The Wild, Woolly World of Competitive Sheep Shearing

What could be more Kiwi than competitive sheep shearing? This year, the Golden Shears World Championships were held right here in Southland, New Zealand where I've been living for the past four & a half months. Of course I had to buy two tickets for Emmett and I to attend the grand finale this past Saturday night. When we arrived half an hour before starting time, the two of us were surprised to find the only crowds we've seen yet in Southland. We were told later that not only was the event sold out but that there were 4,000 people in attendance.

Before Saturday evening, I can promise you that I knew nothing about the world of competitive sheep shearing and wool-handling. Watching the grand finale ended up being surprisingly fun and it was definitely the most interesting sporting event I've ever attended in person. The night was chock full of impressive skill sets, sheep jokes, Babe references, and Kiwi pride.

The Basics.

The night was divided into three types of competition: shearing (team & individual), machine shearing (team & individual), and wool-handling (team & individual). The teams were always just two people. (Side note: the team from England was a father-son duo). Machine shearing, compared to traditional shearing with scissor-like blades, involves an electric razor apparatus hanging from the wall. The sheep are all penned up behind the stage and then grabbed through a doorway to shear. Post-shearing, the sheep are slid into a chute that will take them off-stage. Traditional blade users shear six sheep per final and the machine shearers do an astounding twenty. What do they win in the end? First place competitors take home a cash prize, a trophy, a sash, and brand new sheep shearing gear.

The British Commonwealth dominated the finals.

These are the countries represented in the finals for both team and individual shearing & woolhandling: New Zealand, England, Scotland, Australia, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Cook Islands, and South Africa. I know some of these countries aren't technically a part of the Commonwealth any more but I think the countries represented in the finale say something about the British colonial origins of the sport.

You see more of the sheep shearer's rears than their faces.

Enough said:

Hosting the World Championships was a big source of pride for New Zealanders.

New Zealand Prime Minister and Southland native Bill English was in attendance (seen on the far left below). He gave the audience a short speech about how sheep shearing is an important Kiwi tradition. He even threw in a joke about the large crowds being comparable to those of a Donald Trump rally. The commentators did a good job of hyping up the crowd whenever anyone said anything about New Zealand.

Jason Kerrison (middle), an award-winning New Zealand singer-songwriter originally from Southland, played songs in between competitions that he peppered with corny sheep jokes like "What do you get when you cross sheep and chocolate? A chocolate baaa!" Kerrison also said that the overwhelming scent of lanolin in the stadium reminded him of home.

Last but not least, a group of local teenagers in traditional Maori dress (right) performed the distinctly New Zealand kapa haka before each final.

Sheep produce a lot of wool.

I know, I know. This seems fairly obvious. However, I was pretty floored by the amount of wool that would come off of one sheep - especially during the woolhandling competition. See for yourself:

Wool-handling is an intense and confusing sport.

This mostly-female sport included a lot of technical tricks such as sweeping, fluffing, and rolling the wool all in a very precise manner. The commentators also mentioned that "if the judges find a bit of cheap wool in the fleece wool, [the handlers will] be penalized." It's honestly quite hard to explain how the process works. This video I took ought to do a better job of demonstrating how woolhandling is done:

Sheep shearers are incredibly skilled.

Sheep shearing takes an insane amount of strength, concentration, and finesse. And these guys are fast - the best of the sheep shearers using blades can de-wool a sheep in 60 seconds or less. And the machine shearers can finish in nearly half that time. Check out World Champion Hamish Mitchell from Scotland machine-shear a sheep:

Watching a Sheep Shearing Competition is basically like watching any other sport.

  • Individual competitors were announced and then walked on stage to arena classics like Queen's "We Will Rock You" and Eminem's "Lose Yourself."
  • There was some (civilized) booing and loads of cheering for both individual players and teams.
  • Returning champions had celebrity status.
  • There were stadium snacks (classic Kiwi hand pies) and alcohol for sale.
  • They have humorous and dedicated announcers who speak in breakneck horse-race style commentary. Though what they say is a bit... different. (Some direct quotes are "And he chops right through to the base of the ear" and "They don't resharpen. They must have perfect steel. It must be made of diamonds."

Competitive sheep shearing is not harmful to sheep.

Though there were one or two small nicks of a sheep's skin in the competition, the sheep that participated were not harmed during the finals. If anything, the sheep seemed merely startled to be in an arena atmosphere. Because of the way they have been bred an unshorn sheep's wool could grow too heavy for the sheep to be able to walk. Furthermore, the shearers hold the sheep in such a way that they are mostly subdued whilst being shorn.
The Golden Shears committee made a point of posting signs reinforcing sheep's safety throughout the stadium.

Overall, I had a great time at the World Shearing & Woolhandling Championships. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it more than some of the traditional sporting events that I've been to in the past like American football and basketball. If you ever get the chance to see a sheep shearing and woolhandling competition, even on a national level, I'd definitely recommend it. The next World Championships, though, will be held in Le Dorat, France in 2019. Lastly, there's also a Golden Shears competition held each year in Masterton, NZ.