Breaking the nine-hour world record sheep shearing time of 721 ewes is a tall order, but 30-year-old Matt Smith is determined to do it.
New Zealand born Matt, who farms with his wife, Pippa, on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, has already begun training for the world record attempt, which will be the first of its type in the northern hemisphere.
Matt says he will burn more calories during the challenge – which will require him to shear a sheep every 38 seconds – than he would by running three marathons.
He is on a strict diet of lean meat and a good mix of protein and carbs. Alcohol and caffeine, meanwhile, have been replaced with tulsi and liquorice tea.
By training three times a week with a personal trainer, Matt is starting to condition his body by focusing on strength and cardio fitness.
This spring and summer he will start building up his stamina by taking part in regional shearing competitions and taking on commercial shearing across the UK.
Matt already holds the eight-hour shearing world record of 578 ewes. His brothers, Rowland and Douglas, are also champion shearers who hold the world record for shearing 1,066 ewes in eight hours between them.
- Before a record shearing attempt, the sheep are housed on carpet. This keeps them warm and makes them sweat, making them easier to shear.
- The person folding the wool is termed a “rousey” in New Zealand.
- The eight- and nine-hour records are based on commercial standard working hours in New Zealand, Australia and the US.
- Three judges will judge the world record attempt.
- For every 100 sheep shorn, the shearer buys the crew a box of beer.
- It is common for shearers to cut their hands and the tips of their fingers. Matt Smith has even bitten through his tongue.
- If any teats are cut through, or if breeding is impaired in any way, those sheep will get deducted from the final total.
During his last world record victory, when he was 25, Matt lost more than a stone in weight, which took him three weeks to regain.
“I actually thought I was going to die,” he says. “At my first break I was being sick so I didn’t eat anything all day, apart from a salt tablet.”
So Matt knows the nine-hour record attempt will be tough. “Each sheep has to weigh a minimum of 55kg, so that’s the equivalent of lifting more than 44t in the nine hours,” he says.
Suitable sheep breeds
Matt is searching for a suitable flock to shear for this challenge. The rules specify that the sheep must have at least 3kg of wool, including belly wool, and must have 90% of wool on the hips.
This excludes many sheep breeds in the UK, such as the Mule; Matt says the only suitable breeds are Romney or Romney-crosses or Highlanders.
Once Matt has sourced a flock, the sheep must remain unsheared for at least a year in order to grow the 3kg of wool required.
Matt will select a batch of about 1,000 ewes to shear before his challenge, choosing them for evenness and how open their wool is.
The challenge itself will be based on commercial standard working hours in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Matt will begin shearing at 5am and continue until 5pm, taking three breaks.
He will have a team of about 15 helpers, who will fill the pen with sheep. The pen can hold only 10 sheep at a time and the team cannot refill until it is down to the last two.
Only Matt can retrieve the sheep from the pen of 10 for shearing. The team will also make sure he has enough to drink and will keep him motivated.
A wool handler will keep the fleeces folded and out of Matt’s way.
The current world record was set by New Zealander Rodney Sutton in 2007. “He was on the wire all day,” recalls Matt. “He had just four seconds left to catch his last sheep.”
38 seconds a sheep
Beating the record will be “quite tight”, admits Matt. “I have to catch the sheep and sort out my own gear.
“While it works out at about 45 seconds a sheep, when you take out changing of the shearing combs, which will have to be done about every hour, and the cutters, which have to be changed every 15-20 minutes – and drinking – it works out at about 38 seconds to shear a sheep.”
However, Matt thinks he stands a good chance of beating the record. “I think I’ve got as good a chance as anybody.
“The men who have done it before have been tough; I’ve got to be humble to those that have done it before but I’ve got to be confident too. I hate failure,” he says.
Matt says his music playlist will have an important part in getting him through. “My music will help keep me focused; it will contain some AC/DC, Foo Fighters and some sentimental songs too.”
Getting into shearing
Shearing has been Matt’s passion since he left school at 14. He says: “I could never fathom how someone could shear 700 sheep in nine hours so I was interested to find out.
“So at 14 I left the family farm in Ruawai and went north to the sheep stations where they would be shearing 6,000-15,000 ewes on most blocks.
“It’s those big farms that make you a shearer of that level. It’s blood, sweat, dust and tears,” he says.
In New Zealand it is the strict routine of an eight- or nine-hour shearing day that keeps the shearers focused. “It’s very regimental, but that’s how the shearers get good, as they’ve got the consistency,” Matt adds.
On average, Matt would be shearing 400-600 sheep a day and the most he has worked is 62 days straight. “The most sheep I’ve shorn in a month is 16,000,” he says.
“You’ve got purpose-built sheds so you just turn up with your tools and away you go.”
Matt says he has been inspired by a lot of people. His dad started him off by teaching him how to shear their 1,500 ewes on their home farm when he was 13.
“He was a great teacher. But when it came to that next level, Paul Pairkea has been very influential and was a good shearer in his time, shearing 600 sheep day in, day out.
“He really encouraged me to be disciplined and push myself to these levels; he was mentally inspiring,” Matt says.
Practice makes perfect
Matt was 17 when he first sheared 500-plus sheep in a day. He recalls: “It was scorching hot. I turned up at the shearing station at 3am to set up.
“Paul said he didn’t think I had it in me to shear over 500, and he said: ‘Better luck next year’. That day I sheared 523 sheep.”
Matt says there is no secret to shearing a sheep, even though it is sometimes called a black art. “Practice makes perfect, but you never stop learning.
“For young people, ask lots of questions and talk to experienced people,” he says.