Alpaca work is shear bliss for specialist
Australian alpaca shearer James Dixon's job is as good as a passport to travel the world.
Mr Dixon was in New Zealand to shear alpacas for a couple of dozen clients, mostly around Christchurch and Dunedin, with a few in between.
He travels widely in Australia, mostly working on the south coast and southern highlands. He spends a month in Queensland at the start of the season and shears one herd of 2000 alpacas in Adelaide.
Much of his work comes through word of mouth, with an ever-expanding client base from breeder recommendations.
"There's more work than I could possibly want," he says. He has had to pace himself to cope with the physical job.
"When you start up in business you just don't say no," he says. "I found myself working seven days a week and 12 to 14 hours a day, which was crazy - so I gave half of it away."
He cut his workload back to a more relaxed pace, preferring to work closer to home in Cooma, New South Wales, and mixes in a bit of rest and recreation on his travels to allow time to recover between jobs.
When he finished his work in New Zealand before Christmas, his wife joined him for a couple of weeks exploring the country.
Early in April he will pack his bags for several months work in England, Scotland and Wales, then cross the English Channel for work in Holland and Belgium. He is planning a few more leisurely trips into France and Spain, with more sightseeing than shearing.
"You do a day's travel and maybe have a day recuperating and do a few days shearing," he says. "It's a great way to see the place. You get off the beaten track in rural settings you wouldn't normally see as a tourist."
His introduction to the trade was through an alpaca shearer on a farm he was working on, who talking him into trying it.
"He was working so hard I thought I'd never do this," he admits.
His parents had 50 alpacas and invited him to practice on them, and he has never looked back. He completed a sheep- shearing course and will shear clients' sheep if pressed.
"I don't go looking for them, but if they turn up I'll deal with them," he says.
Shearing alpacas is not as technical as shearing sheep, he says, because the fibre isn't as dense, and doesn't resist the comb like wool fibres bound together with lanolin.
The main thing with sheep is that the shearer moves them into the best position to remove the fleece, he says.
There is a bit more technique involved in handling, moving and restraining alpacas with the help of leg ropes and sandbags.
Alpaca shearing competitions are held in South America, but he says by all accounts they are "a bit of a free-for-all," and he doesn't think it will ever take off as a popular competition sport like sheep shearing.
"Most sheep shearers don't like the spitting and screaming, which you don't get with sheep."
He prefers to shear alpacas on the floor rather than on a table.
"It's how I learnt," he says. "I have done table shearing but it just seems foreign to me. When you tip the animal on to the ground you let gravity do the work for you.
"If you use a table, you have to strap the animal to the table and tip it over or lift the animal on to the table, which is fighting gravity."
Shearing is a critical operation on an alpaca farm, according to Brenda and Stewart McLean, owners of the Windermere Alpaca and Lama Stud, near Milton, who run 230 alpacas on 48 hectares of rolling hill country.
"Shearing is a really important time because we can see the results of our breeding programme and you really get to see the progression of your herd," Mrs Stewart says.
"The right shearer can make or break the business," she says, and adds that having someone with Mr Dixon's skills and experience means less stress for owners.
"A good shearer can increase the value of your clip, because a lot of second cuts can reduce its value."
The McLeans have plenty of experience of handling stock themselves from years of dairying and sheep and beef farming.
"We enjoyed milking cows, sheep and beef farming was an experience, but alpacas are addictive," Mrs Stewart says.
She says it is a really rewarding industry, with an international network of contacts, mainly in New Zealand and Australia.
"(Alpacas) are a pleasure to work with and you meet a lot of people we wouldn't have otherwise met."