Week in Review

Shearing the load: four women, 2000 lambs, one day

A gang of four young Kiwi women are sharpening their combs and cutters to set a nine-hour world shearing record, as the call for a women's shearing world title grows louder.

Counting sheep - it's supposedly an age-old remedy for fighting insomnia and lulling yourself to sleep.

But the challenge facing Sarah Higgins - of counting off 500 sheep over nine hours - threatens to keep her awake at night for the next month.  

Higgins is used to tallying the woolly ones; the 27-year-old does it almost every day, running her own shearing gang in Marlborough.

But she’s also one of four young New Zealand women shearers preparing to establish a world shearing record on a 3000ha farm near Turangi next month.

The challenge is to set a women’s four-stand nine-hour record for strong-wool ewe lambs on January 23.

It’s being called ‘40/400’, to celebrate 40 years since King Country shearer the late Ata Monds became the first woman to shear 400 sheep in a single day, and four decades since the first women's team record was set in New Zealand. 

It’s a timely endeavour, as Kiwi women are trying to make their presence felt on the shearing stage and finally create a world championship title for women.

Higgins would love to reach the “ultimate target” she’s set herself - to catch, shear and dispatch 500 lambs in the nine hours allowed. There’s no existing record to chase, but a total of 2000 between the four shearers won't be over-ambitious (the organisers are putting 2300 lambs in the shed at Waihi-Pukawa Station the night before, just in case).

“To do 500 in nine hours, I’ve worked out that you have to be averaging just over a minute a sheep,” Higgins says.

“Over the next month, I’ll be doing time trials at work, just to make sure I can shear at that pace. I’ll probably have to squeeze one nine-hour day in there, because none of us have ever shorn a nine-hour day in our lives.

“I’m worried about not doing as many as I want to. Or the weather not playing ball, or the sheep not being as good as they could be. Those little things are always in the back of your mind.

"But the biggest thing for me is not letting the team down, or not hitting the targets that you set yourself.”

Megan Whitehead shearing in her first senior final at the Taranaki Shears last month. Photo: Jills Angus Burney.

Higgins and her fellow shearers – Amy Silcock, Natalya Rangiawha and Megan Whitehead – are under a strict training regime to make sure they’re in the best physical shape for the record.

They’ve been taking their instructions on exercise and nutrition from Matt Luxton, a rugby player turned Ironman triathlete, who’s also one of the UK’s top strength and conditioning coaches.

“It’s quite easy when you’re shearing to get into your normal rhythm and routine, and not necessarily push yourself so hard,” Higgins says. “So you do training outside of shearing to increase your cardio fitness, then it’s easier to get to that next level.”

Jills Angus Burney, the convenor of the world record bid, knows just how sapping an attempt like this will be.

The professional shearer turned lawyer once set the world record for solo shearing 541 lambs in nine hours; a record she kept for 18 years.

While the Golden Shears, the world’s premier shearing and wool-handling championships held in Masterton each year, can be compared to a sprint race, a record attempt like this is more about endurance, she explains.

“It’s more than a marathon,” Angus Burney says. “An Otago University study showed shearing 320 ewes used the equivalent energy as running a full marathon.

“What these women are doing is an ultramarathon.”

Higgins has been going to the gym twice a week and working out at home, but she admits it’s been “really tricky” balancing it with her shearing contractor job.

“None of us have attempted a world record before,” she says. “So it’s not until now that you realise how much work it is. You can understand why netballers and other athletes don’t work a full-time job.”

Higgins was a netballer and an up-and-coming umpire while she was at Lincoln University doing her bachelor of commerce degree in agriculture and marketing.

Her sporting background has made her a strong advocate for Tahi Ngātahi, an online shearing safety programme introduced this year encouraging shearers to stretch, warm-up and keep fit to avoid injury.

“With the new-age shearers coming through, you’ve got to treat it like a sport, because the physical and mental challenges of shearing are exactly like it,” she says.

Higgins’ mum, Fiona, first got her involved as a wool classer as a holiday job. Higgins has now been a competitive shearer for four years, and has won a Golden Shears junior title at wool-handling and a novice title with the handpiece.

