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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 July, 2004, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
The decline of the Aussie sheep shearer
By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

Australian shearers
Each person shears an average of 200 sheep a day
"You've got to be tough," said veteran Australian shearer Les MacIlvine. "It's hard on your back. It's hard on your arms and legs."

Mr MacIlvine is 64 and has spent almost half a century doing one of the most demanding jobs in the Australian outback.

For years the Aussie sheep shearer has symbolised the doggedness and wry humour that helped previous generations tame the country's rugged interior.

But this iconic trade, celebrated in the nation's songs and literature, is in deep trouble.

Workers are deserting the wool sheds like never before. In the 1980s there were around 30,000 shearers, but today there are fewer than 7,000.

The lure of easier and better-paid jobs is being blamed, as well as a long-standing drought, which dramatically reduced the number of sheep - and therefore the need for shearers.

I was in a shed the year before last, and the average age was 62. That's not real good is it?
Billy Graham, shearer
But when the national flock recovers, the wool trade will have a serious problem if, as expected, many shearers do not return.

"The sheep numbers in Australia have diminished to a point where we can't maintain the number of shearers," farmer Stan Hulme told BBC News Online.

"I couldn't do it. I don't think my back would stand it," he added.

At Stan Hulme's property, near Harden in New South Wales, four shearers work side-by-side for an exhausting eight hours a day.

Between them they will get through up to 800 sheep a day. Each man is paid around A$2 ($1.40) per fleece.

The sheep are each individually dragged from their pens and wrestled to the floor of the shed. Skilled hands ease razor-sharp electric clippers through their tangled wool.

Les MacIlvine sees very few young men taking up the trade. With his grey hair matted with sweat, he said he worried about the future.

"I don't know what they're going to do. I was in a shed the year before last and the average age was 62. That's not real good is it?" he pondered.

A young face in the wool shed is not a common sight these days, so 22-year-old John Hill is a rare breed.

sheep in Australia
Drought has reduced the number of sheep in the last few years
He has been in the job for almost a year and is prepared to accept the back-breaking conditions while he saves enough money to buy his own farm.

He says the pay is fair, although he is never guaranteed a day's work.

"You have wet sheep if it rains, and you don't shear, so it's pretty seasonal," he said.

"I plan to shear for 15 years and buy my own property, and have people shear for me then."

Old hands tend to do all they can to stop their sons and daughters following them into the heat and dust of the wool sheds.

Enjoying an hour's lunch break in the mid-winter sun, another veteran shearer, Billy Graham, told me about his experiences.

"It's a good life, but I don't think I'd do it over again," he said.

"You know, I'm here now and I've got to stay here, I suppose. [If] I win the lotto, I might give it away."

But his old mate, Les MacIlvine, does not have any regrets.

"No. None whatsoever," he said emphatically. "I love the game. Well, I'm 64 and who's going to give someone a job at my age?"

A new national training programme to recruit and train shearers has been started, but it might not be enough.

It will take a mighty effort to persuade young workers that their future lies in the demanding wool sheds of Australia.

The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"There aren't enough young shearers wanting to take up the clippers"

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