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Australian sheep left unshorn as Covid-19 sparks shearer shortage

Audio 03:42
Short back and sides. Shearing in progress in the sheds at Tubbo Station.
Short back and sides. Shearing in progress in the sheds at Tubbo Station. © Richelle Harrison Plesse
By: Richelle Harrison Plesse
7 min

Australian sheep and the huge woollen industry that depends on them are among the less-likely collateral victims of the Covid crisis.

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The shearing shed at Tubbo Station, a sprawling 27,000 hectare property in Australia's Riverina region, is abuzz with the deafening hum of electric clippers. The shearers move in unison; a methodical but back-breaking dance that runs like clockwork, as over the next couple of weeks, the property's 15,000 sheep will need to be stripped of their fleece.

Across the country, with the wool harvesting season in full swing, a national flock of around 65 million sheep will receive the same treatment. But in this new Covid world, there aren't enough shearers to go around. The pandemic forced Australian authorities to shut interstate and international borders earlier this year, making it very difficult for seasonal workers to go where they're needed.

The industry is missing around 500 shearers from neighbouring New Zealand, about a quarter of the regular workforce. Wool growers and shearing contractors are scrambling to keep up with demand, and under pressure to stay on top of a punishing schedule. At Tubbo Station, local contractor Andrew Morrison says his team is missing around 15 staff, workers who would usually travel from the southern state of Victoria or from across the Tasman Sea.

"We've probably got 25 staff at the moment but we really should have about 40," he says. "20 percent of our workforce this time of year comes from New Zealand. Some contractors and some regions rely on anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of the workforce to come from New Zealand so if they're lacking that's a huge hole in the numbers."

Training to fill the gap

The industry is tackling the shortage by training and upskilling the next generation of shearers and wool handlers. The new recruits will provide a much-needed boost to the iconic Australian trade, but fail to resolve the immediate shortage.

Issues also remain when it comes to attracting fresh talent in the first place. Many young Australians are turned off by the extremely physical nature of the job, and in some cases, working conditions in the sheds may not be up to scratch.

Wool exporter Andrew Blanch says the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need to train more local shearers rather than rely on fly-in, fly-out foreigners. "Shearing is a very particular job, it's a very hard job, and we need people who are willing to learn that skill. The opportunities are definitely there," he says. "I think if one thing, Covid has made us realise that we need to be a little more self-sufficient."

The world's top wool producer, Australia is responsible for one quarter of all wool on the planet. But the pandemic has dealt the industry a heavy blow; prices have plummeted to record lows in recent months, with demand for the natural fibre falling as export orders ground to a halt.

Combined with fewer shearers in the sheds, and fewer sheep across Australia due to widespread drought, the result is a tumultuous market that is bracing itself for more uncertainty.

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