Shearing and a description of general farm work

The Woolshed
  • The early English records describe pens and barns where the shearers would live while shearing on that farm..
  • In New Zealand and Australia buildings were designed purposely for shearing.
  • In blade shearing the shed I worked in was simply a large room divided in two.
  • However when mechanical shearing came in the shearing shed was divided into different area.
  • The pens at the rear of the shed.
  • The catching pens
  • The shearing board
  • The counting out pens.
  • The woolroom consisting of :
  • a) The bin area
  • b) The bale area. The pens at the rear of the shed are where the sheep come into the shed and come under the sheepos control.
  • The catchings pens are where the shearers get the sheep for shearing
  • The shearing board is where the wool is removed
  • The counting out pens are where the shorn sheep are kept to be counted out.
  • This count out is important as it is both a tally for the farmer as to the number of sheep he has but also it's what the shearer is paid on...
  • The wool room is comprised of the sorting table where the fleece is cleaned, sorted and rolled up the bins and the woolpress.
  • the completed bales are stacked and stored in the bale area for the truck to remove.
When I first started shearing most sheds had engines like Listers, single cylinder oil engines.
These had to be started by crank handle and drove the overhead by a long single twist belt.  
The overhead ran the length of the board. Most sheds had only 4 shearing stands but on the larger stations sometimes          
the board would be in two wings and up to 8 stands a side..
As the country areas became electrified so the oil engines became redundant and electric motors were used to drive the overhead.. 
Nowadays each shearing stand has its own electric motor.. power is transformed from the overhead through a clutching system and 'guts'          
(flexible rods) and a knuckle joint to where the handpiece connects. 
The handpiece works on the principle that rotary motion converts to left right movement through the use of an off centre cam.. Parts. 

A Stewart EB handpiece is pretty much the same now as when I was shearing...

Shearing handpiece



The shearing season used to start (for me) at the end of September.
This was when I handed my notice in at what ever job I had in town and I'd head back up to
Taihape and book into one of the Boarding houses there.
Either Farrs, the Railway or Ruanui.. then pick up with the other locals and off..
out to the first shed while Hort got the rest of the gangs together..
The Routine

The day starts for the ganger or head shearer about 4.00 am when he gets up to stoke the fire
and put the kettle on. In those days there wasn't a lot of mains electricity in the backblocks.
So putting the billy on was quite an exercise especially if the fire had'nt been banked up the night before..
Then he wakes every-one around 4.30 for a few mugs of hot sweet tea and a slice or two of bread.
Then its off through the early morning to the shearing shed. Shearing sheds have a distinctive smell
and sound all of their own.
Five oclock the day starts with getting a sheep from the catching pen, turning on the handpiece and shearing
the first sheep of the day. By days end I would have done the same thing over 200-250 times.
My old friend Bob Copper (in his book A Song for Every Season) talks of one old English shearer who
stated " if you can shear 40 sheep in a day you're doing alright but I have shorn 50."
So I had to do his days work in an hour and three quarter..
Shearing songs feature in the English folk music tradition but the only song I ever heard sung on the
shearing gangs was 'Ten Guitars'..
Of course we had radio in some woolsheds. The day that President Kennedy was assasinated was one such day..
After a season in the South Island where I learnt to blade shear I got up to 90 -100 a day.
On some gangs that I worked I would be number two and on the faster gangs I'd languish at number three.
The ganger always carried a supply of beer, cutters and combs, tobacco, cigarette papers and matches.
Anything like that you got went down on the 'books' and at the end of the season any cash advances
and the book was taken off your cheque.
It was a seven day week with the only time off was when the sheep were too wet to shear.
You can appreciate that, after 3 weeks solid going, any rumour of rain was well recieved.


