Thursday, December 7, 2023

Shears patron still has passion

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Earlier this month the Golden Shears celebrated its 60th anniversary. Colin Williscroft caught up with its patron, Laurie Keats, who helped organise the first event.
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It's one of the oldest volunteer-run events in the country and if competition entries and crowd numbers are anything to go by the Golden Shears will be around for a few more years yet, Laurie Keats says.

Keats, who cut the ribbon to open this year’s event, was in and out of proceedings over its four days, sometimes preferring to catch up with old friends in Masterton for the competition in the quieter surrounds of the city’s shearing museum, which is only a few hundred metres down the road from the contest’s home at Masterton’s War Memorial Stadium.

The 86-year-old played a key role in organising the first event and he has been involved in some way ever since, either through actively participating on the organising committee or, latterly, sharing his experience when asked.

He says the inspiration behind the competition came from members of the Wairarapa Young Farmers Club in the 1950s.

At that time Young Farmers ran a number of national competitions to test skills in areas such as public speaking and stock judging but there was nothing for shearing.

Members wanted to change that and though initially they couldn’t interest others in organising a national event they took it on themselves to run a standalone competition at the Masterton A&P Show, which attracted so much interest from shearers they had to close off entries.

It also attracted long queues of spectators, despite an entrance fee, and organisers Keats, Iain Douglas and Graham Buckley realised they were on to something.

However, there was still uncertainty over the viability of a national competition till 1959 when what was supposed to be a shearing and wool-handling demonstration for farmers was overrun by Masterton people who just wanted to watch shearing.

That led to business people and representative from Young Farmers, Federated Farmers and the A&P association getting together with farmers to organise what became known as the Golden Shears.

The inaugural event was modelled on regional young farmer competitions of the day with three shearing classes: open, intermediate and junior.

The popularity of the first Golden Shears in March 1961 exceeded all expectations. The event proved so popular that on the final night territorial soldiers in camp nearby were called in to control the crowd outside the stadium clamouring to join the thousands already crushed inside, many shoulder to shoulder.

For the record, the top two places in the open event in that first year went to the Bowen brothers, Ivan and Godfrey, in that order, followed by Bing McDonald.

Keats says he was not surprised shearers from around the country were keen to take part, even if it cost them five pounds, about what they could make from shearing 100 sheep, to enter.

“Shearers are competitive sort of buggers. 

“They always want to test themselves. Even when there’s only one of them they’ll compete against themselves to better what they’ve done before.”

Despite the success of the inaugural event there were still people who thought it could never last, describing it as at best a three-year wonder.

Keats and the other organisers thought otherwise.

“We knew that if we set up a good, fair competition they’d keep coming.”

He says little has changed from the original format, which, in keeping with young farmer club competitions, included an open wool-handling event and a team shearing relay.

Keats, who was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to shearing, served as Golden Shears president for six years and was a founding member and president of the Golden Shears World Council, set up in 1980 to join forces with other competitions around the world.

The Golden Shears has been a boon to Masterton in more ways than one, he says.

Not only does hosting the annual event attract plenty of visitors requiring food and accommodation it’s also put the city on the map overseas.

Keats spent much of the 1980s shearing overseas and during that time attended a lot of shearing competitions in Britain.

Whenever there was a shearer competing who had been to the Golden Shears it was always mentioned by the event announcer.

“British farmers know all about the Golden Shears and where it is. 

“It’s a real claim to fame over there to have sheared at the Golden Shears in Masterton.”

Keats’ travels didn’t just take in Britain. He also worked, demonstrated and instructed in France, Corsica, Iceland, Norway, the Falkland Islands about 18 months after the war, the United States and Saudi Arabia while he also went behind the Iron Curtain in 1983 to demonstrate and instruct shearing techniques as an official representative of the International Wool Secretariat.

Though he didn’t get as far as Russia he did visit Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland.

Eastern Europe was a real eye-opener. Though generally welcomed everywhere he went it was during the Cold War so some people were very suspicious.

Keats travelled with a Lister direct-drive shearing unit, a flexie tube and long extension cord, which was very different to what shearers in that part of the world were using at the time.

It allowed him to plug in almost anywhere and set to work.

In the Yugoslavia they were shearing with what were little more than scissors though the technology was slightly better in Hungary where most of the shearing was done by women, mainly by machine but nothing like the technology used here.

Polish shearers, who also had access to machines rather than blades, were keen to learn the NZ style of shearing as demonstrated by Keats and explained through a translator.

These days Keats is content running a few sheep on about 6ha that was once part of his original farm.

He spends a lot of time at the shearing museum, sharing his knowledge and experience with visitors from NZ and overseas, while as Golden Shears patron he remains actively involved.

The event is in good heart, he says, with ticket sales and the 500 or so competitors who took part this year illustrating its strength and relevance. 

He says it’s not out of the question the event could go for another 60 years and he is heartened by the large number of novices who took part this year, especially given sheep numbers are much lower than they once were.

“It’s great to see the young ones coming through because it’ll be them who are going to carry it on.

“Long may it last.”


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