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The New Zealand Merino Shears has been a staple on rural calendars for 60 years, with competitors coming from throughout the nation – and internationally – to claim the industry’s elite titles.  Having weathered recent challenges – its cancellation last year due to Covid-19 and pandemic restrictions for its 60th year in 2021 – the event is still staying true to its roots. Shannon Thomson reports.

Treading the boards . . . Shearers compete in the senior machine shearing semifinal at the 60th Merino Shears on Saturday, PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

For New Zealand Merino Shearing Society life member Graeme Bell, the 60th anniversary of the competition marks a lifetime’s love affair with the industry.

Growing up in the centre of Alexandra, Mr Bell did not come from farming stock, but something about the life of a shearer caught his eye.

“I used to see the shearers roll up in their Mk II Zephyrs and Holden utes and I used to think one day’.”

“I used to wag school every year to participate [at the shears] as a helper, then I was encouraged by those people to get involved with the industry, which I did and I’ve been involved in that industry for over 50 years.”

“It’s hard to believe it’s 60 years but it is .. and it is an honour to be involved with this organisation,” he said.

NZ Merino Shearing Society life member Graeme Bell. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

Mr Bell’s six-decade affiliation with the shears had been been both on and off the boards.

He had success in the woolhandling, winning the Alexandra event “a couple of times” as well as being a placegetter on a number of occasions.

He had also judged for many years.

“I’m just as happy to be out the back, not in the front, and having been made a master woolhandler for my successes in being a shedhand is really nice, too,” he said.

The shears had weathered challenges and changes during six decades of the event started by farmers to promote wool and raise the standard of shearing but has evolved into a national and international event.

“I think it’s got a lot more professional, a lot more focused nationwide on the importance of competing, Mr Bell said.

“The Merino Shears was initially set up to raise the standard of shearing and that still is the principle of shearing competitions. I guess a lot of competitors today are just in there for the prizemoney and to achieve their goals.”

But it was set up by farmers originally to try to promote wool and raise the standard of shearing and that’s what it’s done, and is still doing that here with our show.”

Wool presser Vorne Wheki, of Gore, moves wool bales to the press at the NZ Merino Shears. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

Shearing was not only an industry but also a sport selling the quality of the people working in the industry, he said.

“It’s also selling the end result of good preparation of wool standards and that is something that was really drummed into us when we started, when I was a young fella, by our farming people that were involved in our society.”

They just wanted to see the wool being prepared to the best possible manner and this is what these sort of competitions do,” he said

“Just as getting the sheep shorn to the best possible manner, not discounting the wool in any way that’s what it’s all about.”

While many events on the 2021 shearing sports calendar are in doubt, the 60th Merino Shears went ahead, with an adapted format for the Covid-19 environment.

Sorting it . . . Woolhandler Destiny Paikea competes in the senior woolhandlers semifinal. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

Two separate one-day events for woolhandling and shearing were held under strict Level 2 guidelines, minus the international competitors and throngs of spectators. “We’re doing it Covid Level 2 standards, the same as the Tokyo Olympics, so what you saw on the Olympics is what you’re seeing here today.”

“And so it is a wee bit spooky not having the spectators there,” he said.

Competition remained fierce, though, as the industry’s elite fought it out on the boards.

More than 70 woolhandlers and 65 shearers took part in the event, and in the end, two former world champions walked away with the major titles.

Winning shear . . . Invercargill shearer Nathan Stratford on his way to securing the open shearing title at the New Zealand Merino Shears on Saturday. PHOTOS: SHANNON THOMSON

Invercargill shearer Nathan Stratford claimed the NZ Merino open shearing title for the fifth time, beating runner-up Ringakaha Paewai, of Gore.

Stratford was third to finish and was not confident of the win.

“I felt I hadn’t done enough”, he said.

However with penalty points stacking up against his competitors, Stratford’s time and quality of shear assured him of the title.

It was “special” to win on the competition’s 60th anniversary, he said.

Title reclaimed . . . Former world champion woolhandler Joel Henare regained the New Zealand Merino Shears open woolhandling title on Friday. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON

In the open woolhandling Joel Henare, of Gisborne, beat defending champion, Alexandra woman Pagan Karauria, and took the title for the fourth time.

His win came despite not having worked with fine wool for two years and he was happy just to make the final.

“Pagan was tough to beat,” he said.

“If the heats and semis were anything to go off, Pagan had won the final prior to it happening.”