Shearathon blade shearers share stories as well as skills

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“He was 18. I ask the question ‘Why? Why did he do it?'”

Troy Clark, from Silverton, New South Wales, hasn’t done much public speaking before.

But right now he’s standing before a microphone, telling a hall-full room of shearers about his son, Darcy, who died by suicide 12 months ago.

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Mr Clark is one of 60 shearers who have travelled to South Australia’s south east, for the Blades of Glencoe shearathon at the town’s historic woolshed.

From 8:00am to 5:00pm the team will work through 1,000 sheep, donated by a local farmer.

Half of the shearers are women. There’s an eight-year-old boy, a sixteen-year-old boy, champion shearers from New Zealand and part-time shearers over 60.

The shearers all come from different backgrounds, but every one of their lives has been affected in some way by suicide or adversity.

Mr Clark is speaking at the ‘Tales by the Tailgate’ session on Saturday night, held to let shearers talk about their experiences with each other before opening up to the public.

The next day, more than 1,000 people come through the doors of the Glencoe Woolshed, where the shearers share their stories as well as their skills.

Historic woolshed hosts Glencoe shearathon

The woolshed has not changed much since it was built in 1863. Wooden floorboards creak under people’s feet and dim lamps swing from the high ceilings.

It’s usually a quiet place, visited by history enthusiasts or people who want to learn more about old-fashioned shearing.

But during Blades of Glencoe, it’s busy; shearers’ stations line the walls, and sheep are stunned under the old-fashioned shears. Rain patters on the tin roof. Visitors jostle to take photos and get a better look.

Darting among the shearers are rouseabouts handling stock and collecting wool, shedhands making sure things run smoothly. All are donating their time to the cause — reducing the mental health stigma in regional industries.

“All these people here today have been affected in some way along the lines by mental health or suicide,” a voice tells the crowd over a megaphone.

“Spare a thought for them — it’s easy for us to stand and look at them, but give them a clap or a pat on the back as you walk past.”

Among the shearers is Manilla Nathan, from New Zealand’s North Island.

“I’ve lost six cousins through suicide, all young, all too young,” she says.

“I grew up with six other girls, we went to preschool, primary school, high school together. We were in the same netball team together.

“We were called the seven musketeers. I lost six of them. Two to car accidents, four to suicide.

“I still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. They say it’s a disease, but I say it’s a disorder. You can still reorder your life to get back to normal.”

In the back corner of the hall is security worker Luke Rowbottom from Warrnambool, Victoria.

He finished work at 3:00am then got a friend to drive him here before sunrise, only catching 90 minutes’ sleep before he got to Glencoe.

“I had a mate commit suicide before Christmas,” he says, his voice cracking when asked why he was so determined to be at the shearathon.

“I’ve had me beard for seven or eight years now and it’s fairly long and I’ve been raising a bit of money to get the beard shorn off.”

He hopes both fundraisers, Blades of Glencoe and shaving his beard, get people talking about mental health.

“Instead of someone saying ‘How’s it going, mate?’ and them saying ‘It doesn’t really matter because no-one listens anyway’ … hopefully this gets it out there that there are people who will listen.”

‘Here we are today’

Shearing near the entrance, where sunlight is streaming through the open doors, is Kelly Parker from Naracoorte, South Australia, who has struggled with suicidal thoughts before.

And across from her, on the other side of the walkway and the stalls of nervous sheep, is Josh Talbot from Jamestown, South Australia, who lost his shearing arm in an accident six years ago.

The first thing he thought when he woke up in hospital was “there goes my shearing career”. But when he got home he found his brother was working out ways to help Mr Talbot learn how to shear again by tying one of his arms behind his back.

“A few people said that I couldn’t do it … well, a lot of people told me I couldn’t do it,” he says, holding a sheep down with his body while shearing with his left arm.

“But here we are today, at Blades of Glencoe.”

Mutley Pearson, from the United Kingdom, took up blade shearing as rehab for a neck injury.

Four people she knew, two colleagues and two friends, died by suicide.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in life, you’ll always meet somebody who’s struggling in one way or another,” she says.

“They might spend their whole life with a smile on their face and you’ll never ever know until such times when they’re not there anymore.”

Also in the room is Jills Angus Burney, from New Zealand’s South Island.

“I lost my brother aged 28 to suicide, so it means a lot for me to be here today,” she says.

“I hope this weekend will really bring a sense of courage, resilience, and the difference that we bring to the industry.

“All of us, men and women, able-bodied and people who have been through life of adversity.”

Encouraging people to ask for help

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 44, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows.

And Beyond Blue estimates that in any one year, 1 million Australians will experience depression.

Western Australian shearer Janine Midgley is one of the shearathon’s organisers, and wanted to put the event on to highlight how pervasive mental health issues are through the human experience.

“If we can’t find a cure for it then we’re raising awareness for it, and finding why maybe so many people are lonely and so many people don’t know how to ask for help,” she says.

Another organiser is Richie Foster, from Queensland, famous in the industry for his blade-shearing skills.

In the 18 months leading up to the event, the 69-year-old encouraged other shearers to take part and trained people who didn’t know how to shear with blades.

He too, has struggled with his mental health.

“Fact is people just never pick me,” he says.

“I just feel so sorry for what people have been through. Wanting to end their life for no reason, I had no reason. I just think it’s so sad.”

‘Talk to each other’

Lance Deganhardt from the Heritage Shearers Foundation helped organise Blades of Glencoe, and also organised Tales by the Tailgate the night before.

“My role was to get the stories and hear the different types of things and what we need to do about mental health and suicide prevention,” he says.

“One of the things that really struck me was we were all mentioning communication.

“I think that’s one of the great skills we’ve lost in the shearing industry, but we need to regain that and there were people there with confidence tonight who were prepared to talk.”

Overall the Blades of Glencoe shearathon raised roughly $12,000 through the gate, with all proceeds going to Beyond Blue.

But the shearers hope that by talking about some of the most difficult topics to broach — suicide, depression, losing loved ones — people will walk away inspired to do the same.

“Talk to each other, you know, just get it out there,” Kelly Parker says.

“Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. No matter how bad it is. Talk about it. You know, it can be the difference between surviving and that final choice.”