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It's Shear Fun in the Woolshed

April 10, 1988|JEFF SPURRIER | Spurrier is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

BRISBANE, Australia — Daphne Quirk sits in the audience at the Australian Woolshed, a 22-acre facility eight miles outside Brisbane in the Ferny Hills. While her two grandchildren watch wide-eyed, a huge woolly merino sheep is led through the aisles to a stage at the end of the room. The sheep exhibition is about to begin.

"We had a 50,000-acre property in western Queensland that was all sheep," Quirk, 60, said. "I think it's important for my grandchildren to see this. It's part of our heritage."

"When Australia started, the first settlers brought 97 sheep with them," said Noel Wright, 58, a sinewy, grizzled ex-shearer who displays his craft at the Woolshed twice daily. "Now there are 155 million. That's 10 sheep for every man, woman and child in Australia."

Every Australian schoolchild learns early that the nation grew on the back of the sheep.

About 75% of the world's fine wool comes from Australia, but many urban Aussies have never seen a sheep up close, much less had the chance to see one shorn.

At the Woolshed they get their chance, and this gives the place an unusual appeal that has struck a chord among visitors, both Australian and foreign.

Exudes Authenticity

Everything about the Woolshed radiates Australian authenticity. The 350-seat main dining area is a spacious high-roofed, open-walled room designed in the style of a traditional sheep station (ranch), with thick hardwood timbers supporting a pan roof.

The meals served on rough-hewn coastal cedar picnic tables are hearty country fare--steaks, salads, damper bread, billy tea and endless pitchers of strong Aussie beer. During the meal, entertainment is provided by the Gumnuts, a pair of folk singers who specialize in traditional tunes.

Next door is the Woolshed Craft Shop, a cozy little souvenir and crafts store with traditional bay windows, a loft gallery and the heady odor of sweet eucalyptus.

Despite its size, the Craft Shop offers an amazing selection of quality Australiana and has won national awards as being the best craft outlet in Australia.

It carries everything from homespun wool jumpers to koala dolls, sheepskins, bush hats, baked pottery necklaces and bookmarks made of platypus leather.

But shopping can wait. It's time for the sheep.

After the buffet meal the patrons amble into the sheep-shearing area and, as "Waltzing Matilda" is played over the loudspeakers, Wright introduces the eight members of his "ram parade."

Leading the way is Max, a curly-horned merino sheep with seven-inch wool. As the crowd oohs, ahs and then breaks into applause, Max trots assuredly up to his stall on the stage, full of sheep self-confidence and savoir-faire.

He's followed by seven other breeds of "walking carpets," each of which has its attributes detailed.

'Click Go the Shears'

Then as "Waltzing Matilda" gives way to the traditional shearing tune, "Click Go the Shears," Wright instructs the audience about the intricacies of sheep shearing.

The audience sings along as he grips a mid-size sheep by the hind legs and sets to work with electric clippers. While he works he tells tales about the exploits of legendary ringers (the fastest shearer in a shed). In just under two minutes he reduces the animal to its pink skin, glistening with lanolin.

The audience applauds wildly in spontaneous enthusiasm. It's hard to imagine telling the folks back home that one of the more interesting stops on your Australian trip was a sheep-shearing display, but the appreciation the locals show is artless. It's hard to remain blase.

"To be a sheep shearer you need a big heart, a strong back and no brains," Wright said after the show.

"If you had any brains you wouldn't go shearing."

Wright began his career at the age of 13 in western Queensland. Unlike many of his comrades, he stayed at home, forsaking the roaming life style that sent shearers wandering all over the Australian countryside, traveling on foot or by bicycle to scores of sheep stations during shearing season.

The trade had a distinctly romantic and particularly Australian image, for shearers were often men without roots whose backbreaking work and nomadic life style made them the country's first working-class explorers, similar in some ways to the American cowboy.

"Quite often these guys were married, but they'd only see the wife on weekends," John Colville, one of the Gumnuts, said. "And eventually there was a saying about the problems of marrying a shearer: 'Friday too tired, Saturday too drunk, Sunday too far away.' "

Part of National Heritage

"This is part of our national heritage," said Margaret Mander-Jones, who runs the Woolshed with her husband Ken, a former jackaroo (apprentice). "This has the feel and the smell of a traditional woolshed."

She should know. Five years ago she and her husband were raising 8,000 sheep on a 26,000-acre station in western Queensland.

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