AWI and Rylington Park plan to develop more female shearers in WA

By Bree Swift
Updated April 26 2022 - 11:13am, first published 12:00am
Unity Ngatai is a New Zealand expat who works for Adequate Shearing, Katanning, and took part in AWI's five day shearing and wool classing course earlier this month at Rylington Park, Boyup Brook.

WOMEN are doing it for themselves in the shearing industry and are now representing about one third of the students going through Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and Rylington Parks shearing and wool classing schools each year.

Shearer trainer Steve Thompson, who has taught on and off at Rylington Park for the past 15 years, said he had seen first-hand the increase in female students enrolled in the course which is held eight times a year, attributing the higher numbers to some of the ergonomic changes made by the industry in recent years.

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I think those changes in how we train shearers have made it possible for women to do the job just as well, if not better, than the boys, Mr Thompson said.

A lot of the time we find that women tend to have a bit of a better feel for the handpiece, and really good hand-eye co-ordination, whereas the boys can rip into it a bit too quickly sometimes.

But of course its different for every individual some people have a natural ability because of their make-up and others have to work at it a bit more.

Not unlike many of WAs shearers, Mr Thompson is a New Zealand expat who initially travelled to Australia to do some seasonal shearing work, and then never left.

Now also the owner of a farm in Boyup Brook, he does shearer training part-time alongside Rylington Parks two other shearer trainers, Mark Stanton and Paul Pope Hick.

Mr Thompson spoke to Farm Weekly as 14 aspiring shearers, including four girls, took part in a five-day shearing and wool classing school at Rylington Park earlier this month.

In order to help attract workers to the shearing and sheep handling profession, AWI funds the shearing and wool classing courses so they are free for participants.

The course has been a help to the shearing industry, which has faced a skills shortage in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic stopping the usual influx of New Zealand shearers into Australia, as well as the industry inability to compete with the lucrative salaries being offered by Western Australias resources sector.

Women usually represent about one third of Rylington Park's five-day shearing and wool classing school participants.

However, anecdotally Mr Thompson said some of those workers who had left for the mines had now returned to shearing because it enabled them to work seasonally in their own area, depending on where they lived, providing them with a better work/ life balance.

Like any job, Mr Thompson said there were pros and cons to being a shearer, but that it could be a great, long-lasting career for young people who wanted a physical job.

Being a shearer is more like being an athlete these days you have to be pretty athletic and fit, Mr Thompson said.

Its a good way to earn a dollar if you want to get stuck into it and make some money you can, and whether you get a pay rise or not, thats really up to you if you improve your skills, you will be able to make more money by shearing more sheep.

Acknowledging that the shearing trade could be quite taxing on the body, Mr Thompson said the course had been designed to teach students to work in a way that was ergonomically friendly.

A lot of the old fashioned styles of shearing are pretty tough, and while some of the older shearers might not want to change how they shear, we make sure that our younger shearers are taught to work in a way that doesnt damage their body or twist their spine, so they can do it for a long time, Mr Thompson said.

Starting at midday on a Monday and running through to lunchtime Friday, the course starts off with an introduction to the basics, including how to use a handpiece and then moves on to shearing small parts of a sheep so students can gradually improve their skills.

Our goal is to try to get someone who hasnt shorn before to the stage where they can shear a sheep unassisted so the trainers can be standing there talking to them, but are not hands on, Mr Thompson said.

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Shearer trainer Steve Thompson overseeing a student's work.

Sometimes we get them a lot further along than that, but it really just depends on the person.

We also welcome experienced shearers to come along and brush up on their skills.

When Farm Weekly visited, the student cohort were on the third day of the course and had shorn 130 of 550 sheep.

Unity Ngatai, 19, whose parents own and manage a sheep and cattle farm in New Zealand came to WA in August last year to work in our shearing industry.

Now working as a shed hand at Adequate Shearing, Katanning, Ms Ngatai said she always wanted to be a shearer and had learnt a lot from the course.

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I really like the industry because you get to meet a lot of people from different backgrounds, I absolutely love working with animals and you can listen to music as you shear alongside your mates, Ms Ngatai said.

I like that you could be shearing for 10 years, but theres always room to improve your skills.

Through the course Ms Ngatai said she had learnt how to put on a comb, cutter and look after the handpiece as well as grind the equipment.

As most of the course participants had already spent some time in wool sheds, Ms Ngatai said they had been provided with a simple overview on wool classing before moving on to learning how to shear.

Looking forward, Ms Ngatai said her goal was to eventually have her own shearing stand.

If I can shear a sheep under five minutes then I will be guaranteed a stand, and then I can get my first 100 sheep, she said.

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I also want to show the boys that girls can shear just as well as them.

Rylington Park is managed by the Shire of Boyup, which employs staff to operate the farm, host the shearing schools and also co-ordinate fertiliser and seeding trials on the property.

The 650 hectare property was gifted to the Shire of Boyup Brook in 1985 by the late Mr Eric Farleigh for agricultural research and training and the betterment of the region.

In October 2021, the Shire of Boyup Brook established a 20-year agreement with Edith Cowan University (ECU) enabling the university to utilise Rylington Park for agriculture and regional development related research and allied education programs.

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