A brief description of how a sheep is shorn

So here's roughly how it all works.
Go into the catching pen and grab a sheep, drag it onto the board.
With the sheep sitting in front of me my first move was to shear the wool off the right elbow
then open the belly straight down the brisket to the left hand side of the belly and worked back
toward the right. I then threwthe belly wool onto the board for a rousey to pick up.
Then I cleared the crutch, rolled the sheep toward me and shore the left leg, a fair way back
up over the tail and the back
After that the top of the head was shorn and the sheep was lifted and the head twisted
back to shear the throat and clear round the head.
the sheep was then laid down and I ran the handpiecefrom the hind end of the sheep to the head.
This is called the long blow.
The head was fully shorn as the sheep was reared up to rest its left side against my
legs and the right shoulder cleared leading to the last side.
If you didn't keep the skin tight you -could- remove long thin pieces of skin at this point.
This was what we used to refer to as 'the bootlace'
And sometimes you would hit a piece of wire or an eartag and the handpiece would 'lockup' and
would spin out of control until the machine was turned off
If any-one was unfortunate enough to cut a sheep the call was 'Tar here' sometimes if the cockie
was in the shed it would be almost whispered.
That removes all the wool from the sheep and it is put down the shute into the counting out pen.
The rousey picks the fleece up in such a manner that, when thrown onto the wool table,
it will spread out to be 'skirted' and rolled for pressing.


Wool Handling. 
Keeping the board clear of dags and locks. 
For fully wooled sheep just a broom is used for clearing the board however for lambs and second shear a 
pair of light wooden boards is used to pick the wool up.
Picking up the fleeces in such a manner that they can be thrown onto the wool table for skirting. 
Sorting fleeces and skirting fleeces and rolling fleeces. 
Each type of wool is baled seperately. 
The fleece 
Is the main body of wool.
In the big sheds the fleece is classed into different catergories to increase the clip value. 
At times like this the classer runs the shed.
The bellies. 
the wool off the stomach of the sheep 
The locks. 
bits of wool on the board          
The pieces. 
skirtings from cleaning up the fleece 
Dags   ( Sheep don't have a lot of use for toilet paper)

The Technical bit
One of the arts of the shearer is to maintain his combs so while they go through the wool okay 
they do not scratch or cut the sheep.
This is done with very fine oil stones, emery paper or the wall of the catching pen to blunten the points.
Of course when the cutters get bluntened (or the combs) with use during the run you replace them with new and throw 
the used  into a water filled container. 
This softens the dirt and grease that build up on them. 
Before the next run starts you clean the combs and cutters and regrind them. 
This is done on two emery papered wheels. 
One fine the other coarse. Although there is a combs here cutters there sometimes a comb is getting a
 fat heel or teeth and has to be levelled up.
As the comb is held on the end of a pendulum you can fix those problems easily.. 

I always bought new cutters at the start of the season and set the handpiece up so by the time 
the season was over the cutters were pretty thin.
I used OLT combs for fully wooled sheep and Bergan combs for the lambs..
nowadays the shearing combs are very wide, what we call fan concave and it doesn't take as many 
blows to shear the sheep...

 Now the presser was the embyronic shearer in training. He was also the sheepo. 
When any shearer ran out of sheep he called 'sheepo' and the presser refilled his catching pen. 
A wool press was generally in two parts. 
One half had the 'fadge' (wool pack) and the other half had pins in the bottom to stop the wool falling out.
If you pressed the 'pins' you had to shout the gang. This was an expensive occasion.
When the sides were adequately 'tramped down' the pinned half of the press would be topped 
with a large top (with cap) and winched up onto the other half.
Then the pins would be removed and the cap would be winched down to the bottom half.
It used to be done by swinging on a long bar or, on some presses, two bars. 
Then electricity entered the scene and the motor does all the work
the cap would then be sewed to the 'fadge', released and the bale branded with the name of the farm, 
the type of wool and the number of that bale for that season.
These caps were used to make moccasins. 
One cap to a pair and the cockies weren't too pleased as they had to buy more fadges to replace the caps.
The presser used bale hooks to manipulate the bales. 
Most of these were a single curved hook from a cross handle and some were smaller with a double hook
Some shearers and shedhands put their names up in woolsheds.  