But what possessed her to want to shear sheep for nine hours? (It’s not quite non-stop – there are three short breaks.) “It’s an opportunity, you know?” she says. “It’s quite possible we may not get this opportunity again.”

Megan Whitehead, Natalya Rangiawha and Amy Silcock, with Whitehead's father, Quentin, watching the lamb count at Pauline Bolay's world record bid. Photo: Jills Angus Burney.

Jills Angus Burney had to battle to get this world record bid into the shearing shed.

She went to the World Sheep Shearing Records Society and asked for an exemption to the Shearers Rule No.2: All members of any gang (i.e. three stands or more) attempting a record must have worked for the one employer for at least 21 days directly prior to the attempt.

Angus Burney argued that the rule simply doesn’t work for women.

“The rule was made to stop stacking teams,” she says. “But there simply aren’t enough jobs for women shearers. In the 40 years I have been shearing, I only worked with one other woman shearer. You don’t get women of that calibre all working together in one gang. There’s just not enough of us.”

The committee accepted her argument.

“It’s all about bringing the next generation of women’s shearers through,” Angus Burney says. “And about banking the knowledge.

“These four women are athletes, who are all performing at senior level at shearing competitions. And they’re also getting advice from the top guys in the industry, so they’re learning too.

“There should be young women shearers at the Waihi-Pukawa shed watching and saying ‘Wow, there’s someone to look up to’.”

The youngest of the record-setting quartet is 23-year-old Megan Whitehead, who comes from a shearing dynasty. Her dad, Quentin, and her mum, Tina McColl, were outstanding shearers – shearing 700 and 500 lambs respectively on the same day.  Whitehead learned to shear at 16 and has been full-time for the past four years.

Natalya Rangiawha, 27, is a professional shearer who’s worked around the world. She’s now in a gang in Piopio, working for Mark Barrowcliffe, the president of the NZ Shearing Contractors Association.  Rangiawha's grandfather and uncle were shearing champions. 

Amy Silcock, 32, from the central Wairarapa is regarded as a top merino shearer. She worked in Scotland for two years with Una Cameron – who in 2010, became the first woman to make the top 30 in the open grade at Golden Shears.

Cameron is flying out to New Zealand to be Silcock’s ‘second’ in the record attempt. A second is a shearer’s personal timekeeper, who stands in the pen and lets the shearer know if she’s on target.  

This will be the first women’s multi-stand record attempt in a decade, since Wairoa mother and daughter Marg and Ingrid Bayne set the still unbeaten two-stand eight-hour record of 903 lambs in 2009.

But it’s not the only record attempt this Kiwi summer. Barrowcliffe's gang will make a bid for the men's three-stand, eight-hours strong-wool lambs record just before Christmas.

And last weekend, Canadian shearer Pauline Bolay broke the world solo women’s eight-hour record for strong-wool lambs, setting a new high of 510, in a woolshed at Waikaretu in the Waikato.

Bolay works for Emily Welch, the Kiwi shearer who holds the women’s nine-hour solo world record (648).

Welch is doing a lot to move the goalposts in the sport.

In March, she won the first official women’s event at the Golden Shears since it began in 1961. It was an event she instigated with the growing number of women's competitive shearers, pitting the top six females from the Golden Shears against each other.

The New Zealand Shears later that month held a separate women’s event with heats and a final. Welch is now lobbying for a women’s title to be introduced to the world shearing championships.

“It’s only in the last 12 months that we’ve actually had open women’s events,” says Higgins, who was runner-up in the first women’s open shearing grade at the Marlborough A & P Show last month.

“It’s always been cool that men and women can compete together in shearing. And that’s fine up to a certain grade – all of us girls can be competitive at senior level. Technique can get you further than strength up to a certain point.

“But if we want to chase it as hard as we can, in all honesty, we’re not going to be able to fairly compete against the elite guys in the open competition.

“That’s when you think maybe we should have something for women.”

While there’s always been world records for women, there’s no official world championship open women’s title. But Higgins says: “Watch this space – we’re working on that at the moment.

“There are a few people who say we’re going backwards in the world if we want to start separating men and women. But that’s not really what it’s about.”

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