“It’s a big concern for sheep farmers leading into the main shearing season in southern Australia,” McClelland says. Each year about 500 shearers from New Zealand make the trip across the Tasman and shear about 7 million sheep. This year that’s not going to happen. Any prospect of a travel bubble between the two countries disappeared with the outbreaks in Victoria, and more recently the end of New Zealand’s 102-day run without any local cases.
Local shearing contractor Ward Davidson has been living and working in the area for 15 years. Originally from New Zealand, he started up a shearing contractors business in 2005 in Birchip, and has relied on the annual migration of Kiwi shearers to fill teams that fleece about 150,000 sheep in the Mallee and western Victoria between August to November.
This year, he says, “we’re going to struggle. I’ve had to tell cockies [colloquial term for sheep farmers] that this year might be a bit tough, so you might have to look at some locals. It’s getting chaotic.” But local shearers are few and far between. The industry, Australia-wide, has relied on Kiwi shearers to get the flock shorn for decades.
Sitting under a peppercorn tree in the surrounds of the McClelland homestead, Davidson and the McClelland family discuss the possible challenges of the upcoming season. Davidson tells them, “I’ve got quite a few shearers that can’t come over, and I’m not the only one, everyone is struggling and it’s going to become a major problem. It’s all right at this time of the year, we will have to work six days a week to cover it. I’m more worried about the ones down the line, how they are going to get through. Sheds down around Mortlake, Lake Bolac and Hamilton, those areas are the ones that are really going to feel it.”
This is the area of concern for McClelland, His family has 8000 hectares and shears 22,000 sheep in total across a couple of properties, but it’s his flock on his farm near Mortlake, which they usually shear in October, that’s the worry. “Things could get tight down there. The bureau is forecasting a wet September, and if contractors lose days or weeks due to wet weather, and wet sheep, that’s when things will get serious. We will start to have issues with flystrike [a parasitic infestation] and animal welfare if the sheep don’t get shorn. Our other problem is that most years we finish shearing and then we’re straight into harvesting the crop, which won’t be able to wait.
“In the 1800s there were 80,000 shearers in Australia and no personal trainers, and now there are 80,000 personal trainers and only about 3000 shearers,” he says. Davidson chips in that he actually had a personal trainer contact him looking for a job. “A woman has been texting me looking for work but we’re a bit worried that she’s from Melbourne, and she needs to get tested and isolate. I’d hate to get the blame for being the one who brought the coronavirus to Birchip.”
Until recently sentiment in rural Victoria suggested that they had avoided the worst effects of the pandemic. It was considered a city problem, the geographical isolation had protected them, and in terms of cases it has. McClelland’s sister-in-law, Ros McClelland, a former doctor now working on the family property, says there have been no recorded cases of the virus in the shire. Farmer Leon Hogan says the first signs of the pandemic were shortages in fertilisers and crop chemicals. “We had our own version of the toilet paper madness,” he says. Hogan has been hit hard by the drop in lamb prices and is losing thousands of dollars a day.
At Hogan’s property of Taragan, where Davidson is currently shearing, a team of three shearers are working through a mob of 600 sheep. Hogan has great faith in Davidson to cover the local season. “He is well respected and has a good team of shearers, they’re all Kiwis that live locally and have done for years, but Ward still needs to top up with those fellas that travel across each year from New Zealand. We rely on Ward, we can call him up with a few days’ notice and he’ll be here with a team ready to go.”
Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of Australia’s sheep population, between 65 and 68 million, is shorn from early spring to Christmas. “We rely on the annual migration of shearers from New Zealand to get through these numbers,” he says. “Couple that with the inability of teams from other states to cross state borders to shear, we have a major concern.”
Contract shearing teams travel the country and are usually at this time of year moving south from Queensland and NSW to shear Victoria’s flocks.
The Association has been in talks with the Department of Home Affairs and Border Force to work on a deal to get wholesale permits for shearers to travel from New Zealand.
“[Even then] it’s a $10,000 exercise to get someone here, $2000 to $3000 for two weeks of quarantine each side, and a $2000 airfare. The third hurdle has been, after having all these shearers looking for help to get over here, we then had the explosion of cases in Victoria, and now those numbers have diminished to nothing. So long story short, no we’re not going to have New Zealand shearers here, certainly not of any quantity.”
For Davidson this is where the pressure is really on. The local cockies need the shearing done and on time. “That’s why they have me, all the worry comes back me, to come up with the teams we need to get the job done.”