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Summer a busy time in shearing sheds

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Daylight saving and the long, lazy days of summer are on their way. With this comes a sense of freedom as time marches steadily towards Christmas and family holidays. However, during the 1850s onwards for those living on Hawke’s Bay sheep stations, the summer months heralded one of the busiest times in the farming calendar – the shearing season. Prior, all would be quiet around the shearing shed, except perhaps for birdsong, the rustling of leaves in the trees and the occasional bark of a dog.


Anticipation of the shearing season began the day the musterers’ left the homestead block to herd sheep from the station’s furthest boundaries to the homestead paddocks. A team would set out, each with five to seven working dogs, and once at the musterer’s hut tramp in different directions searching for sheep. The work was arduous, lonely and depending on the terrain, often dangerous. A packman would load his packhorse with all the necessaries required for the group to survive. At the musterer’s hut he was cook and butcher, in-charge of killing a few sheep to feed the men and the dogs.   


In the ensuing days all those left behind would listen keenly for the loud cacophony of bleats, strident whistles and barking of dogs, indicating the return of the men. Suddenly the welcome sight of a huge flock of sheep moving like an enormous wave would appear over the horizon. The peace that had reigned for so long was shattered and all the familiar sounds and smells of shearing would begin.


This Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust’s photograph captures Elmshill Station shearing shed during the late 1880s – 1890s. Shearing has possibly come to an end, enabling the group to pose together in their best clothes. There are various humourous and playful moments in the photograph: a sheep laying on its back wearing a hat; a man holding a handful of playing cards as though in the middle of a game and four men posed along the front seemingly in the middle of shearing sheep with hand-blades. The photograph exudes warmth and familiarity - the group at ease and enjoying each other’s company after a long day of hard work.


Most of the shearing gang pictured are Māori men, women and children. Māori shearing was particularly prevalent on the East Coast during the 1880s, with shearing gangs able to contract to the big Hawke’s Bay coastal and inland stations. For Māori, contract rural work enabled them to be employed seasonally in their extended whānau groups. Shearing, in particular, provided a steady source of income each spring and summer.


In November 1859 when Frederick John Tiffen purchased Elmshill, situated approximately 17 miles or 27 kilometres from Waipawa, most of the land was swamp. It took many years of hard work to drain the area and turn it into farming land. An entry in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1908) under Patangata, stated that on the property was 364 acres (147 hectares) of native bush, amongst which were “some splendid totara, white pine and matai”. The main stock on Elmshill were made-up of 11,977 Lincoln-Leicester cross-bred sheep, of which 6,000 were ewes. English Leicester rams were also bred on the station and the lambing season averaged an eighty-five percent success rate.


Tiffen built a “comfortable dwelling house” which was pleasantly situated on a rise. Below it was the wool-shed with sixteen shearing stands, several sorting tables and night pens which could accommodate up to 900 sheep. Next to the wool-shed were four whares in which farm-hands and the shearing gang slept and cooked, stables, and a storage building along with a concrete sheep dip.


Throughout Aotearoa New Zealand shearing sheds had a similar floorplan. One of the earliest descriptions was by Lady Barker who in December 1865 visited a new shearing shed close to Christchurch. At first she did not like “the sights and sounds” - however she forced herself “to bear it”. The shed had 25 shearing stands and beside each was a trap-door through which the shearer pushed shorn sheep down a ramp into a small outside pen. It was here that the manager would inspect the quality of shearing and count any cuts on the sheep’s skin.


Using hand-blades the average daily tally of sheep shorn was about 80, whereas a fast shearer could remove 120 fleeces a day. Lady Barker inspected the wool tables to “which two boys were incessantly bringing armfuls of rolled-up fleeces”. These were laid on the tables for the wool-sorter to open-up and inspect the quality of wool. From there the fleeces were carried to bins which were constantly emptied and taken to the press. “Once tumbled in”, a heavy screw-press forced the fleeces down into a bale which was kept “open in a large square frame” until full. The top of the canvas was then tightly sewn together, then four long iron pins removed so that the sides of the frame fell away disclosing a symmetrical bale. This was then “hoisted by a crane into the loft above”, where the weight, class and brand of wool was painted on the canvas. Everything was done with the utmost speed and precision.


Lady Barker remarked that she was “much impressed by the silence in the shed; not a sound was to be heard except the click of the shears, and the wool-sorter’s decision as he flings the fleece behind him, given in one, or at most two words”. All the noise was outside; “there the hubbub, and dust, and apparent confusion are great – you can hear nothing but barking and bleating, and this goes on from early morning till dark”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                So, if travelling throughout the valleys, plains and along the coastline of beautiful Hawke’s Bay this summer keep an eye out for historic shearing sheds and yards. Like old bones they stand proudly, their weatherworn exteriors seemingly at one with the land. Built of native timber at a time when it was plentiful, they have withstood the test of time - their slightly battered and bleached appearance give an indication of the longevity of their years. Inside, the yard gates and tongue-and-groove floorboards are ingrained with years of lanolin from the wool, smells permeate the senses and the walls throb with the echo of memory.


Published in the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper on 30 September 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke's Bay.

Image: Shearing gang, Elmshill Station, Patangata


13 October 2023

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