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Pure wool
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This episode s creened 31 March, 2007

Pure Wool

Working for one of Peter Lyon's shearing gangs means hard grind and long hours - but the compensation is visiting woolsheds with some of the finest views in the world.

Peter and his wife Elsie run New Zealand's biggest merino shearing contracting business, based in Central Otago. Their farmer customers include high country stations bordering Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu, as well as stations as far north as Marlborough.

Merino sheep thrive in a dry climate and most New Zealand merinos are found in the South Island high country.The wool is ultra-fine and ideal for clothing fabrics.

Growing merino wool is a long tradition in New Zealand, but currently are now finding new demand for their product, thanks to the popularity of outdoor wear like the Icebreaker brand.

In the past, most of New Zealand's merino crop was sold to exclusive Japanese and Italian fashion houses, but fashion changes mean more wool is now being used in brightly coloured merino T-shirts, jerseys and jackets designed in New Zealand.

Getting the fibre off the sheep's back is tough and sweaty work for the shearers - but it also requires a highly skilled team of wool handlers. Peter Lyon's gangs shear 1.5 million sheep a year - but Peter says quality is more important than quantity in the high-value merino wool industry.

Good shearing and handling can make a difference of several dollars per kilo to the price of the wool - and that's crucial for most merino farmers, who rely largely on wool for their annual income. At the peak of the season in late winter and early spring, Peter has up to 220 shearers and wool handlers criss-crossing the high country back roads.

Out-of-town workers are accommodated, fed and transported during the season and his base is crammed with shearers from all around the country. 

Peter and Elsie Lyon begin their day early.  By 5 a.m. they are in their office slotting shearers and shed-hands into their respective gangs, as well as working out which gang will match with each farmer client. As they work, up to 150 out-of-town staff will flood in for an early feed of bacon and eggs - and by 6 a.m. the first vans will have already left, to make sure they're in place for a seven o'clock start at the woolshed.

It's not an easy life, but after having been involved in shearing all their working lives, Peter and Elsie say their job still gives them huge satisfaction.




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