Phil Sparrow continues the story of Danny, a young forester whose enthusiasm to try anything and grasp every opportunity who, after working in a sawmill, producing kindling and harvesting heather, next found himself shearing sheep in New Zealand.

THE flight to New Zealand was long. Very long. However, it provided Danny with an opportunity for reflection. Still in his very early 20s, he had achieved a great deal and seemed to be headed in the right direction (wherever that was). As with everything so far, his immersion into shearing had been approached with the same determined zeal. Growing up on a farm meant he was no stranger to the task. However, the shearing industry, like many others, had undergone a metamorphosis. Even in my lifetime it was an activity that had changed considerably. My godfather, a Northumbrian shepherd, used hand clippers, which gave his hands a certain character. As a young boy I used to look at these two leather-bound appendages – which seemed immune to heat or pain of any kind – with some fascination. At one time, shearing was undertaken by a shepherd or a farmer specific to that farm, but it quickly became an activity conducted by roving groups of shearers who would move around the country ticking off farms as they went. Shearing is seriously hard work. It’s backbreaking, physical and usually very hot. Top shearers will clip in excess of 300 sheep per day and at £1.50 to £2 per sheep this can be very lucrative.

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It wasn’t long, therefore, before our antipodean friends sniffed an opportunity. Honed on hard work and desire, they realised with the ease of modern travel and the advent of the seasons they could be full-time shearers. Five months in New Zealand, a one- or two-month break and then five months in the UK. Slowly and steadily, they infiltrated the British shearing scene. As with so many aspects of life in the UK, the last 10 to 15 years has seen a reticence on the part of the indigenous population to do dirty work. This has been fuelled by the flow of cheap labour from eastern Europe. Brexit has brought an end to that in some respects, and as a nation we need to rediscover the career opportunities many of these trades provide. There’s a lot out there if people are prepared to grasp it.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 2)

Now we had the process in reverse. Danny’s primary aim of going to New Zealand was to learn how to shear. He’d spotted the opportunity and after total immersion in the process he would return to the UK in a strong position. The shearing community in New Zealand is a hard school and does not suffer fools. Anyone ill equipped for the job would be quickly found out. Danny, like all novices, started at the bottom and spent the first month penning up sheep and pressing wool. He spent the following three months dagging. This is a job you’re unlikely to see or be offered in the modern careers department of the average high school. It requires removing all the congealed faeces from around the sheep’s backside prior to being shorn. Only then, after four months, was he allowed to shear.

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One of the advantages of this job was that he was constantly on the move. New Zealand is a big place, where sheep farming is one of the largest industries. This provided an amazing opportunity to take in the scenery. A few weeks into the job, on his first day off, he wandered into a pawnbroker’s in a small town called Whanganui. There, hidden amongst the general detritus of the store, he spotted a two-year-old Husqvarna 395 chainsaw for the lowly sum of $700 (£350). Clearly this was too good a deal to pass up and would provide something to play with on his days off. Though he had only been in the country a few weeks, he had already spotted an opportunity. Talking to the farmers he had visited, he found many struggled to get woodsmen to clear trees in and around the farms. With the trusty Husqvarna up and running, days off were now spent felling trees at the farms he’d already visited. White pine and elm were the main species.

While the emphasis in New Zealand was on shearing and the desire to join the 300-a-day club, in the UK Danny had been quietly beavering away on the paperwork. It’s very difficult to do anything without the required tickets. One of his most recent courses came under the title of ‘Urban Site Clearances’. Sometimes, big old trees get in the way of urban development or become a danger to their surroundings and so have to be felled, cleared and in some cases replanted. The resulting timber from the clearance is usually put straight through the chipper as extraction would be too expensive.

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He couldn’t help but compare the reality of working in the field in New Zealand to the course he’d done back in the UK, where half of each day was spent doing inductions – listening to some dreary individual drone on and on about safety procedures almost to the point where you wondered whether they actually wanted anyone to do anything – and filling in health and safety forms. A quarter of the day was then spent avoiding the site foreman in case you had bar oil on any part of your hi-viz jacket. The rest of the time was spent drinking tea or coffee before you went home. The contrast couldn’t have been greater.

Courses are important and we all need to upgrade our skills. Technological developments occur and these have to be incorporated into our lives. However, Danny was finding a somewhat overzealous approach in the UK. Some kind of flow diagram could make an interesting piece of art (you can only do that if you have this, but you can’t have this unless you’ve done that, but only provided you’ve completed this and then of course you need a separate qualification for that). We’ve all been through it and I’m sure you get the picture. And of course it all comes at a price as these things aren’t cheap.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 1)

While on paper completing your tree ticket course costs £400, it costs a lot more in lost earnings. It takes between two and five days at the behest of the course organiser and covers chainsaw maintenance, cross cutting, felling trees up to 40 cm, felling trees over 40 cm and assisted felling using a winch for wind-blown and uprooted trees. All important stuff, but the real cost is probably £800–1,000 which is a lot to someone just starting out. Forestry first aid is essential, but takes a day at £125. Obviously if you’re working for a company then it’s likely they will pay, but for the single operator it seems like the cards are stacked against you.

Other strings to his bow which he’d acquired along the way included skyline work. This is the felling of trees on commercial forestry blocks which machinery can’t reach. Most have to be winched out. Likewise with big hardwoods of 50+ cm, most of which need hand felling. He’d also spent some time on the south coast coppicing sweet chestnut on a plantation. These are generally small-diameter trees, too small for machinery to process but very valuable for fencing in the form of round and split posts and strainers. All have to be cut and stacked by hand, which is very laborious, but as it’s done on a piece-rate basis it provides some of the best money you can make on a saw if you’re prepared to work.

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There is one qualification, however, which we must include. If you are of a certain age you now have to do a course to be able to tow a trailer. The course takes two days and costs £800. Yes, £800 to be able to tow a trailer! I’ve worked with Danny on many occasions and his mastery of vehicles is second to none. Growing up on a farm has meant his experience covers farm machinery of every sort, diggers and every kind of earth-moving vehicle. I’ve seen him reverse giant flatbeds fully laden at speed, into some of the tightest recesses you can imagine. I can only guess at the utter humiliation he must have suffered as he spent two days driving around Berwick-upon-Tweed with a five-foot trailer on the back of his car. Of course he passed!

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, after several weeks of full-on shearing he made it into the 300 club. That’s 300 sheep sheared in a single day. I’m led to believe it’s the Valhalla of the shearing community. As the shearing season came to a close in New Zealand and the shearers prepared to move to the UK en masse, Danny decided to relax and take in the sites – but not before selling the Husqvarna 395 to a forester for $900!

As a footnote, he popped across to my place last week to shear my six very woolly pet ewes. He apologised for being early (around 4.30 pm), having already sheared 420 that day!

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