How one encounter at a sheep shearing event led to romance in Australia for this Irish man
If anyone is heading towards Victoria in Australia between now and Christmas, please pack a few bags of Smoky Bacon Tayto for Stephen Cullen.
"I miss the crisps and Barry's tea the most," says the Glencar, Co Sligo native, who is forging a successful career in the sheep industry Down Under.
It's a sentiment often echoed by thousands of fellow ex-pats worldwide.
Every day we hear of stories of how Irish men and women end up in remote parts of the world, but Stephen's tale is right out of a romantic novel.
Fourteen months ago he was shearing sheep at home. Today he and his Australian fiancée are running a sheep-shearing business on the Mornington Peninsula some 35 miles south of Melbourne.
"I met Emily when she came to Ireland to compete at the All Ireland & All Nations Sheep Shearing & Wool Handling Championships last year. We hit it off immediately," he explains of his decision to follow her back to Australia a few months later.
The move has clearly paid off: they got engaged last month.
"She was already shearing sheep out here, and I was shearing at home, so it made sense to set up a business together," he adds.
Today the couple are running Peninsula Shearers, a busy shearing operation which can see them shear up to 200 sheep in a day.
"So many people in this area have sheep, but many in small numbers," the 31-year-old says.
Having grown up on a mixed farm in Glencar, Stephen is no stranger to hard work, but farming in Australia is an entirely different business.
"I've worked in shearing in Scotland and Norway but it is very different here," he says.
"Firstly we have only Merino sheep and they are not the easiest to shear. I used to hear horror stories about them at home and that they had a neck like a cow. It was true - they do.
"Irish sheep would average 2-3kg of wool. A Merino can have roughly 12-13kg at a time and this can fetch up to $55 (€38) a fleece."
Merino wool is among the softest available, and it is also one of the most expensive to purchase for the consumer.
"The Chinese want shorter wool, usually 70mm, so we would shear more often than at home," says Stephen.
As a left-hander, Stephen has also had to adapt to using a right-handed shears, having injured his thumb last year.
"Everything is designed for the right-handed shearer," he laments.
As long as there are sheep, there will always be the need for people like Stephen, although he says shearer numbers are at an all-time low in Australia.
"It is very tough work, as anyone in the business will know, and not too many young Australians want to do it," he says.
"The average age of a lot of the shearers here now is 55."
Irish shearers are renowned far and wide, though, and one familiar name came up recently in Australia.
"I was chatting to some guys who said an Irishman walked into a sheep shed and sheared 350 single-handedly. They were speechless," he recalls
That was the world record holder, Donegal man Ivan Scott. Enough said.
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