Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Mastering a fulfilling but tough form of art

In the wake of the recent Sheep Shearing Championships, where competitors dazzled onlookers with their blinding speed and efficiency with the shears, the Farming Independent's Joe Healy fondly recalls his own shearing exploits

Joe Healy

'Shearing is hard work, probably among the hardest we've got, work that calls for much more than just physical strength and exuberance -- rather, for balance, grace, rhythm and suppleness, with eye, brain and hand working in smart co-ordination. Shearing also demands another great quality: the ability to keep going and mastering with a big heart such handicaps as high temperatures, aching back, grease boils and tiredness. And yet a good man will not give in or knock off."

This is the opening line in a book written by the most famous shearer of all time -- Godfrey Bowen.

While shearing records will show names such as David Fagan, Brian Quinn, Colin King, Roger Cox, Norm Blackwell and even his own brother Ivan Bowen rank ahead of Godfrey, as an ambassador, writer, orator and entrepreneur, he was without peer. It is the shearing technique he invented that is now being used by shearers all over the world to strip the sheep from their fleece and is commonly known as the 'Bowen Method'.

I began shearing in 1983 after attending my first All-Ireland Sheep Shearing Championships in Wicklow as a spectator. Interest in shearing locally was huge, due to my neighbours, brothers Mark and Billy Donellon, who were to shearing then what Ruby Walsh is to horse racing now. Indeed, sheep shearing finals throughout the 1980s usually included several Galway men, with the Madden brothers and Michael Stephens all capable of causing an upset and beating Mark or Billy on a given day.

If memory serves me right, Billy won in Wicklow that day, beating Mark into second place and my own brother made it to the final of the U21 competition.

On the way home that night, it wasn't the two Inter Cert exams I was sitting the following day that were going through my head.

Instead, I was mentally setting up the hand-piece, placing the cutter and the comb, leaving just the right amount of 'lead', catching and knocking the sheep, dragging her out from the pen, shearing the belly, cleaning off the crutch, going out the undermine, putting in a blow either side of the back-bone, stepping forward and shearing up the throat and cleaning off the first shoulder. In my head I was shuffling around all the time to get her in position for the long blows (hand movements) up the back and then stepping up again to clean around the face, move down over the last shoulder and then shear off the last side and out the last leg before pushing her down the port-hole and grabbing the next one.

By the time we arrived home I was shearing each sheep fast enough and with enough skill to have had me right up there with all the finalists. Now the trick was to transfer that speed and quality from my mind into practice.

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Next evening, the sheep were gathered in and the shearing machine set up. This was going to be a piece of cake! I caught one of the smaller ewes, got her in position, pulled the cord and starter the machine but in my haste I forgot to shear off the belly wool and instead went straight to the undermine. What took the competition men no more than five seconds to do took me about five minutes.

Then, to add insult to injury, as I was trying to put in the blow over the back bone, the ewe got up and ran to the far end of the field. By the time I got her back, my next door neighbour had his own ewes gathered in a pen in the adjoining garden and started shearing with the hand-shears. He was on his fifth before I finished the runaway.

Nonetheless, I wasn't going to give up on my dream of participating in the buzz, excitement and atmosphere I had witnessed the previous day in Wicklow so I continued to shear another, and another, and another until I got to 10 sheep.

According to my father (who, while he never competed, would not have been out of place in either the hand or machine-shearing competitions) I improved with every one of them. In the absence of any other opinion, I believed him.

A year later, after some help and guidance from the Donellons and my brother, I felt confident enough to dip my toe in a few competitions. While I didn't take home any silverware, I gained great experience both from the actual shearing and mixing with more accomplished competitors.

I learned about control of the sheep, keeping the comb on the skin to avoid second cutting the wool, keeping the skin stretched to avoid cutting it and the importance of doing a clean job to get a good 'pen' mark for the finished product.

Essential for any young person aspiring to be a shearer is firstly to have an interest, participate in a course run by a good shearing instructor, concentration, practice and above all a constant emphasis on quality and a desire to improve.

I was lucky enough to travel to New Zealand in 1988 on a Stephen Cullinane scholarship through Macra na Feirme. While there, I took a shearing course with the New Zealand Wool Board and later spent time working with one of the instructors in his shearing gang.

There was healthy competition between members of the gang in the shearing sheds, where your sheep tally each day would determine your place on the sheep stand the following day. You could be the 'ringer' on stand one or the 'drummer' on the last stand or anywhere in between, depending on your tally. It kept you going because you were always driving yourself on and trying to get ahead of the lad in the stand above you.

The following year, I made the final of the U25 All-Ireland in Borris, Co Carlow. I didn't win but I consoled myself with the thought that I was at least in the mix.

The year after that, the championships were held in Galway, where I negotiated the heats and semi-finals successfully. In the final I finished my six hoggets third but I was extremely happy with my second cuts on the board and my pen out the back. Later, when the results were announced, I was announced as the runner-up. My heart sank after coming so close.

I forced a smile for the presentation but what I really wanted was what winner Willie Jones had in his hand: the cup. The results showed that less than a half mark separated the two of us and left me rueing the fact that I didn't knock off nine seconds from my time. In fairness to him, Willie tapped me on the shoulder and told me my turn wasn't too far away.

Twelve months later, a win in the international intermediate competition at the Royal Ulster show was ideal preparation for the All-Irelands in Wexford.

By the time the final started, it had begun to rain with drops blowing in on stand one. At the draw for the stands I kept saying to myself, "Any stand but one", but then I was pulled out number one.

"Here we go again," I said to to the great Welsh shearer, Nicky Benyon.

"Focus on the positives," he replied. "Don't you shave a lot better when your face is wet? Now get a towel and dry the ground under you to avoid slipping before ye start and concentrate. You will see that the sheep will shear out even cleaner than normal." That changed my whole attitude and if, as they say, a person is the product of their thoughts, then I started with the right frame of mind in that final. My name is next to Willie Jones' name on that piece of silver.

A few years later, securing third place in the All-Ireland Open final behind Jones and fellow Athenry man Tom Kennedy felt like a win, given that those two were by then professional shearers. More importantly, it won me a place on the Irish team to shear at the World Championships in New Zealand.

That was an amazing experience, with shearing courses, events, presentations and interviews undertaken in the three-week build-up to the finals. As Macra president at the time, I got a few extra interviews and visits to Young Farmers clubs throughout the month I spent there.

As for the shearing, well it was what it was: amateurs against professionals. Enough said. But for me it was the pinnacle of my shearing career and while Bill Cullen's mother might say it was "a long way from penny apples", for me it was a long way from the small ewe that escaped and ran away from me 13 years previously.

They were some of the most enjoyable days I've had. The friendly rivalry, the camaraderie, the buzz, the excitement, the suspense, the results, the elation or deflation, while at all times maintaining the desire to learn from each day and each other, in a never ending effort to improve that little bit more.

Shearing has really moved on in Ireland in latter years, thanks in no small way to the Sheep Shearers Association and the many voluntary hours that people put in. There has also been a big increase in the number of young shearers that are opting to go professional and travel to New Zealand where they can learn from the best in the world.

For any young person serious about shearing, this is a must at this stage, but even if you are only interested in doing your own, it is important that you do a course and learn the proper way at the start. Remember, old habits die hard.

Indo Farming