 Other shearing stuff 
In Australia they use narrow combs and cutters.   This gear is called 'Union'. The shearers didn't have much say 
as to how their gear was prepared as all this was done by an 'expert'
I used to shear 200-250 sheep a day in the late 1950s early 1960s.
At that rate nowadays I'd be working to even get a stand.
The shearing season used to start around the end of September and end in February.
The usual shearing gang was Maori and Pakeha men and some of the rouseys were women.
The first ganger I worked for was Paul Hekanui and Mrs Hekanui taught me all there ever was to know
about handling wool.
The last ganger I worked for was Roy Horton who ran three and sometimes four gangs aroundTaihape.
I did a bit of open shed shearing in the Waiarapa and around Northland in the late 60's early 70's.

The major shearing event of the year and possibly the world is the Golden Shears....
and the fastest shearers in the world are, at the moment, New Zealanders.
If you have any further interest I suggest Shear Hard Work by Hazel Riseborough


In order to become a shepherd you have to learn to train and work dogs.
The basic working dogs are:
the huntaway           this type of dog pushes the sheep away from the shepherd. 
                                 Generally a big dog with a good bark
the heading dog      this type of dog moves the sheep back to the shepherd. Fairly quiet 
                                generally looks Border Collierish
the strongeye          this type of dog is a master hypnotist great for lambing beats and small mobs.

I used to start my pups off about 2 months old with a piece of string on their collar and bits of dog biscuits 
in my pocket. As I had four dogs I had four different lots of whistles and when a dog was replaced              
the new one inherited that set of whistles. To get the dog to go left I would say g'way back. 
To go right I'd say g'way out to stop the dog the command was stand and to bring him back with the 
command 'come in behind'. And if he was wandering he'd get 'get in behind' with a few choice words. 
I had a blue Merle (Australian cattle dog) as most of the farms and stations that I've worked on had fairly
large mobs of cattle. My father and I got our first dogs off Tad Newton. 
Dad had an eye dog from Mr Harris's General Haig
In every district there is some-one who is the best of the working dog breeders. In our case it was Tad Newton.
As a shepherd I often used the number eight heading dog. ie push the sheep along the fenceline
By this I mean that I'd use a huntaway to clear all the sheep in a paddock to one side and 
then move another mob of sheep through that paddock.. Of course its not done often and then only by 
experienced shepherds with good dogs..
If you mix two mobs of sheep up it's called 'boxing the mob' and requires an hour or two in the yards to draft them off back into their
respective mobs. 
 Not fun.
Sheep are ear marked at docking time. tails and testicles are removed and ears are clipped to
 show the farms earmark, and, in the other ear there is an age mark.. 
ours was a quarter or a V and worked in cycles of 3 years. 
Back of the ear, end of the ear, front of the ear.
The older ewes could be carrying 5 year old marks.

The farm is a dangerous place for the inexperienced and the unwary and care must be
taken in working with animals and machinery


One of the best dogs I ever had was Ben, he was the last huntaway that Tad Newton bred. 
 he was a real black and tan  high country huntaway.
Uncle Phil  loaned him to me when I was on Awaroa Station..

My last pack of dogs:
Ben    huntaway  pack leader
Boss   was a heading dog  nothing like calling the boss for all the names you can think of   safely.
Joe   eye dog  could lead and head
Roy    huntaway
Cyd   Hunt/head/lead.
Jed   was the blue Merle  cattledog.

Shepherding like shearing started early in the morning. At shearing time I'd be away about 5 in the
morning to start mustering to keep the sheep up to the shearers. I'd bring one mob in and take the
shorn sheep back out and have lunch sometimes about 2 in the afternoon.
The rest of the day was spent dagging and footrotting the sheep that would be shorn the next day.
The term shepherd general means that with the shepherding there are other jobs you get lined up for.
I used to get the wheel tractor work which meant all the ag work, the chainsaw, the shearing gear
and the fencing gear..
Sometimes I even got the bulldozer ! And if I didn't I got to repair it.....

