26 March 1999

Down-under skills aid UK shearing

A SHORTAGE of professional sheep shearers in the UK means Bedfordshire shearing contractor Mark Stokoe turns to his native New Zealand for adequate skills come shearing time.

"It is a demanding trade which is generally recognised as one of the least lucrative in UK farming, despite the level of skill required to shear sheep profitably and efficiently," says Mr Stokoe. "A good days shearing is equivalent to running a half marathon."

Faced with a workload of shearing about 100,000 sheep a year, Mark Stokoe, who runs Stockton Shearing from Park Farm, Keysoe, Beds, hires seven shearers to join him working in a frenzy of activity from the beginning of May until the end of June.

"We will shear about 65,000 sheep through the UK shearing period, then focus on the live export trade and set up our kit in Europe to shear another 40,000 sheep," he says. "It can extend our shearing season to about 10 months of the year."

In a hectic year, Mr Stokoe and his gang have prepared up to 200,000 fleeces for customers throughout Europe, which has helped justify his heavy investment in mobile shearing equipment, but he sees the live export market slowly drying up.

"Other shearing opportunities might come from abattoirs who could need sheep cleaning up before slaughter," he says.

Mr Stokoes equipment for the task includes two pen-type shearing trailers and one race-trailer. It is a combination which gives him the flexibility to operate two gangs of three shearers and one gang of two.

"Shearers prefer the race trailer because throughput is faster and their potential to shear more, and earn more, a day is greatly increased," he says. "But it is harder for farmers to keep the ewes moving steadily into the race, which can have a knock-on effect on output."

Typically, Mr Stokoe expects each shearer to remove about 250-300 fleeces a day, then each fleece is cleaned up, correctly presented and then rolled ready for marketing.

In addition to providing work permits and accommodation, Mr Stokoe equips each shearing gang with a generator and a capable 4×4 to get each shearing outfit into terrain occupied by only the most resilient of sheep.

At 85p a head, Mr Stokoe reckons his shearing charge is competitive, though admits it does not allow the due reward his skilled shearers deserve. But with earning linked to a headage rate, the incentive to earn money is available through hard work.

Aiming to raise the profile of professional sheep shearing in the UK, Mr Stokoe is working with the British wool marketing board to help encourage home-grown talent into the industry, but the physical demands and limited financial reward makes it an uphill struggle.

"Despite the skill and professionalism involved in shearing, farmers still link our service to the price of wool," he says. "Its a situation which will perhaps never change, and is why the rates of pay will continue to stay held down." &#42