‘Big family’ behind long involvement

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Shearing is in the blood of Alexandra man Graeme Bell.

At 10 years old, he would sneak across the road from his home in Skird St to the town hall and help out with the New Zealand Merino Shearing Championships, which were called the New Zealand Golden Fleece Fine Wool Shearing Society Championships back then.

Now, 55 years on, Mr Bell has been awarded a life membership to the New Zealand Merino Shearing Society.

Mr Bell recalls that as a child, he would head across the road to lend a hand on the Thursday nights, setting up for the championships.

On the Friday, he would not even make it to the school gate, as he was again across the road, helping to bring the sheep up and carrying fleeces from the table to the press.

“That became my life. From there I got involved with the industry. I’ve been involved in the wool industry my whole life.”

The show had been started by a group of farmers who wanted shearers to be able to shear merinos well, and to increase the skills of the woolhandlers, he said.

Mr Bell left school in 1968, when he started woolhandling for Fred PeytonHarrex.

In between he went to Lincoln College, which is now Lincoln University, and completed a wool science course.

Back in those days, wool classing was not done in shearing sheds, and when Mr Bell completed his wool science course he broke into the industry by classing in sheds.

“I broke into it through farmers giving me a shot.”

Mr Bell started competing in woolhandling competitions in 1969.

He competed for more than 10 years and as the Alexandra show became short of judges, he swapped skirting for scoring in the early 1970s, but continued to compete in other competitions until the early 1980s.

Mr Bell has won the New Zealand merino shearing open woolhandling title a couple of times, between 1978 and 1980.

When the competition started, it was only for shearers, before a teams event was introduced for shearers and woolhandlers, followed by the individual open woolhandling event.

In the late 1970s, a novice woolhandling event was introduced, he said.

“Nowadays, we have junior, senior and open grades for shearing and woolhandling.”

The number of competitors had also increased, with more than 100 people competing across all of the grades.

“The open [woolhandling] event has doubled in size.”

Judging has advanced with technology. It used to be on a card and was now all electronic, so spectators could keep up with what was going on with competitors.

“They used to cut a pencil in three and give you a bit.”

Mr Bell put his long service with the industry and the merino shears down to the people.

“It’s like a big family. The family connection keeps people like me there for all of these years.”

He was now seeing third generations of families competing.

The most noticeable change he had seen in the competition was in the competitors.

Shearers and woolhandlers used to compete in the show for a bit of fun with mates, and the hope of doing well, Mr Bell said.

“Now they all come with the goal of winning or making the final.”

It was a very community-oriented event, with groups and individuals all working to make it happen, he said.

One of Mr Bell’s favourite memories of the event was the jubilee year, in 2011, when he was president of the show.

The committee organised a tri-nations competition between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, which included machine shearing, blade shearing and woolhandling.

The committee had also organised past winners of the merino shearing and woolhandling championships to attend the event that year, which was incredible, Mr Bell said.

“That was a very special occasion.”

He had high hopes of remaining involved in the show and the industry for years to come, he said.