MASTERTON, NEW ZEALAND (AFP) – In New Zealand’s close-knit shearing community, Joel Henare is regarded as a Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods or Jonah Lomu – a GOAT in the sheep sheds.
Now 31, he first stepped into the bright lights of competitive shearing at the lambkin age of 12.
Henare has since notched 132 competition victories in wool handling – the high-speed art of separating off-cuts from a sheared fleece.
In his discipline, he is considered to be the best.
He begins his work with an artistic flick, spreading the matted fleece over a table, before expertly trimming, snipping and slicing unwanted parts in rapid succession.
Within 60 seconds, he is on to the next one.
Henare dominated the field at this month’s Golden Shears, a prestigious event that draws shearers and wool handlers from all over the world to Masterton, a provincial farming town with a population of 27,000.
After notching his ninth open wool handling title in a row, drenched in sweat and panting, Henare put his success down to hard work, discipline and quick thinking.
“You need to be fit in your body physically, but you also need to have the mental strength,” he told AFP.
“Consistency is key. You need to have your wits about you at all times.” New Zealand, home to five million people and 25 million sheep, is one of the world’s main wool exporters, last year sending USD284 million worth overseas.
Rising farming costs and falling wool prices have seen national sheep figures dwindle from a high of 72 million in the 1980s.
Yet their specialised skills mean shearers and wool handlers remain in demand despite falling sheep numbers, president of New Zealand’s Shearing Contractors Association Mark Barrowcliffe, told AFP.
“Shearing is facing many different challenges, including a labour shortage, so there will always be work for a well-trained wool handler or shearer,” he added.
Competitive shearing and wool handling is serious business in New Zealand, which even has a designated federation – Shearing Sports NZ – to oversee competitions.
Professional shearers need dexterity and incredible stamina to clip hundreds of sheep – each weighing around 60 kilogrammes – during a typical eight-hour working day.
Wool handling also demands a well-organised approach, Henare said, “to do it properly every time, not just up on stage, but anywhere you go in the world”. Golden Shears organisers paint Henare as “the Jonah Lomu of shearing sports” – invoking the storied legacy of the New Zealand rugby great.
But this Greatest of All Time quit full-time shearing work four years ago and now competes just as a hobby. Techniques, tricks and tips on how to handle sheep and their wool are passed down through the generations in New Zealand’s sheep sheds, and Henare hails from a dynasty.
His grandmother was a champion wool handler on the plains of Otago. Two of his great uncles were shearers who competed in Golden Shears finals in the 1960s.
Already young pretenders to Henare’s status as a Golden Shears champion are emerging.
Among them are teen shearing sensation Reuben Alabaster, who broke the solo world record last December by shearing 746 sheep in eight hours.
Alabaster said he was often worn out at the end of a competition, “but you just push through if it’s a dream you’re chasing”.
“It’s amazing what your body can do,” he added.
Like Henare, the 19-year-old grew up around sheep sheds, learning his trade since childhood from family members such as cousin Sheree Alabaster – the 2008 wool handling world champion.
Shearing also comes down to training techniques.
“It’s all about positioning, some sheep sit better than others,” said the teenager.
“It’s a lot nicer for the sheep if you’re holding them right too.
“Some just have an attitude and don’t want to be shorn at all.
“Even the best shearers in the world still get kicked.”