That's the Spirit: Steve Mudford - Gilgandra
His chosen profession has taken champion shearer Steve Mudford all around the world, both as a competitive sport and a career. Now he’s more dedicated than ever to the iconic Australian industry that he says is still vitally important and has much to offer coming generations.
That’s the Spirit’s JEN COWLEY caught up with Steve for a quick chat in Gilgandra NSW.
Steve: I’m the owner and operator of a shearing business called Muddy’s Quality Shearing, and I’m based out of Gilgandra, where I grew up on a family farm. I’ve been around sheep all my life and I’ve been involved with the shearing game since I was a kid.
Jen: What do you love about the industry?
Steve: There’s lots of different reasons I guess. It’s in my blood, I suppose. When I was a kid I remember going up to the woolshed after school and just the smell and texture of the wool was something I loved even then. That all comes into it. And there’s the team environment – I like working in a team. As I got older, I enjoyed the motivation of competing against your mates in the shed. At the end of the day you always shake hands and have a beer or whatever, but it’s very a competitive game and that’s what keeps driving me I guess.
Jen: You’ve managed to turn something you love into a business that’s a really important part of the rural industry.
Steve: That’s right. I try to look at it this way: shearers are athletes and you go to work as training for whether it’s a competition or record or just to trying to improve yourself. That’s the way I look at it and that way, everyone’s learning all the time.
Jen: Has the sporting element and competition side of your business helped to remind people of the importance of the shearing industry?
Steve: For sure. While ever there’s money in wool and sheep, in fat lambs, there’s always being going to be sheep around and although the numbers dropped pretty severely around the western region through the drought, when it does rain the numbers will pick up and we need the shearing industry to be there when that happens. The competition side of it promotes professionalism and that’s what we need in the industry, people who strive to better themselves.
Champion shearer, Steve Mudford. Photo by NALAG NSW.
Steve's four-legged shed hand taking a quick smoko break.
Photo by NALAG NSW.
Jen: What are you doing to continue to help keep the industry alive?
Steve: I like to support competitions, whether that’s through sponsorship or by helping out and I’ll organise a few (competitions) of my own. Through the drought, we probably haven’t had nearly as much work as we would have usually had, but it’s just about trying to keep things going. The shearing competitions helps bring everyone together – it’s a positive thing. You try to keep the ball rolling, just to keep people around, keep them paying their bills, and keep assuring them that things will get better and that it will rain eventually.
I try to encourage people to still have faith in the shearing industry. When it does come good, it will take time for people to build their (sheep) numbers back up to where they used to be, but there’s going to be shortage of wool handlers and shed staff because a lot of them probably left or are planning to leave the industry.
For young people, say, if you’re a learner, it’s been hard to get a job so they’ll probably go and find something else to do.
We need to get them back. So I like to try to reassure people that there is hope and that we also need better conditions in some of the areas and sheds if we’re going to bring young people back in the industry.
Jen: What kind of things do you do to help encourage interest in the shearing industry as a career?
Steve: I think one of the biggest things is trying to keep these small communities and towns going, and their local shows and competitions and that sort of thing. That’s a great way to keep people interested, with shearing displays and competitions.
Some towns haven’t had shows during the drought but any little country town that does have an annual local show, they’ll usually run a shearing competition or exhibition, or even just a demonstration. That really helps keep young people
interested and it’s keeping the word out there about shearing. There’s also a TAFE course and AWI (Australian Wool Innovation) schools that are training shearers and wool handlers.
Jen: How long have you been a shearer?
Steve: About 25 years – almost half my life. I’m 44, so most of my adult life has been in the industry. I grew up with the smell of lanolin.
I was on a family farm when I left school. Dad had four brothers and they all used to shear their own sheep between everyone, so that’s how I came to be working in the sheds after school or on holidays.
I left home after I finished school and went shearing. I went around the world shearing for eight years in my 20s, from Western Australia to New Zealand, America, the UK. Shearing has literally taken me around the world.
I had a great look around – it’s something I’ll never regret. I’ve done everything from shearing in the desert in Colorado to the next week jumping on a plane to go shearing up in the highlands of Scotland.
Jen: Do you still have faith in the future of this industry in Australia?
Steve: I think while there’s money in sheep, I do, yes. Numbers have dropped and employment in the industry has gone down, but while ever there’s money somewhere in Australia there will be sheep that keep breeding and need shearing.
Also remember that it’s not just shearing – there’s all kinds of jobs in the wool industry. From the science side of things to working as a shed hand.
For a young bloke or girl for instance, if you’re working in a shed, you’re on over $200 a day, which is good money for someone that’s just left school. You’re in a team environment and you also have a routine in your life.
I think the young people need routine these days – a bit of stability in their life, which working in the sheds can give you – and if you want to go competitively, really go well, you can end up representing your country, going overseas, travelling around.
There’s lots of positive things you can do in the industry.
Jen: It’s wonderful these days to go into a shed and see so many young women – from the classer to the roustabouts – it’s no longer just a bloke’s game, is it?
Steve: No, it’s not. We’ve got a woman shearing as part of the team, and some of the young roustabout girls will take any chance to jump on and have a go at shearing a sheep whenever they can. For some reason they love it just as much as the blokes.
Jen: So the opportunities are there for those who want to take them.
Steve: That’s right. In July last year, for instance, they had the world champs in France, where there were 35 countries competing, including a team from Australia. If you’re good enough to get up into that level, then you get to travel the world, see other countries, compete for your country like any other athlete. And I do class shearers as athletes – if you’re up in that top level, you’re just as good as, say, a famous tennis player.
That’s the way I look at it and I really think shearing needs a bit more recognition. I don’t know why it’s not in the Olympic or Commonwealth Games because it’s definitely a skill of its own. It’s such an iconic Australian thing too – it’s been around since the 1800s.
Jen: Tell me about your own world championships, including the eight-hour wether record.
Steve: There’s lots of different types of records but with a world record, judges from all around the world have to be there as part of the rules and regulations. With that particular one, the Merino wether record, it was 356 and was held by David Grant from Longreach in Queensland. He held it for 12 years and I broke that in September 2018 (on a property just out of Dubbo). I shore 373.
Steve hard at work in the shearing shed. Photo by NALAG NSW.
Jen: That’s a big day out, isn’t it?
Steve: Yeah, it was. So with the wether record, you have to cut 4kg of wool, no less, on average. In 2014 I was part of a free stand merino ewe record, and it was only last year a mate of mine broke a crossbred lamb record in Wagga, so there’s all different types of records. In New Zealand there’s nine-hour records.
Jen: What’s the record of which you’re most proud?
Steve: The wether record, yeah – the one I did in 2018 at Parkdale. I had a go in 2017 and I fell just short of it. The season wasn’t quite right for it then but in 2018 it was just ideal, being a dry season so they (the wethers) were a bit lighter than usual and everything just fell into place. I was pretty happy with the outcome and I had a good team around me.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.