Lessons from shearing school | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Lessons from shearing school


WORLD Radio - Lessons from shearing school

Shearing sheep is hard. So is finding the next generation willing to do the work

Kerrie Exon shearing Photo by Amy Lewis

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: shearing sheep.

It’s a more demanding job than you might think. It requires strength and precision, and some animal handling skills. It’s hard to retain workers in such a physically demanding industry. In countries like the U.S. and Australia, there’s a shearing shortage.

EICHER: Demand is obviously outstripping supply.

Australia has 79 million sheep and only 2,000 people to shear them. So that’s a 40-thousand to one ratio.

Shearing schools are working to close the gap, but can they keep up? WORLD Correspondent Amy Lewis takes us to meet some beginners in the shearing sheds.

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: It’s a sunny fall day in May of 2022 in Ballarat, Victoria. Inside the large corrugated metal shed, dozens of shaggy sheep wait patiently. Their cloven hooves clack on the floorboards.


The sheep are waiting for their shearers to relieve them of up to ten pounds of wool apiece.

They may have to wait a while. It’s Monday—the first day of class for beginning shearers.

ASSISTANT: They’re loading a handpiece there as we speak. (Okay.) Getting ready to go. (Thank you) No worries. (creak of door)

Instructor Rick Hodge explains how to hold the wool clippers, or handpieces, his eight students will use this week.

RICK HODGE: That releases him to go, whack and take up. See what I mean? He can't even get his legs up towards his chest and give you get the kangaroo kicking. Okay.

A banker, an electrician, a university student, and farm workers stand in a semi-circle around Hodge and his fellow instructors. They all want to learn to shear a sheep well. Here’s agricultural student Will Tickner.

WILL TICKNER: I guess just, yeah, wanting to upskill. I think there's a lot of obviously, the demand for shearers at the moment is very high.

At age 18, Miles Sandlant is the youngest student and a 5th generation farmer. His goal is to learn everything he can about running his family’s farm.

MILES SANDLANT: Our farm specializes in wool, so super, ultra fine. So we’re shearing all year round. Unlike a lot of farms, they'll just have their shearing for one month in the year. And then they’re done.

Kerrie Exon has a mentally challenging job at a bank and wants to shear on the weekends.

KERRIE EXON: Whereas I've always been a very physical sort of person, I like doing things. So a desk job doesn't thrill me. So doing the shearing being one of the most physically demanding things, it balances that out.

Thirty years ago, Australia had twice as many sheep and five times as many shearers. But for decades, the country has scrambled to find enough shearers for all of its sheep—even though it’s a good-paying job.

HODGE: It can be one of the worst jobs, because it's tough on your body.

Electrician Thomas Heald found that out early in the class when he threw out his back.

THOMAS HEALD: I sort of moved the wrong way a little bit and lowered me back a bit and triggered a pre-existing injury. So that sort of put a bit of a damper on my week, but yeah.

Shearing is like any other physically demanding activity. It takes weeks and months of consistent work to toughen up and make the aches go away. And it takes a mindset of wanting to work hard.

HODGE: Rather than ‘just because I didn't like school, I might like shearing because you don't have to have an education.’ And if you don't approach it intelligently, which is the same as any job, you probably won't get very far.


Sheep shearing is on the decline in other parts of the world, too. Farmers in Colorado say the industry is shrinking, because fewer Americans are interested in hard agricultural jobs.

Just before lunch on Day 1, the students start by shearing the head of their first sheep. The goal by the end of the week is to get the whole fleece off in one continuous piece.


Instructor Rick Hodge says a common question to ask shearers is how many sheep can they shear in a day.

HODGE: And the old, um, the old sort of hurdle used to be, you know, 200 a day. Well, now it's sort of 300 plus, you know.

But he says asking how many someone can shear isn’t necessarily the best question because sheep differ in size and wool type. Or the sheep might be stubborn.

STUART NEAL: So do we need another demo before we start back in again, or is everyone gonna be right? (Do a quick one, yeah. Outside hip, outside leg. See that?) (clippers)

By the fifth day of classes, Australia has eight beginning shearers who feel more confident in how to move the sheep while they shear. Every student says it’s all about the feet. Kerrie Exon explains.

EXON: So it's really, there's a dance to it and it's learning that dance. As we got through the week getting better at it. But it's certainly your feet placement and remembering those steps that was probably the hardest thing.

After the class is over, the students walk away better shearers. But they don’t all stick with it.

In the year since that shearing class, Will Tickner finished agricultural school and moved back to his family farm where he grows crops. He doesn’t shear much these days.

TICKNER: I thought I would have more time to do, yeah, some shearing or some other livestock work, but I have found it's just something else always comes up.

But some of the students do work with sheep full time. Like fifth generation farmer Miles Sandlant. He’s back at his father’s farm in Lexton helping grow world-record Merino wool for Italian suits.


One of the instructors visited to help him refine his technique while he sheared 300 sheep over a few days. For Sandlant, it’s more than a job. It’s a holistic experience.

SANDLANT: Ah, the greasy smell of the wool, just the smell of the sheep in general and then the sound of, you know, the handpieces going and people sweeping down the board and Yeah.

The students from last year’s class haven’t solved the shearing shortage. But Rick Hodge sees his job as more than just training people to shear Australia’s sheep.

HODGE: I mean, I love the science of shearing, which is great, but there’s sort of more to it than that, I reckon. So there's a bit of mentoring goes on as far as your total outlook on your job and your life, really. And that sort of comes through your work a lot in the way you conduct yourself.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis in Ballarat and Lexton, Victoria, Australia.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...