There's sadness, but little surprise when drunk shearers crash cars after work. The old caricature of 'a beer follows a shear' lives on. But what do those in the industry really think? Farming editor TIM CRONSHAW investigates.
As the last of the shorn sheep head out of the drafting yards, weary shearers finish off a long day with an icy cold beer.
They tell tall tales of record tallies, relax weary muscles and remedy parched throats with a well-apSherpreciated shout by the local farmer.
The sun will soon set and the long drive home beckons.
It's a common enough sight outside any shearing shed in rural New Zealand. But is the right to crack open the top of a cool brown ale and cap off a job well done at risk? Could its days be over?
Drink-driving fatalities in the last year have some in the industry saying its high time to replace a guzzling reputation with a workplace of moderation.
Any shearer will tell you there is nothing better than a cleansing ale at the end of a hot day on the shearing board. The problem lies when one turns to two, two to three and three to more.
Mix excessive drinking with drugs, fast cars and open roads and a boozing culture can end tragically.
This was the case when Watson Oliver Tipu, 31, chose to drive his Toyota Avalon, even though he was nearly three times over the blood alcohol limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.
After a morning's shearing, he and workmates went back to a house and started drinking at 11am. The partying carried through to the early evening.
His next act on January 25 could have been preventable, according to Hastings coroner Chris Devonport.
For whatever reason, Tipu took his three mates, Zyah Marsh, Kennedy Weir and Raimon Keefe for a drive they were never to return from. The four men were killed on Mohaka Hill, near Wairoa, when he was going too fast to avoid a collision with a Toyota Land Cruiser travelling in the opposite direction.
The sole survivor was front-seat passenger Vincent Hajnal-Huata, the only one wearing a seatbelt.
A following driver, who had also been drinking with the shearing workers, estimated Tipu was going 140kmh and described them as all being "wasted".
Just an isolated case, you might well think.
Except this was the second shearing incident to go before the coroner this year.
In West Otago, the death last year of Heriot shedhand Troy Adamson was investigated. Large amounts of alcohol drunk by some members of his shearing gang at a party were found to have contributed to his death.
The 17-year-old shedhand became intoxicated and, after being bullied about his long hair, took a van and fatally crashed into a stream when speeding.
Otago Southland Coroner David Crerar said Adamson's death was proof of the dangers of drinking to excess.
He went so far as to suggest last month that shearing contractors should act as hosts and ensure the safety of their employees outside normal working hours.
Portrayals of shearing as a hard drinking industry gets up the noses of everyday shearers.
This is offensive to "family people" who have gone about their work, had a quiet ale afterwards and made their way safely home within the drinking and driving limits or escorted by a designated driver.
Yet others suggest there is a problem. One of them is Barry Pullin, head of the New Zealand Shearing Contractors Association (NZSCA). He shakes his head over Adamson's death. A tragic waste, he says.
"He was a young guy there on a shearing gang at a party. There was lots of alcohol, sounds like some drugs and he felt threatened. This kid drove a car 120kmh into a ditch and that was the end of him."
With the same sombre tone he recounts details about the "Hawke's Bay boys" tragedy.
"So the spotlight has come on us about alcohol, our drinking habits and driving."
Pullin says shearing contractors have taken a proactive stance the last few years on safe driving and responsibility around alcohol and drugs.
The trick is to get the message out to all shearers. Frustrating for the NZSCA is that both drinking incidents were from shearing gangs outside their fold.
Pullin believes this is irrelevant and the shearing industry has to take collective responsibility to right the wrongs that have occurred.
Like any good host there should be sensible drinking, alternatives to alcohol and food provided. Alcohol-free drivers should always be available.
That said, shearing is not alone in its drinking problems, he says. There is a drinking culture in New Zealand society.
"Steinlager sponsors the All Blacks. If we didn't have this culture, we wouldn't have an alcoholic beverage sponsoring our team. We would have Weet-Bix instead.
