Sun. May 26th, 2024

Shear success: Marika is one of a growing number of women working in an iconic Australian industry

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May22,2024
Key Points
  • Italy-born Marika Martini worked as a ‘roustabout’ or shearing shed hand in 2017.
  • She is one of a growing number of women working in this field.
  • She now works as a trainer at a technical college, preparing others for the shearing industry.
Italy-born Marika Martini told SBS Italian she had never even seen a live sheep until she came to Australia and began working as a shed hand during the annual shearing in remote Rawlinna, 900km east of Perth in 2017.
Not only was she one of a growing number of women working in the once male-dominated wool industry, she now trains others to work in the field.
However, while the Australian wool industry brings in $3.5 billion annually (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 2021-22) and accounts for a quarter of the world’s production, the number of shearers, wool handlers and shed staff is in decline.
Australia’s economy was once said to “ride on the sheep’s back” with the wool industry developing from just seven Merino ewes brought to the country in 1797 by British army officer and later New South Wales politician, John Macarthur.

The wool industry has been at the centre of popular culture including songs, books and films since European settlement.

A herd of Merino ewes waiting in a shearing shed.

Australia has more than 71 million wool sheep which must be shorn annually. Credit: Jason Edwards/Getty Images

According to the New South Wales Farmers’ Association, Australia now relies on just 2,800 shearers, down from 3,200 in 2012 and 10,000 in the 1980s to clip the 71 million wool sheep across all states and territories except the Northern Territory.

Shearers are paid around $4 for every sheep they shear, according to Martini.
“The availability of trained and skilled staff is under increasing pressure and attracting the next generation of wool shed staff is a serious concern for the industry,” Australian Wool Exchange CEO Mark Grave said.
But something is changing.
“What is pleasing is the increasing number of women working in the wool industry, at all levels, and this is a positive influence,” Grave said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are now 1,260 women working in shearing sheds up from 698 a decade ago.

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Marika Martini shearing one of her first sheep in Rawlinna, Western Australia. Credit: Marika Martini

Martini confirmed the number of female shearers was increasing.

She now works at the Western Australian College of Agriculture in Cunderdin, a small rural town 156km east of Perth, preparing students to work in the wool industry and assists them to enter national shearing and wool handling competitions.

The number of girls showing up in competitions among the new trainees is growing too and it makes me really proud.

Marika Martini

“It’s a big deal … Because during these competitions, especially in Perth and Sydney, students are competing too and they can earn their first money there,” she said.

‘In the middle of nowhere’

Originally from Tuscany, Martini said she had dropped out of a physical education course to travel around Australia.

Martini said she had been looking for work in rural Western Australia to complete the 88 days of farm work required to renew her visa for a second year and ended up at a farm in Yealering, a small town about 200km south of Perth with a population of less than 100.

Sheep shearing in Australia

More and more women are working in shearing sheds to address labour shortages. Source: Moment RF / Stuart Walmsley/Getty Images

The busy shearing shed soon became her “whole world”, she said.

“The first time I worked with shearers, I had no idea what to do,” she said.
“I found myself in a very big shed. There was only one other girl working there. Everything happened very quickly. There is no time to explain to someone like me – who has never seen anything like this in her life – what happens and what to do.

“The shearers are paid per sheep: four or five shearers can do up to 900 sheep a day. They gave me a quick explanation and threw me into the mix,” Martini added.

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One of Marika Martini’s friends (R), Louisa Schmaal, lying on the fleece of a sheep (L) which had not been shorn for three years. Credit: Marika Martini

I just followed the rhythm of the music in the shed and tried to do my best.

Marika Martini

Her days were long, from dawn to dusk, and for Martini they consisted of collecting wool fleece and keeping the shearing station tidy and clean.
“The shearing gang is made up of shearers and wool classers – the person who divides the wool according to quality – and a couple of shed hands called ‘roustabouts’, which was my job,” she said.
Currently, 70 per cent of wool classer apprentices were women, she said.

A “roustabout” was responsible for keeping the shearing station tidy and collecting the fleeces and as its name suggested, a “wool presser” then placed the fleeces into wool presses to form bales with each bale made up of the wool from 30-40 sheep, she said.

Sheep wool sorted into quality grades in a shearing shed.

Wool classers sort the shorn fleeces according to quality. Credit: Jason Edwards/Getty Images

I had no idea how big this world was in Australia and New Zealand. It is a world apart.

Marika Martini

From there, she moved to a farm in Rawlinna, about 900km east of Perth on the Nullarbor Plain, to work on one of the state’s largest stations at one million hectares in area.

In 2021, the population of the area was just 33 people.

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Marika Martini (front, R) and her shearing gang at her first job in Yealering, Western Australia. Credit: Marika Martini

“The farm was huge, in the middle of nowhere, (with) the railway a six-hour drive away,” she said.

“We could only access the Internet in the kitchen and we could only use it once a week or go to a petrol station on the highway, which was a three-hour drive away.”
According to a , shearers at Rawlinna clipped more than 30,000 Merino sheep during the 2023 season in February and March despite some 40-degree Celsius days.
Despite the challenging work, Martini said she had grown to love it.

“It was an amazing experience, I had a lot of fun. The shed had 16 stands where the shearers worked, so there were two groups working around the clock. I never thought I would have such an experience in my life,” she said.

Marika Martini.jpg

Marika Martini cared for lambs at Rawlinna, one of Western Australia’s largest sheep stations, 900km east of Perth on the Nullarbor Plain. Credit: Marika Martini

Role as an educator

Now a proud Australian citizen, Martini said she was never made to feel uncomfortable during her shearing shed work.
“Apart from the rare joke about my accent, I have to say that no one ever made me feel uncomfortable or different because I came from the other side of the world,” she said.

Martini said she still had a lot to learn about shearing, but that her role as educator in sheep farming today was to encourage more women to follow in her footsteps.

I want to encourage those girls who are shy or afraid to try it.

Marika Martini

“Working in different shearing sheds, I have met some incredible women who I really admire. I look up to them and hope that what I am doing will help supporting the next generation,” Martini said.
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Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Shear success: Marika is one of a growing number of women working in an iconic Australian industry”
  1. It’s inspiring to see Marika breaking barriers and thriving in the shearing industry. She is paving the way for more women to excel in traditionally male-dominated fields. Her journey from a shed hand to a trainer is a testament to her dedication and skill. Hopefully, her success will encourage others to pursue careers in this industry despite the challenges it faces.

  2. It’s inspiring to see Marika breaking barriers in the Australian wool industry. She has truly shown that with determination and skill, women can excel in traditionally male-dominated fields. Her journey from a shed hand to a trainer is a testament to the growing opportunities for women in this sector.

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