It all began a couple of years ago when Sally Jackson, general manager of the Hawke’s Bay Showgrounds had a bet with her Christchurch counterpart about who could better shear sheep—something neither had done before. Sally enlisted the help of Hastings shearing contractor Colin Watson-Paul, and the competition was such a success that Sally was later pitted against Rowland Smith, the multiple shearing champion of the world, and current holder of the Golden Shears title. To even things up, Sally was allowed to start shearing straight away, while Rowland had to head out to his truck to grab his gear, during which time his designated sheep was swapped for a boisterous ram. Sally wasn’t entirely without a handicap, however—she was shearing whilst wearing high heels! But she still won and raised a heap of money—and awareness—for rural mental foundation, Farmstrong, in the process.
Sowing the Seeds of Shearing
“I started thinking that maybe there’s other women that would like to learn to shear,” says Colin. “So, we just started asking around the place.”
He soon had a team of seven eager ladies signed up, including a police officer, optometrist, finance broker, optical technician, and dental therapist, none of whom had any experience shearing sheep—not even Maureen Chaffey, whose day job is a wool buyer for Kells Wool. Last year the group, who call themselves ‘Women and Wool’, held a charity event that raised $41,000 for Farmstrong (they hoped to do something similar this year, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic), and continue to train together every Sunday.
“I also had some secret training on the side,” Maureen admits with a giggle. She’s now also shearing sheep as side gig for extra income and is over the moon about having recently reached the 100-sheep-in-a-day milestone. “We had such great support from Colin and everyone in the rural community. I just couldn’t believe it, you know, when you watch shearing, it looks so easy but it’s so hard, there’s so much involved.”
Colin chuckles that people often presume that it can be picked up in a few hours, but it takes weeks—or even months—to learn the very basics. “Female shearers do bring a lot of calmness to the job,” he continues. “They don’t get upset with the animals like the old man sometimes does!”
“You’re working with a live animal, so it can be really unpredictable,” says Maureen, “and if you haven’t got the basics right, of knowing how to hold the sheep to start with, then you have a little bit of a battle on your hands. You need to know what makes them move, what makes them kick, how to keep them calm. The way Colin always explains it is that it’s like a dance.”
Wool from the Eyes
Maureen says that shearing has even shaped a new approach to her day-job, too.
“It has definitely helped me understand my profession and brought me closer to the industry. I feel as though I can relate to everyone better, it’s just opened up a whole field of discussion around the industry.”
It’s also helped open conversation around mental health.
“I’ve been in the industry for over 40 years, and I hear a lot of stuff,” says Colin. “Many do open up eventually, but it takes time. It’s great that the women have got behind it.”
“I take my hat off to all shearers, it’s a job that you don’t need a degree for, yet takes years to master, it’s a tough role,” says Maureen. “It’s all been so rewarding, what’s come of it, the whole discussion around mental wellbeing, that it’s okay to admit to feeling not okay. To talk.”
The gang hopes that their antics will help attract more women into the industry, while clearing up some of the misconceptions around shearing as well.
“We’re trying to shine a light on wool—it’s just such a great product—and awareness around the actual sheep,” Colin continues. “A lot of people—including the ladies when they first started—think that the sheep suffer when they get shorn, but that’s not the case. Ninety-nine percent of them are perfectly happy and come back for a pat or a piece of bread, and are certainly not worried about being shorn again.”
Fittingly, the women recently shone a light on Colin’s accomplishments, nominating him in October for the ASB Good as Gold Award. The humble shearer, already a man of few words, was even more lost for them when the TV camera crew rocked up to his shed as his cutting crew clapped him on.
“Colin has a huge, huge heart and is just willing to help anybody out, he’s such an amazing guy,” says Maureen. “We have all become like family, and it has created a real buzz about the community. It has created a much-needed connection between the town and country folk.”