"There is nothing wrong with having a drink. The important distinction is not to have too many and not to get behind the wheel."
It doesn't help that New Zealand's sporting heroes like All Black Zac Guildford and Black Cap Jesse Ryder have struggled with well-documented alcohol histories. To their credit, they have both weaned themselves off the bottle.
In the same vein, the shearing contractors have met with the police, Labour Department, ACC, and Federated Farmers to sort out their problem. They all agree that enough is enough and everyone will do what they can to bring change to this culture and the "she'll be right" attitude.
There is already talk of farmer shouts at the end of shearing being toned down. Good things will come from this, says Pullin.
The Hawke's Bay incident occurred well after the shearers had knocked off for the day.
For how long can the bosses of shearing gangs be expected to be held responsible for their workers?
The accepted feeling is that change has to come from within - by shearers and workers drawing their own lines.
Not acceptable is the cavalier attitude of years ago when drivers with too many under their belt would take to the back roads to get home. The "no drink-driving" message in schools has hit home yet mistakes are still made and younger people have access to more high-powered and affordable vehicles today.
Wads of scientific evidence shows that alcohol inhibits driving performance.
But the option of taking a taxi home often is unavailable in the rural areas.
Contractors Dion and Gabriela Morrell, from Alexandra, employ about 50 shearers, wool classers and shed hands in Central Otago.
They hear the mutterings when a handful of shearers make the court reports for drink-driving.
The shearers are back in town, is the commonly heard refrain.
Yet outside of the 10 weeks when shearers come in for the main shearing season, there is little talk of drunken carpenters or other career people occupying the court's time. Why do we label shearing, but not other occupations?
Dion Morrell has some problems with the view that shearing has all the heavy drinkers.
"We actually reckon the perception from some people that the shearing industry has an alcohol problem is quite dated. A lot of that was from the way we drank in the 1960s and 1970s and was more of our culture in the country and with rugby players. When I was young and in Pukerau I left school and went into shearing and when we went out at night, by today's times, we drank excessively. I was brought up in a farming community and in my days off would catch up with mates who were farmers, carpenter or engineers and the drinking standards were the same. But I didn't drink like that because I was a shearer. I was a New Zealander."
The reputation of Kiwis and Aussies, respected worldwide for being able to hold their liquor, is well past its use-by date, he says.
Today's shearing gangs need to behave to keep farmer clients happy. Repeat business is the best business, as they say. Daily tallies have increased and the physically demanding work with droning blades in the background works against morning hangovers.
Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills has come across some beery breaths at 6.30am starts in his encounters with shearing gangs at his family's sheep and beef farm, Trellinoe, in Hawke's Bay. To be fair, they tended not to be the shearers and more the wool pressers.
Equally, he has come across shearing workers, like current New Zealand open champion John Kirkpatrick, who will not let a drop pass their lips in the workplace because of their professionalism. He agrees the drinking culture is not limited to shearing and cuts across the wider society.
Wills takes the view that farmers might need to re-look at the way they shout shearing gangs.
This act of kindness shouldn't stop but perhaps adding food, limiting the alcohol and being a responsible host would be sensible, he says. Otherwise everyone is just asking for trouble.
"It is an issue, no question. In my experience it's less of an issue than it used to be because there is greater awareness and sadly we have had a couple of tragic accidents. It's a summer job and there is a lot of sweat and thirst and a lot of farmers put on a couple of beers after a main shear. In 30 degree heat we all feel like a beer, but when these guys haven't eaten and have an hour's drive to get back to town it's not a good recipe."
One year Wills treated his shearers to a round of ice-cream. He got some odd looks, but it was still appreciated.
Morrell invites police to pull over any of his vans for alcohol testing and carries out drug tests on his top performing team. To date he has resisted breath testing them, but it is something he is considering, if only to present evidence of their clean record.
