Sunday, September 27, 2009


You only have look at a pub in sheep country on a Saturday morning to see that there is something sick at the shearer’s traditional office. The once packed bar is now the last resort for someone looking for a pen. Country that for more than a century has been covered with large flocks of Merinos has been forced by low wool prices and a record drought to divert to other uses. Resulting in few sheep – fewer shearers!!

Shearers being as resourceful as they are have turned to well paid jobs in the mining boom or are self employed driving a semi or if they have a piece of mud swapping their small flock for a few cattle. Each day, I speak on the phone to an old timer, who, for years has been a rock solid customer, regularly renewing his swag each year but who now just needs something for his crook back and a bit of a yarn. Some of the tales I have heard of shearers finding nice little earners replacing their work in the sheds have been fascinating.

One mate, who hadn’t missed a bell sheep in ten years suddenly found his favourite sheds changing to cattle. His wife was a hairdresser and had her own salon. Women unlike sheep need a clip more than once a year and as luck had it they live in a university town where the well paid academics are not affected by drought so she was flat out trimming, tinting and waving. Almost all the professor’s wives had a pedigree dog which needed just as much grooming as the heads of their owners. No back of the ute for them.

So the missus talked my mate into starting up a side line called “Pampered Pets”. Under her tutor ledge he soon learnt that a snip snip here and a snip snip there paid much better than busting your way up the burr covered wrinkles of a wether’s neck. $95.00 for a shampoo and trim and paid with a smile. Once the word got around that he could do as good a job on a pouch as mum could do on the matron or the debutante, hairy hounds have been arriving from near and far. The town vet is sending him all the posh fussy work. Four jobs a day and he doesn’t raise a sweat. So easy to count out!!!

Other mates have started shearing a sheep in the morning and a sheep in the afternoon at tourist wildlife parks on the city outskirts then that sometimes extends to shearing a sheep for each busload. Then over time they are called upon to be the star of a country theme week at the numerous city supermarkets. They shear a sheep every hour, give a little talk, answer a few questions, let the kids pat the sheep and feel the fleece and pose for photos. It all goes down a treat. And it turns into quite a career change. Instead of belonging to the AWU they have to join Actors Equity and because the work is casual it pays well. You can charge Plumbers rates!!!

Back some years ago Sydney had its stockyards and abattoirs near the centre of the city on the land which was later redeveloped for the Olympic Stadiums & Village. The rail head and holding yards covered a vast area and on part of this complex was a shearing shed. It was owned and operated by a famous old firm of shearing contractors (R A Rooney & sons) who took many a young boy north west to the twenty stand sheds on the Barcoo and the Warrego in central Qld and to bring then back as budding guns.

However this bloke I’m talking about was a Pommie migrant who came off a sheep farm in Northern England and although he learnt to shear our Merinos he couldn’t handle the back country heatwaves. So he settled down working at some casual building work but while Rooney’s main workforce were busy out west he would get a couple of days a week at the saleyard depot shed shearing small mobs of stragglers or full wools that it was thought better to shear before slaughter. The upshot of all this was, he became friendly with the drovers that took the mobs from the trains to the saleyards then to the abattoirs. We are talking of big numbers each day and overnight there would be half a dozen or more new born lambs that were soon to lose their mothers. Normally these would be killed and feed to the working dogs but after my pommie mate saw these lambs and was told he could pick out one or two for himself he straight way had an advert. in the Saturday newspaper. LAMBS FOR LAWNMOWERS.

When someone phoned to request details they were told they could hire a lamb at ten dollars a month – paid three months in advance – he owned the lamb and would take it back when no longer required – he would bring two or three lambs for the children to choose their favourite – if they kept the sheep beyond a year he and only he would call and shear it at a cost of $80. - the fleece was his but if they wanted it for spinning he would sell it to them. Plenty were happy enough to sign the contract, pay up the money and have their children fighting over who was to bottle feed their new pet. Within the first year he had two or three hundred out $10 a month. A nice little earner and they were all growing a poddy fed fleece when wool was worth big money. For a man with no land he had a fair clip. Eventually larger than the family farm back home.

I think the formulae is still feasible but after twenty years he grow old and most of his large homes with big backyards were redeveloped as home units. Beside his supply of lambs was no longer local. But it was great while it lasted.

I still, occasionally see the odd old mate who will call in for a beer and a chat. Generally they are pessimistic about their home town prospects with the long drought and financial downturn and are half inclined to pull up stumps and start again on the coast. What do you advise Denis? The first thing I’d warn is don’t burn your bridges. Stay put till you have a definite change for the better.

My Advise to him was that he should go for a walk down George street towards Circular Quay. On the way you will pass numerous building sites. Look for a job of at least forty stories high with the glass installed on the first few floors so the building is nearing completion. Look for a labourer wearing a Milro singlet and tell him you’re from the bush then ask him the name of the building manager. If the building manager is not in his office ask for him till you find him. These blokes are generally tolerant to other battlers. Tell him you intend to settle in the city and start a business. When he says how can he help say you want the contract to supply the building’s light globes and if he says that’s already taken try for the toilet paper. If he smiles and gives you an appointment to see him later in his office. Come back and see me and I’ll give you some help with the next moves. There are plenty of fortunes made from light globes and date rolls!!!

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