Australia’s sheep left without shearers as Covid halts travel from New Zealand

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Evans/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Evans/Getty Images

It’s a tradition that stretches back decades. Every year, hundreds of New Zealanders fly in to Australia for the spring shearing season – a huge mobilisation of workers essential to the success of the nation’s wool industry.

In dusty sheds on outback farms they join up with local shearers and, between them, relieve five million sheep of their fleeces over eight weeks.

But this year, there is a spanner in the works.

Related: 'They didn't close the deal': New Zealand looks on in horror at Melbourne Covid-19 crisis

Australia faces a desperate shortage of shearers for its 68 million sheep – and looming animal welfare issues – as hundreds of New Zealand shearers are barred from making their usual annual trip due to the Covid-19 pandemic, or are unwilling to do so as cases of the virus surge in parts of Australia.

The Australian industry is reliant on short-term shearing contractors from New Zealand and Britain, with at least 480 New Zealanders crossing the Tasman in August each year for the spring season. They bolster a local population that only numbers about 3,000 shearers, said Jason Letchford, a spokesperson for the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia.

“We’ve got two animal welfare issues looming … one is that shearing is facilitated at the right time, so that they’re in the right condition to deliver their offspring,” he said, referring to the current spring season, which started in August. “The second is going to be flystrike … If wool stays on the sheep for a longer period of time, we’re going to see an increased rate.”

Flystrike is a condition caused by blowflies laying their eggs on sheep; it can kill or require euthanasia of animals, and costs Australian farmers AU$280m (£154m) each year, according to Western Australia government figures.

A sheep dog is seen on the back of merino sheep as they are herded into a pen at Yathonga Station.
A sheep dog is seen on the back of merino sheep as they are herded into a pen at Yathonga Station. Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Usually inhabitants of Australia and New Zealand – closely-tied neighbours – can move between the countries at will, with no visa needed, but the Covid-19 pandemic has led to strict border closures for both, with exemptions difficult to win. Only Australian citizens, residents and immediate family members can travel to the country, and they are required to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel on entry.

Even if New Zealand shearers were able to attain Australian government exemptions to cross its borders – no attempts have proved successful so far – the contractors face costs of up to A$10,000 (£5,500) just for flights and quarantine upon arrival in each nation, Letchford said. New Zealand this week ruled that all those leaving the country for trips of fewer than 90 days – as many of the shearers would be – must pay for their own mandatory isolation on their return; they would also lose two weeks of income at each end of their trip while they quarantined.

“We can’t expect Australia and New Zealand citizens to pick up our quarantine costs but the governments have got to work out the costs to the animal welfare if shearing isn’t going to happen,” said Mark Barrowcliffe, the president of the New Zealand Shearing Contractors Association. “If Australia wants us there bad enough, do they want to pick up the quarantine costs?”

There are other problems: flights across the Tasman have dried up, with Air New Zealand halting new bookings until at least 28 August. And as the Covid-19 crisis escalates in the Australian state of Victoria in particular, said Letchford, the trip was no longer appealing for New Zealand shearers.

“We’ve gone from two or three weeks ago having all these New Zealanders busting to get over here, chomping at the bit,” he said. “Now there are very few of them … they’re reading the newspaper like everyone else.”

Shearers at Meadowlea Sheep Station in Kangaroo Island, Australia
Shearers at Meadowlea Sheep Station in Kangaroo Island, Australia. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

New Zealand has successfully quashed the spread of the coronavirus for now, with no known community transmission, while Victoria’s capital, Melbourne,has entered its strictest lockdown yet after a resurgence in cases. New South Wales is also struggling with community outbreaks.

Glenn Haynes, a Shearing Contractors Association spokesman in South Australia, had helped facilitate some creative proposals to Australian authorities for how New Zealand shearers could enter the country; one in which the shearers would work at a remote property – where they would essentially be in isolation due to their location, thus sidestepping a fortnight in hotel quarantine – was unlikely to be approved, he said.

Another where four New Zealand shearers were offering to pay for their own quarantine costs was being considered, he added.

But it was still a far cry from the hundreds of contractors who usually arrive for the season, and money would be tight for many in New Zealand, Barrowcliffe said, with some looking for other farm work. New Zealand would then face a shearing shortage of its own in November, with Australian and British contractors unable to enter the country, he said.

Crossbred wool prices were already at record lows, Barrowcliffe added, and some farmers might choose not to shear animals before they were sent to the abattoir if they could not find enough shearers.

“The whole world’s jammed up at the moment,” he said.

Letchford and Barrowcliffe both said their governments had invested funds in training new shearers, but that would not happen quickly enough to save this season.

“How have we got to the point where we do not have enough people to harvest our primary production and we’re beholden to foreign labour? How did we drop the ball on that?” Letchford said. “The commercial reality is that we have this nice, fluid transient labour force where one in a hundred years it’s buggered up but usually it works really well.”