Grand old shearing sheds are part of the romance of the Australian countryside — bathed in golden light, with their rough-hewn beams, thick stone walls and characterful corrugated iron.
While they are a beauty to behold, the blunt assessment of TAFE SA shearing lecturer Glenn Haynes is too many of the nation’s shearing sheds are a bit of beast of a place to work.
“I would estimate that 50 per cent, at an absolute minimum, wouldn’t have a septic [tank] or a proper toilet at their property,” Mr Haynes said
“Probably the same don’t have washbasins and you’ve got to wash your hands in a bucket or under a tap out the back of the shed.
“With more women working in the industry, if they have to go to the toilet behind the shed, or behind a tree, you get off on the wrong foot pretty quick … it’s 2019, we need to be doing better.”
Mr Haynes said to shearers, conditions mattered more than money.
“In my opinion, everyone that I’ve talked to is happy with the wages … the conditions not so much, so it’s really good to see people spend money on their sheds,” he said.
Old shed ‘couldn’t keep up’ with sheep intake
Unfortunately, brand new, built from scratch shearing sheds can be as rare as rainfall.
They are an expensive, potentially disruptive undertaking, however, according to the McGorman family in South Australia, worth every cent.
They have just finished building a shearing shed on their property at Sanderston, 80 kilometres east of Adelaide, the first new one in the district for half a century.
“I reckon we were about 50 years overdue for a new shed,” John McGorman said.
“Our old shed was originally on a neighbour’s property up in the foothills. Around 1900, my grandfather pulled that shed down and rebuilt it here.”
“I did have a bit of a lump in my throat when we pulled the old one down, but it was time, it just couldn’t keep up with the number of sheep we shear.”
Mr McGorman’s sons, Paul and Alex, were a little less emotional than their father to see the old clunker go.
The family market their own brand of lamb, and they wanted a display area to show the product off.
Farmers take to social media for new shed ideas
The young McGormans were passionate about designing a 21st century, state-of-the-art shearing shed — something that would make life easier for both shearers and sheep.
“We’re always asking the shearers, ‘What’s your best shed that you’ve shorn in?'” Paul McGorman said.
“What layout of the individual shearing stands works best — a straight board, or a sawtooth, or a curved board like we’ve gone for?”
The boys travelled around, looking at various designs, and they also hit social media.
“We put posts on Facebook and on ‘Shearing Australia’ plus a few other websites,” Alex McGorman said.
“We really wanted to get the thoughts of shearers and shedhands Australia wide.”
The physical layout of the shed has a direct effect on how a shearer pulls up at the end of a hard day.
Eliminating awkward bends and moves to get sheep in and out of position was a priority.
Then there is the actual sheep.
Pricey grand design already paying for itself
Australian sheep, much like Australians themselves, are bigger than they were 50 or 100 years ago when many sheds were built.
That needs to be accommodated into a shed’s design.
So far, shearers have given the McGormans’ efforts a clear thumbs up.
Matt Low said he was really happy to see an end to the old-fashioned overhead shearing system, where all the handpieces were driven off a common shaft.
“There’s just one self-contained machine per person and that’s a big safety thing,” Mr Low said.
“If there’s mechanical fault, they just stop. It doesn’t affect everyone else or do them any harm and it’s a great idea I reckon.”
For Travis Theil, it is the little touches in the new shed that have had a large impact on how comfortable his job is.
“Having some soap and hot water is probably one of the big things, and a deep sink you can get your arms in, because this can be a dirty job,” Mr Theil said.
“It’s well appreciated for sure, better than a cold bucket of water.”
New sheds do not come cheap.
The McGorman family spent $500,000 on their grand design, but it is already paying for itself, allowing for double the number of sheep to be shorn per day than the old shed.
The family argued many of the changes they had made to make shearer’s lives easier — proper washbasins, or better machinery — could be done for a few thousand dollars.
Alex McGorman said it was a question of priorities.
“Some of the sheds I’ve seen about the place are pretty antiquated, yet the farmer will roll in in his LandCruiser and have maybe a half-million-dollar header,” the young farmer said.
“I’d say spend some money on your shed because people spend a lot of time there … just provide a clean place for your shearers to do the job.
“It’s probably one of the world’s toughest jobs, most physical jobs — we should be looking after them as best we can.”