And of course the main method of transport on most farms was the horse.
One of the first questions for any-one applying for a farm job was
"Can you ride?" Some of those farms are several thousand acres and walking just wasn't an option.
I suppose now it's all farm bikes and tins full of stones to rattle at the sheep.
If you ever saw a stockman on a halfdecent stockhorse drafting off calves
for weaning in stockyards it's like ballet. 
you'd appreciate the need to be able to ride.
On most of the big stations even though they had tack (saddles and bridles) it was best if you provided your own. 
On the high country stations it was handy to have breastplates and cruppers as most of the country was very steep 
and a saddle round a horses hooves could be fatal for the horse as well as the rider.
The first horse I ever rode was Pops' Molly and she was a placid old girl then I changed to Jacky. 
Jacky was a half Timor ponyand a right little sod. He was the fastest pigrooter I've ever ridden..
The last time I saw Jacky was on the airstrip at Koeke when I landed MS885 ZK-CGZ there 9 July 1967.
Hopefully I'll be able to put a photo of the strip up soon...

One of my main jobs on farms was as a fencing contractor.
Most of New Zealand farms are fenced now with high tensile 12 guage wire. 
Its cheaper than No8 Galv. wire and they use permanent strainers on each wire..
Back then (ahah) we used creosoted Larch or tanalised Pine timber posts to build fences.
Some of these posts I saw years later. The centers had all rotted out of them. So much for the creasote treatment!

The technology of farm fences has changed so much in the last 30 years that it's no longer the same sort of work.
Posts and strainers are half the size. Wires are tightened and maintained by small metal clips and wires are run down both sides of the stay..
And you can't leave wire ends even bent back as we used to do...
The Hayes chain wire strainers are $150 apiece now And you need at least 10.
Along with Lloyd Clifton, Bert Berghaus and 'Hooks' Glasgow we fenced the 
Taihape and the Parapara (Wanganui) areas.
And erected about 32 miles of telephone line out through the Rongoiti and down toward Hunterville.
We went 'possuming (poisoning, shooting and trapping) in one of the State Forest and 
sold the skins at the sales at Dunedin.
We would 'press' the skins up in a wool bale and send them off.. And get a cheque back some weeks later. 
However the last few times we used to sell the skins to a local Wool and Skin buyer..
Nowadays the skins are not worth much and the 'possums seem to have taken over with 
great holes eaten out of our native forests..
and parts of the New Zealand bush are old. The trees have a life time just the same as any 
living thing and in some reserves the trees are dying.
Rather than replant the open spaces they just leave it all under the guise of conservation....
And scrub cutting. We were the first in the area to use modified chainsaws and, 
later, the newly arrived American bush saws..
There was an old chap who was killed in a hut fire and he was, as far as we could work it out, 
the first (and only) man to cut an acre of medium sized scrub in a day.. 
With the scrubsaws and chainsaws we could clear about 2 acres per day per worker..
We also contracted thinning for filling post and fencing timber contracts and other bush  work.
The onset of the Pinus Radiata forestries bought a great deal of thinning and pruning work.
Most of these thinnings were able to be processed as fencing timber (after treatment)
At the time we used draw knives to debark the posts.. the chainsaws at the time were 
McCulloch, IXLs and Pioneers.
When I went into the Dargaville bush doing the same work in the early 1970s we used Husquvana 
and Echo chainsaws.
The Echo was the fastest cutting saw I've ever used!
for debarking the posts and poles we had a hydralic tractor powered peeler. Went like stink :-))

The positions on a large station go something like this:

If some-one has general in their job description it means that they have skills other than their primary purpose.

Controls the day to day running of the farm. Movements of stock, maintenance and so on..

Head Shepherd.

