By Georgia Smith
While some 14-year-olds were spending their school holidays playing by the river, Stuart Neal went out with his father early each morning to shear sheep. He was lucky to return before dark.
One of four children, Stuart was sent out for long, hard days in the shed, in an attempt to keep him out of trouble and out of the way. “Dad said to me you would want to start behaving yourself at school and getting some better marks or you’ll be down in the shed with me,” he recalls. “I said, no way.”
With three children of his own and 31 years’ experience in shearing, Stuart still can’t believe his dad was right. “Look where I ended up, you can see I didn’t take any notice.”
Stuart, who is from Lindenow South in East Gippsland, never wanted to be a shearer.
After finishing school, he got a job at an abattoir, until that eventually fell through. After his dad suggested he should come back out and shear with him, he reluctantly agreed.
He averages around one sheep every three minutes and 140 sheep a day and is paid $2.93 per sheep in piece work. “The more you do, the more money you make,” he says. “I’ve shorn a thousand a week a few times, about five times I’ve done that.”
Shearing has also allowed Stuart to travel to other parts of Australia to assist fellow shearers. “The other year I did 60 or 80 days in the Riverina to fill in a bit of a gap over there,” he says.
He now mostly works as a trainer, helping other young shearers learn their trade. It was through learning to train others that Stuart met his now friend of 16 years, Darren Smith, who describes Stuart as, “a good laid-back character of the industry”.
Stuart says he didn’t go looking to become a trainer. They came looking for him. “We didn’t apply for this job, they came and saw us. We were hunted down.”
The pair are putting on three shearing shows a day at the Royal Melbourne Show. They aim to teach others to shear a sheep, where the wool comes from and what it becomes once it’s off the sheep. “People just think you go buy a woollen jumper but they don’t realise how much work goes into it to get it to the woollen jumper stage.”
For Stuart, the show is important in highlighting what life is like for people from different areas of Australia. “Everyone thinks they can just go down to the supermarket and get their eggs and their milk and they don’t realise where it all comes from, all the hard work that goes into it.”
He especially sees the need to display the hard work of a shearer through the show. “I thought it was bad when they took the shearing out of the show because, you know, that was our life,” he says. “They forgot about all of that.”
Stuart first attended the show when he was 14. He competed in the horse riding novelty events before coming back for the shearing competitions in 1989. “I won the intermediate and the senior the first year and then in 1991 I won the big open shearing here,” he says.
Last year, Stuart was asked to come back to the show to help with the shearing. “This year they said, you might as well do the whole thing, I said, ‘that doesn’t worry me’.”
While Stuart says shearing is in his family’s blood, none of his three children are interested in following in his footsteps. “My son’s getting $15.85 at a window place. I said I think I’d be coming out with me, you’re guaranteed $25 an hour.”
Although he starts work at six in the morning, he’s finished by 4.30pm and by dinner on Friday. “I said I think you’d be better off with me son, but he doesn’t want to.”
Despite the hot conditions shearers must endure in the summer, Stuart says this is when the sheep are the best to shear. “All the grease comes up off the skin, they shear best when it’s hot.”
Apart from a minor injury to his back and a cut on his arm, Stuart hasn’t faced any severe injuries from his very hands-on job. “I cut myself once on the arm and I took a run off to get stitched and came back to shear after lunch,” he says.
“He’s tough,” says Darren.