Shearing sheep in New Zealand


 At the end of the show I said, “Golly,

To attempt this at all would be folly.

     To try to shear sheep

     And get the wool in a heap

Without the help of a collie.”

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to avoid burnout, while my non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  After a six-week assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, I’m working on the North Island of New Zealand.

I slept poorly my first night on call since December, which I took in-house at the Wellsford clinic, but when I got back to the beautiful beach house in Leigh I didn’t feel tired.  After a nap and a shower, over cold breakfast on the deck, looking over the Pacific, I recounted the day’s events to Bethany. 

We drove into Matakana for the markets; we bought locally produced cheeses, olive oil, bread, and avocados. 

My volubility carried us through Warkworth (pronounced walk with) and 4 kilometers past to the parking lot at Sheep World, a quality tourist attraction.  I could feel my energy draining away and the physiologic effects of sleep deprivation hit my gut.

We came for the dog-and-sheep show.  Tiered benches lined one end of the show barn; Thai middle-schoolers comprised half the audience of about 50.  The man running the show looked equally comfortable working sheep, training dogs, performing, and teaching. 

He sent his Border Collie off up the hill, among the trees, to find the sheep and bring them into the corral.  The dog controlled the sheep with eye contact, obeying his boss’s voice and whistle commands for left, right, stop and go.  With the sheep in the corral, the second dog, a Hunterway, took over, moving the sheep according to her master’s bidding, by barking.

The dogs worked brilliantly.  After a sheep-sorting exercise came the sheep shearing demonstration.

Our MC brought out a ewe and showed how to position a sheep so it relaxes.  He used electric clippers to remove wool from the belly, hocks, and crotch, then called for a volunteer. 

I folded my arms.

In New Mexico I worked with Navajo, who have so closely allied with sheep that they have their own breed.  One afternoon, four doctors and three nurses, one of them Navajo, went out to shear a couple of the Navajo’s sheep. 

“How about you?” he said, looking right at me.

“I sheared one sheep once,” I said.  “It took me all afternoon.”  Then I switched my accent to Kiwi.  “It probably woulda gone quicker if me mates were sober and the shears electric.”  The audience laughed and I ascended the stage.

My mentor showed me correct foot placement, and while my mind reeled at the thought, I ran the electric shears down the sheep’s flank.  The wool came away in a coherent piece.  In fifteen seconds I accomplished what had taken me half an hour in New Mexico.  When I stood up, leaving the sheep two-thirds unshorn, the audience applauded. 

The MC told us, while he finished shearing, that he could do 120 sheep a day and that the current record stood at 721 sheep, the equivalent of one every 45 seconds.

After the show, I listened to him and asked questions.  He talked about the difference between a working dog and a pet, and how a collie thinks. 

He knew that Kikuyu grass, imported from Africa, made excellent grazing.

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