Controls the day to day stock movements.
There are two (generally) stocking systems. One is rotational grazing where the store lambs/hoggets get the first growth.
Then come the ewes/ewes in lamb and after them store cattle.
The other is set stocking where each paddock has its own mobs of sheep and cattle..

Married shepherd generals

Work stock as required..or when there is no stockwork they work on the many tasks around the station
You might notice that at dog trials the people who compete are farm nmanagers or such.Shepherds are to busy actually working sheep to play

Single shepherd generals
Work stock as required..or when there is no stockwork they work on the many tasks around the station

Cowman gardener

Milks the cows, kills sheep for the station meat supply, mows lawns and so on.

Tractor Driver

Does the ploughing, cropping, weed control, track maintenance

Fixes the breakages and maintains the many vehicles required for todays intensive farming

The Cook:

Single mens quarters
The bush has changed. It's safety overkill now and there's still an unacceptable accident rate. We learnt by watching and doing under the premise that if you did what you were told by experienced bushmen your survival was a lot more probable.. We learnt to prune, to use an axe, to use wedges, M tooth and drag tooth saws and later how to use chainsaws ... I looked at the safety gear required by todays bushmen and wondered whether there was a Land Rover issued to carry it all. The last time I was working as a bushman was just out of Dargaville down the Pouto Penninsular. I was working thinning out a hillside planation of about 100 acres and doing fencing timber, strainers, angles, posts and, when Mike was there, cutting for the batton mill I had a fuel can, an oil can. An Echo chainsaw, an axe, 2 files, a plug/chain spanner, three plastic wedges. a measuring stick and a few coloured crayons and a set of spikes for my boots..


The various Rabbit boards in New Zealand employed men to shoot and poison the hordes of rabbits in New Zealand. Any rabbits or hares killed would be tied to the fence

Possum Trappers

A good way to make money over winter and at the same time work to rid New Zealand of a destructive pest.. Jaw traps, cyanide poisoning and spotlighting were the main methods. The traplines would be the first set up in a new area. There -are- trees that possums prefer. Each morning the traps would be cleared and the possums skinned. Then the skins are stretched on frames to dry Each week the trap line moves. Next cyanide baits would be set. These used to be a dab of aniseed and a snmall mound of flour as attractants. The Cyanide paste was put in the middle of the flour. Then, before leaving the area it was spotlighted. This involved torches and .22 rifles. The possum (like all animals) has eyes that show up in light The trees (especially Willows or Poplars by roadsides, creeks and rivers ) would literally glow with the numbers of possums..

Deer Cullers

We are heir to a number of introduced species that thrived in the local conditions. There are goats, Wallaby, Deer, Possums, rabbits and Hare As cullers we shot out vast areas of backcountry. In the winter there were tracks to cut and huts to build. Up to the helicopter era all hut building materials had to be carried in. In the old huts there are numbers written, drawn or stamped on each piece of the hut. These are the weights of the pieces. You'd make up a load according to your carrying ability and pack it in. I worked for eight pound and found. For every deer we shot we would take the ears and the tail. This would be used as a check of how many deer you'd killed and was worth three bullets.. Of course there are many who claim that they could get a deer or a pig or a goat per bullet in reality it worked out to about three bullets per animal..


Kept their length of the road . Kept the watertables clear and cleared small slips.. They used to have wooden wheelbarrows with solid iron wheels. Must have weighed a ton.


we lived some 26 miles from Taihape and had some eight or nine horses and all these horses required shoeing around once a month. If a horse cast a shoe it was easy enough to nail it back on and indeed with the ponies it was easier to cold shoe them On Koeke we had two handpowered forges. There is a lot of iron and steel on a farm that often needs a straighten or a set of gate hinges is needed It was part of the life requirement that you could replace a set of shoes You'd measure the horses hooves and send the order off to the Stock and Station Agents by mailtruck A week or so later the mailtruck would deliver a large heavy package of shoes.