The annual Golden Shears event brings the world’s best sheep shearers to New Zealand. Can any of them cut it with the Kiwis?
“NO GANG INSIGNIA IN THE STADIUM” reads the notice at the entrance to the Genesis Energy Recreation Centre, the venue for the 52nd Golden Shears. I’m not convinced it’s an event that gang members would flock to, but then I don’t know what rural gang members get up to in their leisure time. For sheep farming folk, Golden Shears is their Wimbledon, their Daytona 500, and this year’s event has attracted more than 450 competitors from 25 countries to Masterton in Wairarapa. An agricultural region east of Wellington, Wairarapa is home to quite a few of New Zealand’s 30 million sheep.
It’s also home to film directors Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Not surprisingly, neither makes an appearance at Golden Shears. It’s not a red-carpet type of event. Sheep shearing is a sport that celebrates the skills honed by shearers in sheds during the working week.
The hall has that sickly sweet agricultural aroma: a mix of sheep crap and sweaty shearers. Apart from the incessant buzzing noise of the shears, it’s eerily quiet during the heats on Friday afternoon. The silence of the lambs, you might say. “It’s remarkable,” agrees David Fagan, the legendary Kiwi shearer, winner of five world titles and 16 Golden Shears Open titles. “The sheep just sit there and let you shear them. You get the odd one that’s uncooperative, but generally they’re not too bad.”
The Golden Shears has been held in Masterton every year since 1961, when it was billed as the Australasian Championships. Now it’s recognised as the most prestigious shearing competition in the world. It regularly attracts the best shearers, not only from New Zealand but also from other countries with a shearing tradition (including England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and South Africa), many of whom are based in New Zealand for the competitive shearing season from October to April.
This year, Golden Shears is also hosting the World Sheep Shearing Championships, the fourth time Masterton has had the honour. The first world championships were held in 1977 and they’ve been staged regularly since. New Zealand has dominated, with Kiwis winning 10 of the 14 World Individual Machine Shearing world titles, the blue-ribbon event. The format allows each country to select two shearers to compete for the world title. Most countries don’t have two world-class shearers, but in any given year New Zealand has eight to 10 good enough to win the world title. The most difficult competition for Kiwi shearers to win is the qualifier for the world championship team. This year, the reigning world champion, Cam Ferguson and John Kirkpatrick, earned that honour and most experts expect one of them to take the world title as well as the Golden Shears Open title. As a multiple winner of both titles, Fagan is well placed to settle the ongoing debate over which is the most prestigious: winning a world championship or a Golden Shears Open.
“To me it’s the Golden Shears,” says Fagan. “Once you’re in the New Zealand team you’ve only got to beat the other Kiwi to win the world title. To win the Golden Shears you’ve got to beat all the other New Zealand shearers.”
Jerome McCrea is one of up to eight New Zealand shearers who fancies his chances in the Golden Shears Open, but as for the world championships, he doesn’t expect an upset any more than does Fagan.
Read the full article in June's issue of The Red Bulletin.