Invercargill

At the sound of a buzzer, six men each grab a frightened sheep from behind a gate. Herculean forearms move at breakneck speeds, fleece flies in all directions, and a steady gaze of concentration reigns as each man clips his way through twenty sheep, one after another, without reprieve. The 2017 International Sheep Shearing and Wool Handling Final has officially begun.

“Uh-oh, Ireland’s got a kicker!” the loudspeaker booms. Damián and I exchange looks of delight. We naively believe that we might witness some kind of WWF smackdown, but the Irish sheep shearer takes less than a second to end the struggle with a quick repositioning of sheep legs.

Regardless, we are still very excited to be in a stadium full of patriotic New Zealand farmers, competitors from sheep stratospheres across the world, and even the New Zealand Prime Minister himself, Bill English. His hometown of Invercargill is the location of this year’s competition.

“This is like Major League 4-H!” I shout over the din to Damián, but he shakes his head in confusion. As an Argentinian, he knows nothing about 4-H and couldn’t care less about baseball. I try again. “This is like hanging out with family on the farm northern Wisconsin, isn’t it?”

He grins. “I know! That’s why I wore my flannel.”

Indeed there are plenty of hard-faced men in their best flannel, wild-haired women in gumboots, and so many people shouting “Hello!” and “Good on ya!” across the aisles that it feels like we have stumbled right into a whole South Island family reunion. New Zealand farmers often live in extremely remote locations so their joy at seeing familiar faces is not at all an exaggeration, but perhaps it is being helped along by the copious amounts of alcohol on hand.

Miraculously, we find a familiar face of our own in the crowd. A friend from the Basque Country of Spain, a region historically known for its shepherds, has made the trip to compete as a sheep shearer as well. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to the final round, but that means he is there to share beers and act as our interpreter into the world of wool.

And there is a lot to learn. The final is separated into three main events for individuals and pairs: blade shearing, machine shearing, and wool handling. In the shearing events, judges evaluate competitors on both speed and technique. Specifically, points may be lost for work that is done before or after the time, skin attached to the wool, any breaking of the fleece, or a second cutting of the wool. The goal is to make as few shears as possible, keeping the wool in nice large pieces and this precision must always be achieved with maximum speed.

During the competition, the audience is able to follow the speed of each sheep shearer by watching their sheep tally and time on the screen, but the final composite score is not revealed until the end, after the judges have reviewed the quality of the wool and the condition of the sheep. This often causes upsets at the award ceremony since, as we know, the speedy hare doesn’t always surpass the slow and steady tortoise.

While blade and machine shearing appear to be mostly male-dominated pursuits, wool handling is a practice where more women shine. It involves separating the short wool from fleeces and into different grades in the quickest time possible. This is a bit boring to watch, but the Cook Islands makes it exciting with their thundering drum corp. The whole stadium shakes to the sound of a jungle heartbeat as the finalists hurry about their wool tables, feeling the heat of the stopwatch. In the end, they throw their great piles of wool high into the air. To the inexperienced observer, this looks like an act of exasperation, but we are quickly assured that it is done as the final step in order to aerate the wool.

The countries who have reached the final are those that one would expect, given their sheep statistics: Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But it is actually South Africa who steals the show. We are left open-mouthed as two black South Africans dominate the blade-shearing event with incredible speed and skill. Our friend tells us that they won the year before and this year, we soon learn that they will win it again.

The South Africans take home first place for the individual and team blade-shearing final, while New Zealand sweeps the board with both grand prizes for machine shearing and wool handling in the team and individual events. The stadium erupts into cheers and a Maori contingent appears to salute their fellow countrymen with their powerful traditional war dance, the Haka. Damián and I are also  triumphant, feeling as though we have finally reached cultural nirvana in New Zealand. Counting sheep has never been so exciting.

WHAT TO DO IN INVERCARGILL

Invercargill is the southernmost city in New Zealand (BRRR) and unless you’re heading there for a specific purpose, like the International Sheep Shearing Competition, it’s probably not worth the drive. A few farmers might want to shear me for saying that, but we just weren’t too impressed with the city itself. It has a couple of great old buildings, wide thoroughfares, and a pretty comprehensive transportation museum but that’s about it.

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