Sheep-shearing course a passport to a better future for Indigenous graduates

Izak Drew, 16, a graduate of the Merriman Shearing School, turns a fleece into a cloud. Photo: Kate Geraghty Tray Georgetown, 18, from Strathpine in Queensland (left) and Andrew Ferguson, 21, from Warnambool in Victoria in the yards on Merriman Station. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Shane Dolan 23 (centre) a graduate of the Merriman Shearing School, helps farmers round up sheep in the pens during crutching. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The Merriman Shearing School’s students watch a demonstration near the end of the 13-week course. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The entrance to the Merriman Shearing School outside Brewarrina. Photo: Kate Geraghty

It’s at least 45 degrees in the sheep-filled corrugated iron shed outside Brewarrina that houses Australia’s only Indigenous shearing school.

It’s an unusual spot to get a passport to a new life, international travel and a $2000-a-week job.

“I’ve worked in 40 different countries,” says Ian “Boff” Bateman, a shearer and contractor who started shearing 51 years ago when he was 13.

“You can go anywhere in the world [at least 70 countries shear sheep] and become a shearer or a wool handler,” says Bateman, who has run the course at Merriman Shearing School in north-west NSW since 2009. The school is part of Merriman Station, a 16,000-hectare property owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation.

For many of the 120 Indigenous young men and women who have graduated in the past five years from the shearing course, it has provided a way out of unemployment: between 71  per cent and 85 per cent have found jobs on the land, mostly as shearers and wool handlers.

“I am loving it,” says Patric Weldon, 28, who is proud of shearing 20 sheep. “This is the thing.”

Weldon, a Dubbo father of a four-year-old boy and who has another baby on the way, says he has been “getting in trouble with the law” ever since he left school early.

After graduating from the 13-week course on Thursday, Weldon has a job in a “learner’s pen,” similar to a shearing apprenticeship. Before starting the course, he’d worked in a few abattoirs where he had seen “too many dead sheep”.

Unlike the old days, new techniques and training mean the sheep come out nice and pink, instead of nicely nicked.

“These guys,” says Bateman talking about the sheep and not the students, “are pink, and not red. It means they have got all the wool off them. Years ago, that was bloody near impossible,” he says. But improved training by Australian Wool Innovation has taught everyone how to shear properly without bloodying the sheep.

Although farmers are slaughtering sheep they can’t afford to feed, the demand for shearers is still strong and the wool price has stayed at highs not seen in nearly 10 years, other than a spike in 2010. When northern NSW and Queensland recover from the drought, Bateman says the demand for shearers will exceed supply.

Shearers are paid $2.87 a head, and an experienced worker can shear 200 a day.

“Even if you are shearing 80 sheep a day, it is still way in front of the dole,” says Bateman.

The 13-week residential course is alcohol- and drug-free, with daily jogs of four kilometres and weight-training for strength and endurance. At night, the group heads down to the Barwon River for fishing and bonfires.

The scene inside the shed hasn’t changed much in the 125 years since Tom Roberts painted Shearing the Rams.

However, the technology is different. The latest electric shears have names such as the Supershear Viper and the Cyclone Icon. The clothes are less modest: Nearly everyone wears a singlet.

Jaiden Winters, 17, of Brewarrina, found shearing difficult at first.

“At the start I was a bit angry because the sheep wouldn’t stop moving,” he says.

But the new graduate learnt to conserve his energy – shearers use their legs and arms to stop the sheep kicking and moving.

“It’s changed me into a less angry person,” he says.

He lists what he has learnt: How to pick up a fleece, clean the fleece, stitch a sheep (if a sheep is cut with a handpiece, the trainees learn how to stitch a wound), shear a sheep, how to dip the sheep (to remove flies and lice) and pen the sheep, and other skills.

“It turned out I liked it,” says Winters, who now has a job shearing in NZ.

The graduation ceremonies are always moving, says Craig North, the executive director of the Indigenous Land Corporation.

“At the start of the course, the kids come in, heads down, and they lack confidence. But 13 weeks later, their heads are held high, and it’s amazing how many kids are willing to grab the microphone.”

Additional reporting by Kate Geraghty 

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