Jack Howe stands above all in the shearing world for a feat he achieved not far from the small town of Blackall when it had been in existence for just 23 years.
When he showed the world what he could do with his blade shears in the dusty shearing shed at Alice Downs in 1891, shearing 321 sheep in seven hours and 40 minutes, the news went buzzing round the pubs and homes of the young township that night.
Now, 127 years later, two New Zealand shearers, themselves national and international champions, have travelled to the western Queensland town to honour the giant of the industry as part of Blackall’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
They are John Kennedy, holder of the New Zealand blade shearing championship in 1977 and 2005 and the Australian title in 2010, and Peter Casserly, South Island high country shearer, who won the New Zealand championships in 1975 and became the world champion in 1980.
It was a case of like meeting like for Peter, although only one was cast in bronze – in 1976, when he was 28, Peter shore 353 Perendale-Romney cross lambs that were just over five months old, in nine hours of shearing in mid-Canterbury.
“But Jackie Howe done his in 7 hours and 40 minutes,” Peter said. “I didn't come here to tell you how I beat Jackie Howe's record because I didn't.”
Instead, the pair celebrated the life of one of Blackall’s favourite sons by demonstrating the art of blade shearing before an appreciative crowd at the historic Blackall Woolscour, vowing that it would remain relevant in the modern world.
It’s a practice that’s most applicable in New Zealand’s South Island where icy southerly winds come straight off Antarctica.
“We leave half an inch or 10mm of wool on,” Peter said. “A blade-shorn sheep will survive those storms and go straight out in the paddock and start growing wool again.”
Not only is it a practice encouraged for the survival of sheep, but Peter said tests at an agricultural college had shown a blade-shorn sheep would shear another fleece of wool in its lifetime.
“The real smart farmers in the South Island still use blades and they get another clip over the life of a sheep, and they can sleep at night.”
But blade shearing is 20 per cent dearer than machine shearing and with the downturn of wool prices in previous years, a lot of growers have turned to machine shearing, which has improved its cover or “snow” combs.
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Peter said they had genuine relevance in Australia’s sunnier conditions though, in that sheep shorn with blades wouldn’t get sunburnt.
Accompanying Peter and John was Nobby’s Heather Henderson and a selection of her 600-strong collection of blade shears from around the world.
“I had three or four tables worth,” she said.
“I try and make it educational for people so one table has world blades displayed on it.
“Another has what I call the Australian connection, so the Sheffield, England makers have looked around the world for a trademark and have picked something from Australia, for example the kangaroo, which belongs to Robert Sorby.
“The Darling-Murray River has been used as a logo or a stamp on a blade shear.
“The other table is called ‘know your bow’, which is the end of the blade shear, and I give seven different examples of that.”
It all helps to shine a light on the history of places like Blackall more than a century ago, when up to 30,000 blade shearers were working in the Australian outback.
In the 1970s in New Zealand’s South Island, there were over 200 blade shearers, or 20 teams.
Now, thanks to technology, shelter and feed, there are only 18 to 20 blade shearers left, equivalent to three teams.
Maybe we won’t see dozens of blade shearers back in western Queensland but people like Peter hope they’ll still have a place in the future.