• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Last of the long-horns: End of an era at world-famous South Island farm

It was shearing day at Bendigo Station, home of Shrek, the world’s woolliest sheep. But this was a special day: the last time the long-horn merinos that made the station world-famous would be shorn. Mike White recorded the end of an era.

They arrived before it was light, and minutes later the music started pumping from the woolshed. The Unified Shearing gang had been up at 5am, travelling along SH8 beside Lake Dunstan to Bendigo Station. The Central Otago farm became famous in 2004 when a merino ram that had evaded mustering for six years was discovered high on Bendigo. With his 27kg fleece so thick he could barely see, he was nicknamed Shrek, and became a national celebrity, once even being shorn on an iceberg.

In the yard stood more than 1000 sheep, the shearers’ task and tally for the day. Among them were many like Shrek, those icons of the South Island high country, long-horn merinos with spectacular spiral horns. But this was the last time they’d be here, the last time they’d be shorn, said Bendigo’s owner, John Perriam.

“We always had horn rams, for 30-odd years, but now there’s been quite a swing towards the poll [no horns] sheep, and we’re phasing them out. They’re easier to manage, for drafting and shearing. Some of these old boys – they’re tough, they’re not very easy to handle.”

Read more: Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras RdA Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing hops

Perriam would send a few rams with the best horns to a taxidermist. A few others might be spared for special events, but the rest wouldn’t roam Central Otago’s rock and tussock any more. Perriam wasn’t sentimental about it: “It’s just evolution.”

In the woolshed, six shearers wrangled and manhandled the rams, gripping their horns as they methodically removed fleeces that had grown for a year and now weighed around 7kg.

Jerome Smith pushed a finished sheep between his legs and through the porthole, pressed his hands into the small of his back and leant backwards to stretch. The 27-year-old from Mataura has been shearing for nearly a decade and Bendigo’s horned rams are some of the toughest sheep he’s dealt with. “Just look at them – all their wrinkles and the horns. These are back-breaking ones.”

Ringa Paewai shearing a long-horn. Photo/Mike White.

But he got paid double for them, which was important, given a shearer’s wage was based on how many sheep they did in a day, and what kind they were.

“That’s one of the good things about this industry,” said Ringa Paewai as he filled in the tally book, “the harder you work, the better you get paid.”

Wool classer Ian Shaw inspected every fleece, teasing its strands with his fingers, considering its quality. He’s overseen shearing at Bendigo ever since Perriam took over the property, nearly 40 years ago, keeping an eye on the rousies, sorting the wool, and ensuring each bale can be traced from paddock to product.

The gang was part-way through a two-month circuit of farms between Cromwell and the Lindis Pass, working every day, unless they got rained out. One shearer had been going 39 days straight now. Shaw’s home for this time was a caravan he’d hauled from his property in Christchurch, and parked at Cromwell’s motor camp.

Perriam always shouted the gang at the end of the day, but it was “nothing like the old days”, said Shaw, when “things used to get pretty bad”.

He remembered when the shearing gangs would put down a hāngī – pigs and chooks and everything would go in – and the party lasted for days. Then there was the time some of them decided to race around the yard in their vehicles, and a V8 panel van took out the back verandah on one of the farmworkers’ quarters.

The music from the gang’s playlist boomed out around the woolshed. Simple Minds, Hunters & Collectors, REM, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”. Dogs barked, and shepherds whistled and yelled from the yard. Shearers hunched and sweated and dragged on rollies between animals. Sheep struggled. Rousies swept and flung fleeces high across tables. It was high energy, high speed, and constant.

Perriam watched it all with a smile. The fleeces were looking excellent, the sheep were “coming out of the wool” really well, and wool prices were as high as they’d been since the late 80s. He ran his hands through the greasy wool from his sheep, searching for “the pizazz, the style, the whiteness, the crimp. Look at that – beautiful, even crimp.”

The crimp gave elasticity in clothes, particularly the outdoor casual wear most of today’s wool would be made into. Much of it would end up in Italy, some might go to Icebreaker, and half a tonne was earmarked for his daughter, Christina, who manufactures clothing under the Perriam label. Luxury would come from this unassuming shearing shed and today’s toil.

When Shrek was discovered in a cave on Bendigo, Perriam had little idea what it would lead to. For seven years, Shrek was photographed and feted, raising millions for charity and having several books written about him. When he died in 2011, aged almost 17, his hide went to Te Papa, and Perriam erected a statue of him at Bendigo, standing regally woolbound at the back of the shearing shed he’d escaped for all those years by eluding musterers.

A second statue, cast in bronze, sat in Bendigo’s woolshed that morning as the gang finished smoko and returned to work. It would soon be going up the road to Tarras, where Perriam was creating a Shrek tourist attraction. But for now, Shrek’s replica stood at the woolshed’s edge, overlooking a scene that had endured for decades, but would never be quite the same again.

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.