Friday, 14 October 2016

Picking up the fleece

Hi everyone,
On Thursday just gone I tried something I hadn't done before in the way of employment: work as a rouseabout.
Let me explain.
The meaning of the term 'rouseabout' shifts a little depending on context, but broadly it refers to a general hand working in a shearing shed.  In this case some friends of the parental units (farmers of the older generation, just like the parentals) were having 120 of their sheep shorn.
The job of the rouseabout is to 'pick up' for the shearers.  That is, to notice when a shearer is about to finish shearing a sheep, to step in and as soon as the fleece hits the floor, to pick it up, carry it over to the table, and to throw it so that it lands more or less open, then to pick off the bits that are dung-marked, bloody or otherwise stained and throw them away, to pull off the shank wool and throw it into a hopper, and to pull off the wool that is matted and waxen and to throw it into another hopper, and then to put the fleece to one side or to put it into the wool press.
I got to the shearing shed about 0700 on the Thursday.  One of the shearers had already arrived - a gentleman about 70 years old.  I don't recall his name.  "Have you picked up in a shed before?" he asked.  I said no.  "Oh fuck" he said and sighed heavily.  He then tasked me with penning up sheep for him and hte other shearer, who arrived presently.  I learned two things from penning up sheep. First, they're more pleasant to herd in close quarters than cattle: they kick less, and not as hard, and there's no risk of being crushed by several hundred kilos of livestock.  Second, the writer (Randolph Stow?) was not lying who said that they're basically a walking cotton bush and about as bright.
The sheep penned, and a second shearer and rouseabout having arrived, the shears started up.  The day settled into three 'runs' of 40 sheep each, with me more or less constantly on the move on the jobs I mentioned.  Regrettably, I didn't think to time the shearers, but at a guess they might have been only 3-4 minutes per sheep.  You can guess how quickly I found myself needing to move to pick up for both of them, sort the fleece and generally clean up, even with another rouseabout there plus the farmers who owned the sheep.
I had a vague notion that food was traditionally supplied for the shearers and shed hands, and this seemed to be the case.  Morning and afternoon tea took the form of sandwiches and coffee, and lunch corned beef with vegetables.
Tom Roberts - Shearing the rams - Google Art Project.jpg
The 'rouseabout' is the boy at the far left of the picture
Image from here
One other thing I learned was that Tom Roberts' famous painting of The Shearing of the Rams (1890) [pictured above] is remarkably accurate.  For one thing, the floor in the picture is accurately strewn with heaps of wool and dung.  The rouseabout is carrying the wool in the way I was shown.  And having someone sweeping the floor is a necessity.
The pay for the day wasn't bad.  The market average is meant to be about a dollar per sheep for a rouseabout, and we were paid a bit over the average.  It's a long way from my window office in the Rialto, but right now I'll take any work that'll keep me afloat.
Image from here

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