He believes it would be pointless and unworkable if contractors were held responsible for their gangs after working hours, as suggested by Crerar.
Problems are few and excessive drinkers need to take responsibility themselves.
"Whatever happened in Heriot was a one-off situation. The host responsibility [suggestion] is too far in one direction. The pity of it is we have people in the shearing industry who are world champions and take their jobs seriously and we are being tarnished with the same brush."
A 20-hectare block near Rolleston acts as HQ for Pullin's shearing operations. The office has expanded the last few years and there is a new home theatre for shearing conferences and, of course, to optimise compulsory viewing of the big rugby games with family and mates.
Outside is a large workshop and a fleet of vehicles to get shearers and wool handlers to the next job.
In the warm office a small dog sits in the corner basking in the sun.
Pullin rises from his seat and with the fingers of his left hand tries to number off the fatalities involving alcohol and shearing in the South Island.
He gets to Adamson and can't think of another. There are surprisingly few.
Later on, he remembers a few other farmers' sons who have lost their lives.
The final tally is not the point, he says. Even one death is too many.
"From what we have gone through, no-one needs to lose a son whatsoever to drink driving or any form of road accident."
Sadly, Pullin and his wife speak from experience.
No alcohol or high speed was involved, but their son, Phillip, died last year as a passenger in a car colliding with a pole in Christchurch when the driver was distracted by loud music and passenger voices and lost control.
He takes his drinking host responsibilities seriously as boss of his gang in a patch extending through central Canterbury.
There are rules to be followed on his watch. Rule No 1 in place the last few years is there will be no alcohol in his vehicles.
The boss also introduced random breathalysing. Other shearing gangs have taken this further and breathalyse every morning.
Very few of his shearers have placed their "head above the parapet", a Pullinism for breaking the rules. "We have done random drug tests here, too, and we will lose the ones that quite frankly we don't want."
Morrell also knows what it is like to be the parent of a road accident victim.
Again, no alcohol was involved, but a moment's inattention and a passenger grabbing the wheel resulted in his sober daughter breaking her back, shoulder and hips.
It would only have been worse if drinking was involved, he says.
Yet, for all that, Morrell is no teetotaller.
He says there is nothing wrong with a single stubbie. However, there is no softening of the van policy for drivers to be completely drink free.
"We are not saying don't drink. It's just the attitude to driving (needs addressing). It's all right to be social, but when we over drink it becomes antisocial."
As a result of his daughter's accident, he finds himself constantly worrying when his team is on the road. It helps knowing they are in a booze-free bus.
Pullin says he is not immune from over-consuming alcohol,
"I think we all did. There are people who don't drink at all and that's their choice, but here is sensible drinking, too. Don't get me wrong, every two to three years I will have a few drinks and I will pay for it the next few days."
He says it's too easy to deflect blame when events go wrong with alcohol.
Shearing people have to be bold enough to say "enough is enough", he says, otherwise workers and friends will die. "It's too easy to say it's a police responsibility and it's young people who get drunk and fall over and it's their responsibility. If you can magically change the law back from 18 years to 20 will that change anything?
When the limit was 20, people were still drinking and driving on the roads and dying. . . The person driving those boys in the Hawke's Bay was 31 years old. Is he a young person? No."
A poster in Pullen's orderly office depicts an alarmed bearded young man with a sheep in his bed surrounded by empty cans. The message is crude, but to the point. The slogan: "Alcohol affects your perception on the road, too".
Wouldn't it be great, asks Pullin, if a farmer could shout the boys a beer and do it sensibly with food and be respected for his best intentions. Too often, it's the other farmer who brings out three or four 24 packs that is seen as being a good boss.
"Where do we go from here? That's the big question and the challenge. We can help the process so people have the guts to stand up . . . and do something about it.
"That's the trick really. "We might go for another two years before there is a death or alcohol incident in the shearing industry, but it could be in two days. Something has to change," he says.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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