Emily and Sam Welch are regarded as two of the best shearers in the industry, with both tasting competition success.
An award-winning shearing couple, who spent their careers chasing the perfect shearing day, say there’s no greater feeling than finding your rhythm and getting into the ‘zone’, because that’s when the tallies start to happen. They spoke to Gerald Piddock.
Being a top shearer means chasing perfection.
It’s about having a perfect day in the shearing shed where the wool flows off the sheep from the shearer’s blade.
Chasing that perfection has elevated Emily and Sam Welch to be regarded among the best in the industry. For Emily, it has seen her become a world record holder and industry role model for female shearers.
Emily and Sam run Welch Shearing in the Waikaretu Valley, west of Huntly in north Waikato, on a farmlet with their four children, from left, Johnny, 10, Eli, seven, Eric, nine and 12-year-old Addison, absent.
Successful shearers are mentally wired a certain way. They’re all goal-driven people who are naturally competitive, Emily says.
A shearer will compete and then analyse where they need to improve. They use their time in the woolshed in between competitions to hone their skills.
They are constantly setting and revising goals around daily tallies to try and better themselves.
“You go to work and you’ve got goals to work on and you find you’re living and breathing it. It’s not too different to being a sportsperson,” Emily said.
Like other athletes, Sam says shearers get into a ‘zone’ when endorphins kick in and you get addicted to that kick.
“You’re after your rhythm to find that zone and once you’re in that zone, the tallies start to happen,” Sam said.
“You’re chasing that perfect day in the shed, which is very rare. You get moments where it flows and it’s easy, but most of the time it’s hard work, but you’re chasing the perfection of the best day.”
When you do get them, it gives you the motivation to keep going to find the next perfect day, Emily adds.
Often it comes from a favourite shed during their run that gives them a large tally for the day and shearers use that shed as the place to attempt personal bests.
Emily uses her time in the woolshed in between competitions to hone her skills, setting goals with Sam in an effort to improve.
The couple run Welch Shearing in the Waikaretu Valley, west of Huntly in north Waikato, on a farmlet with their four children Addison,12, Johnny,10, Eric, nine, and Eli, seven.
During the seasonal peak, they employ 45 people, including 18 shearers, shearing about 330,000 sheep every year, spanning as far north as Wellsford, east to Paeroa, west into Raglan and south into King Country.
Growing up on a sheep and beef farm, Emily was taught by her father Phillip Woodward when she was 20.
She thought it would be a good skill to know to better help out her father in the woolshed. At the time, he was purchasing thousands of trade lambs every year, which he bought woolly and sheared them himself.
Emily also wanted to learn for practical reasons. If she came across a fly-stricken sheep, she could shear it herself and not have to get someone else to do it.
She remembers how tired her body was after her first full day of shearing, where she did 90.
“Mum wanted me to do some weeding and I was sitting under a tree and I said, I just can’t. It hurt so much,” she said.
“There’s nothing like learning to shear as a job. You only want to learn it once and every day you’re going to work and everything hurts and you’re so exhausted, versus in three years, your body becomes so much more conditioned that you can come home and function in the evenings.”
Her father took her to some shearing contests and she started competing, which she enjoyed. Emily then had a stint in the UK where she worked as a shearer.
From there, it snowballed into a career.
“I started doing more and I got a job in New Zealand and I thought to myself, I’ll get to 200 a day so I can say, ‘I’m a shearer’. You get to 200 and you think, 300 isn’t far away and you do it until you can get 300 a day, and you get addicted,” she said.
At the same time, she was competing and winning at the shows and that spurned her on.
“I then did well at the Golden Shears and people said, ‘why don’t you do a (world) record’. It just rolls on and there’s a new goal and another new goal – the next thing you know, you’re a full-time shearer,” she said.
More success followed when she set a new world record in 2007 for shearing 648 sheep in nine hours, along with both regularly competing in the competition circuit.
Emily was placed second in the Golden Shears’ senior final in 2007 and then in 2019, won the inaugural female competition title at the same event.
She helped instigate it following the success and popularity of the documentary She Shears, which she had a starring role in and was released the year before.
Her success and high profile in the sport has made her a role model, which took some adjustment to accept and use that platform in a positive way.
Emily now views it as a gift in which she can inspire people.
It has done great things for the younger generation, Sam says.
“We had a farmer come up to us at the Golden Shears and he congratulated Emily on the movie and said that his 14-year-old daughter idolises her and made her realise that she can go shepherding,” he said.
Sam also tasted world record success, breaking the two-stand record with shearer Stacey Te Huia in 2012. They shore 1341 ewes in nine hours. Sam shore 667 of these sheep.
Outside the competition circuit, Emily and Sam, along with shearer Tony Clayton-Greene – who were all working for the same shearing gang at the time – created their own company, Clayton-Greene and Welch Shearing in 2009.
Later, they bought Clayton-Greene out and became Welch Shearing.
The couple farm half of Emily’s parents farm and take over the remainder of it on March 1.
The Welch’s also farm half of Emily’s parents farm and take over the remainder of it on March 1. This will have them farming 200ha where it will be run as a commercial sheep and beef operation.
They plan to run the farm as a breeding-finishing farm, bringing in store lambs and finishing them as prime, as well as farming breeding ewes and running cattle as a grass management tool.
Running the farm means both will step back and play more of a coordinating role in the shearing business, organising the gangs and driving the vans instead of being in the shed doing the shearing.
“Once the gangs are settled into the work in the sheds and then the kids get on the school bus and you have that block in the day and the farming fits into it quite well, most of the time,” he said.
This new commitment, along with raising their children, means it is unlikely Emily or Sam will be back shearing competitively.
But never say never, Sam says.
“I hate the word retirement because it means you’re not going to turn out and do it,” he said.
“At the moment, we’ve got four kids and they are very sporty and I don’t want me clinging onto my sport to mean they won’t be able to play their sports,” Emily added.
While it brought about new priorities, they do at times miss the training, goal-setting side and comradery of competitive shearing.
Doing the circuit meant they were able to catch up with other shearers based elsewhere in the country.
“They become your second summer family,” she said.
With the country slowly opening up again, Emily says the industry needs to make sure the proper tertiary training was in place to support the next generation of shearers and wool handlers.
The school closures meant there was a large number of teenagers, both in towns and living rurally, who might not return to school and may look at shearing as a possible career option.
“People think that shearers have to be rural but so many are straight out of town; you don’t have to be (rural), you just have to have the right mindset,” she said.
That mindset was being a determined, competitive person with an attention to detail.
Emily says it is a sport and a profession where you get out of it what you put in.
“It’s on you, your attitude and your willingness to learn and push yourself to the next level,” she said.