Moved to pastures new

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Some people would think working in a sheep-shearing gang is fairly challenging. Su Clark talks to a woman who finds teaching more of a test.

There are 15 sheep to every person in New Zealand, so it's not surprising to find that about 10 per cent of the labour workforce is involved in agriculture. For a short while Robina Sinclair, now a teacher at Clapham Manor primary school in Lambeth, south London, was part of it. The daughter of a farmer, she found herself working with sheep from the age of 10. By the time she left school, she was an experienced and efficient rouseabout in a shearing gang.

With so many sheep, the demand for shearers and their helpers is almost constant, and that's where rouseabouts - or "rousies" - come in. Usually women, they pull away the fleece as it is sheared off. They then quickly "skirt" it for matted clumps or dirt and carry it to a sorting table, where it is skirted again before being trampled into an enormous press.

"They are then put into rolls, each one weighing about 180kg. That's a lot of fleeces," says Robina, who had to be up by 6am to catch the van to whichever farm she was working on. "Shearers are mostly transient, contracted in for a few days to shear a flock. I was living at home, but had to travel up to 50 miles to each farm."

The pace was frenetic. A shearer will shear around 350 ewes a day, and all the fleeces have to be treated and rolled. It was hot work, stuck in a huge shed at the height of summer, but there was always plenty of banter, says Robina. "It's sexist, and it's a rough life. The men do the shearing and the women do the rouseing, the cooking and opening of the gates. A shearer would never do those things."

The team inevitably ends up in the pub at the ed of the day - sometimes before. Work stops if it rains - wet sheep can't be shorn - and the natural place to head foris the pub, where the banter, almost exclusively about shearing and sheep, continues.

"It was good money, $10-$15 (pound;3-pound;5) an hour (a good wage in New Zealand), but it was monotonous. Once you learned how to do it, you knew it wouldn't change for the next 50 years. There was no challenge, you just went on to automatic."

Now 27, Robina has moved on to a different kind of pastoral work, teaching Year 4s at a south London primary. Although she initially wanted to be a chef, her experience of doing an unchallenging job persuaded her to consider teaching, and she started a teaching degree.

But she hated it for the first two years. "They made us do some mad things that I was embarrassed to tell my friends about later. Once I had to sit and play with Lego all afternoon to learn how kids played with it."

Things got better, she finished her degree and began teaching in her home country. But her feet began to itch and she looked to Europe.

Her first job in England was not in teaching. A friend had recommended her to an organic farmer in Lambourne, Berkshire, and she became a chicken processor. But the farmer was aware of her skills, and got her to do extra hours supervising the young lads employed to pick oats. "They were awful - arrogant, obnoxious and lazy. They were really hard work, but lots of fun," she says.

Then, last September, she joined Clapham Manor and found out that not all English children are such hard work. It's a far cry from being a rousie. "Your day doesn't end at 5.30pm on the dot, but it is much more challenging and varied," she says. "And it's fun. The kids are great."

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