Darlington Point | Sheep shearing season is in full swing in Australia, but with the COVID-19 epidemic and government-imposed border closures to stem its spread, pastoralists are having a hard time recruiting shearers.
In southwest New South Wales, Tubbo Station, a 25,000-hectare farm with a flock of more than 15,000 sheep, is far from operating at full capacity.
“We are missing about fifteen people, New Zealanders and Australians from the state of Victoria who usually come to help us. But it is impossible for them to come at this time. Suddenly, there are only 25 of us, whereas we should be 40, ”explains Andrew Morrison, responsible for recruiting mowers for farms in the region.
Inside the huge barn dedicated to shearing, which has hardly changed since it was built at the end of the 19th century, the pace is nevertheless very sustained: 1,600 sheep will be shorn during the day.
The animals are dragged out of their enclosure on their backs, then the shearers, resting on a basket so as not to break their backs, strip them in a few minutes of their wool, which at the end of winter represents 30% of the weight of the animals. animals.
A job made very difficult by the closure of Australia’s international borders in March, decided to contain the pandemic. Most Australian states have done the same, or have imposed a chargeable quarantine, on seasonal workers from other states, also hampering fruit and vegetable harvests.
Shearers in Australia are largely seasonal, traveling from state to state, a good proportion of whom are foreigners. Of the 3,000 to 4,000 shearers who officiate in Australia each year, at least 500 come from New Zealand, where the mowing takes place earlier.
Their absence is felt in the most remote corners of the country, New South Wales or South and Western Australia. “In some of these regions, New Zealanders represent between 30 and 70% of the workforce,” says Andrew Morrison.
“The wool has been stored”
The problem may soon be resolved. From October 16, New Zealanders will be able to travel to Australia, without quarantine, initially in the Northern Territory and New South Wales.
The wool industry has tried to attract young Australians to this profession. But the new recruits will not be ready for this season.
“Mowing is a very special and very difficult job. There are opportunities for those who are willing to learn. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we should probably be a little more self-sufficient, ”said Andrew Blanche, an exporter who represents several European luxury customers, such as Armani or Hugo Boss.
Met at the Sydney Wool Exchange, the country’s main selling point, where bales of wool are auctioned off, he believes for his part that the labor shortage has not yet been overwhelmed. consequences on the market.
However, this is not the case with the pandemic, which has had “a heavy impact” on the Australian market, “since our main customers in Europe and Asia have been confined for weeks. Many orders were canceled, and the wool that had to be sold was therefore stored, ”says Andrew Blanche, pointing to shelves filled to the brim with bales of wool.
In addition, the drought that has afflicted much of the country over the past decade has sharply reduced the size of the Australian herd, which fell to 65 million head in 2019 from 72 million in 2012, according to the Australian Bureau. of Statistics.
Australia remains the world’s largest producer of wool, with 283,000 tonnes harvested during the 2019-20 season. China is by far its main customer, followed by India and Italy.