A blow by blow account

Last updated 09:44 20/06/2013
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Bill Birdsall has retired from a 50-year career as a shearer.

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When you're a shearer and you develop cataracts in both eyes, you have a problem.

Fortunately for Urenui-based shearing legend Bill Birdsall, those cataracts have surfaced later in life and towards the end of his 50-year career. Now 67, he retired in February.

While he has tried his hand at a range of farming codes, including dairying, running dry stock and pigs, Bill has always used his skills as a shearer to underpin the profitability of whatever form of farming he might have been engaged in at the time.

An open-grade shearer with a top tally of 427 adult sheep in a nine-hour shearing day, Bill has been a Wools of New Zealand shearing instructor at both the learner and advanced levels, an office-bound organiser of those courses ("I hated this job") and, for the last decade, a company representative for Swiss-based Heiniger Shearing Equipment.

While Bill has competed against the best in the business on the competition shearing circuit, including the Golden Shears (Masterton), New Zealand Shears (Te Kuiti) and the Taranaki Shears, it has been teaching young people the rudiments of shearing which has been his forte and given him most satisfaction.

"I love to help the young guys," he says.

"Running learner courses at Ruatoria, not too long after a series of infamous arsons in that remote East Coast settlement, would have been one of my more interesting assignments. I had never previously seen so many full-faced tattoos.

"I went up there originally with Robin Middleton, who was the senior instructor based in Palmerston North. He advised that two other senior shearing instructors were not considered suitable for posting to Ruatoria because they were too regimental.

"He said, when I started my learner course, there would be 15 boys start on the Monday, and by Wednesday probably half of those 15 would be different individuals.

"The trainee shearers sort of made their own rules but it paid to go with the flow. Those on the course were predominantly Maori. There was a great deal of raw talent - many of these boys were naturally good shearers - but they would probably never shear outside of their own area."

On one occasion, a number of the young men on his learners' course invited Bill to join them for a drink at a local hotel.

"I agreed to have a couple of beers and was walking towards the bar to get a handle and this full-faced tattooed fellow was walking back from the bar towards me.

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"I just sort of glanced at him, as you do, and he asked me what I was looking at. I told him that I was just going up to get a beer, and it was obvious that he was looking for a scrap. I got my drink, returned to the table, but he walked up beside me and began mouthing off at me.

"Those boys who were on the course gathered around me and in no uncertain terms told the fellow to bugger off. Within two minutes he was on the floor scrapping with someone else.

"A few of the boys who started off in Ruatoria later went on to have good careers but predominantly they would never leave the area. The way of life up there is pretty laid-back.

"Before I went to Ruatoria, I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what it would be like. However, these boys were tremendous and would bend over backwards to help you."

Bill was based in Palmerston North for four years and towards the end of his time there was promoted from senior shearing instructor to "territory manager". The title sounded more impressive than the reality of the job, for effectively he was "an office boy".

"Provincial instructors would run the shearing courses and we would perhaps help them start and finish these. During this time we started with AgITO. We were not getting funding from the Wool Board then to run the courses. To get government funding we had to abide by a lot of rules and would spend many hours down at the head office in Wellington going through these manuals.

"I then went to Taupo for 18 months. My territory went from Taupo to Taranaki and north."

Organising and running courses for those who wanted to learn to shear was one aspect of Bill's work. Honing the skills of experienced shearers - perfecting techniques and eliminating any faults they might have developed - was the other.

From the shearer's point of view, there was one problem with these advanced courses, however. Not only were the senior shearers required to pay $300 for the three- day course, they stood to forfeit $500 to $600 in lost earnings every day they attended.

He found a way around this by visiting the advanced shearers on the job, in the woolsheds in which they were working.

However good the shearer, he says, no-one shears every sheep perfectly, every time.

Taranaki's Roger Cox, he says, came close, as does Paul Avery (Toko) and David Fagan (Te Kuiti).

"The closest shearer I know to achieve near perfection was Keith Wilson, who was from Thames originally. I had the privilege of shearing with him in Australia. He shore 300 merino wethers a day, just strolling in and out of the pen. He has made the finals at the Golden Shears and the New Zealand Championships at Te Kuiti without winning one.

"He is a shearer with tremendous natural ability.

"When I shore with him, he had shorn 800 lambs in a day on 15 occasions, and you have to be good to do that.

"Shed shearing is totally different to competition shearing and yet to be the top man in any competition you have to be able to do it in the shed, day in and day out. That's why Paul Avery has always been so good. His quality in the shed is as good as his quality in competition shearing."

Even in a basic skill such as shearing sheep, technology and innovation have a role to play. The Bowen style of shearing, which revolutionised the shearing industry when Godfrey Bowen set a new world record by shearing 456 adult sheep in Opiki in the Manawatu in 1953, has been superseded.

The 41 blows it once required to part a sheep from its fleece, has been reduced to around 34 blows, says Bill.

But don't take it from that, he says, that the shearer putting in the least number of blows, will win in competition over a shearer adhering to the Bowen style.

"The shearer who has the minimum number of blows is likely to leave the odd ridge and will lose on the quality of the job," he says.

Towards the end of his time as a company representative with Heiniger, the Swiss-based company shouted Bill and his wife, Julie, a trip to Europe. He loved Switzerland and only wishes he had spent more time there. It's sometimes hard to impress a veteran shearer, however, and Venice didn't get such a good review.

"You don't go to Italy without going to Venice. I'm pleased that I went, but I would never go back again. It looks like the Waitara River in flood."

- Taranaki Daily News

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