shaper of tradition and culture and have great influence on the society that hustles and bustles around them. In the New England High Country a different type of cathedral dots the stepped plateaus that form the Northern Tablelands of NSW. While no Bishop conducts prayers or holy communion is served within these corrugated cathedrals, their weathered walls preserve elements of Australian history, tradition and ‘true blue’ Aussie culture. Humble in stature, often framed from rough cut local timber and almost always clad in stark, corrugated iron sheeting, historic wool sheds exude character. Some house hundreds of years of blood, sweat and lanolin, mingled with echoes of long, hards days past. Wool sheds hold both significant economic and cultural value, however it is the cultural worth that is perhaps of most interest.
New England’s unique environmental and climatic conditions, combined with good old fashioned elbow grease have made it a world leader in production of ultra fine merino wool. Fleece of the very finest quality is shorn and shipped to many of europe’s top fashion designers where it is manufactured into luxurious, yet highly functional clothing items. We are talking big business here, but the wool shed is much more than a way to make some coin. For those that earn their coin in and around the sheds it is more than a job. It’s a way off life, that for many has been passed down from from their father and his before him. This legacy is particularly strong in New England with some sheds having stood through almost two centuries of frosty Winters and scorching Summers Legends are born and traditions established within these corrugated cathedrals as the faithful gather to work, ensuring that the iconic Aussie Shearer endures across future generations.
Traditional shearing sheds are usually pretty similar in design and layout. Dimly lit spaces with pitched roofs, and bare timbers reveal their function over form design philosophy. Inside their corrugated walls the worn and weathered wooden floor space is divided into three main areas, each set-up to play their part in the shearing process. In the rear of the shed are the pens where sheep, or ‘jumbucks’ are shuffled by kelpies and other highly trained sheep dogs as they await their turn. The real action happens on the board, which lies in front of the pens. Comprised of tongue and groove hardwood, and polished smooth by lanolin and hard work, analogies to a theatre stage could easily be drawn as this is where the star of the show, the shearer, weaves his magic. From here the fleece is gathered and and carried by shed hands and thrown out onto large slatted wool tables to be skirted and rolled. Continuing towards the front of the shed, once tidied up fleeces are left for the classer who studies the crimped wool fibres, judging the quality of the fleece before piling it in the appropriate wool bin. Located near the front of the shed is the wool press which squeezes the fluffy woollen bounty into bales that are easily transported to market. Wool sheds are all hustle and bustle with sheep, dogs and workers all getting stuck in and running this way and that. To the untrained eye it might seem chaotic, but there is structure and system in play and every movement has a purpose in getting through the flock. The irony is not lost as the careful observer notices that the conductor of the cacophony is our iconic, working class shearer.
In stark contradiction to the designers wearing three piece Armani suits who drive the wool industry’s money train stands the unpretentious, blue collared shearer. This group of mostly men continue a long legacy of backbreaking, yet gracefully skilful hand work. The men who clip the fleece from the merinos are truly a breed of their own. Similar to the sheds in which they ply their craft, most shearers ooze character. At first meeting, many appear hard and cold, yet once thawed a little, are sharp in wit and warm in conversation. Humble, hard working and and quick to crack a joke or a yarn the shearer may not be the ringmaster in the shed, but they are definitely the main act. They set the pace of the work being done as roustabouts, shearing shed hands and classers await each fleece they shear. A shearer’s work is relatively simple, yet intricate and requiring great skill. Shearers collect sheep from the catching pen, wrangle them to their allocated shearing position known as a ‘stand’ and with a tug of a rope engage their shears to delicately remove their woollen fleece. Once shorn, sheep are guided down the chute ready for release and the all important tally counter is clicked before completing the whole undertaking again. This process continues over four ‘runs’ of two hours in duration during a typical day. Simple and monotonous are adjectives that could well be used to describe the work, however there is much more to it than what is seen with a cursory glance. The shearing of a sheep, particularly a good sized ram is bloody hard work and necessitates ample balance of brains and braun. Wielding the sheers quickly and accurately requires dexterity and years of practice. Shearers take great pride in removing a fleece without nicking the flesh of the sheep. Alongside the outstanding fine motor skill required, pure unbridled strength is essential in manoeuvring sheep which can weigh up to 100kg. Adding further pressure to the situation and in turn harder work, shearers earn their crust by the number of sheep shorn. This provides strong incentive for efficiency and good old fashioned hard work, with gun shearers getting through up to 300 merinos in a day. Shearing really is serious, hard graft.
Shearers are the heart and soul of the Australian Wool Industry and essential to the process of woollen manufacture. Song, poem and folklore have been penned, sung and told about these icons of Aussie culture and tradition. Their place of toil, the woolshed, is where these traditions were established and where they continue to live and breath into the 21st century. These Corrugated Cathedrals truly are one of the great bastions of our proud Australian heritage and culture. Click go the shears boys, click, click, click…