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Shearing contractors turn to migrants
Shearing contractor Greg McAtamney, who owns Progress Shearing, with one of his shearing teams at York. Picture: Danella Bevis/Countryman

The back-breaking job of shearing is not getting easier but it is getting a lot harder to find shearers in WA.

Local contractors are turning to migration experts to help bring shearers into the country and to the backpacker network for shed hands and wool pressers.

WA Shearing Industry Association president Darren Spencer said the shearer shortage was a seasonal issue and reflected the changing face of farming.

Mr Spencer said Australians and New Zealanders still dominated the industry, but in peak times shearers from Britain, South Africa and even France were drawn to WA.

"Everyone wants their sheep shorn in three months at the start of the year and in four months from August," he said.

Official figures show more than 16 million sheep were shorn in WA last financial year but the number of shearers is harder to pin down because of the transient nature of the trade.

In the last census, 3204 people nationwide - including 90 women - listed their occupation as shearer. Thousands more have been trained as shearers or shedhands by Australian Wool Innovation in recent years, but the numbers entering the industry haven't been enough in the months of high demand.

The number of shearers employed by leading contractors in WA more than doubles in peak times. Progress Shearing operator Greg McAtamney said he employed about eight shearers for most of the year and up to 18 in those peak periods.

Mr McAtamney was shearing with one of his teams on a farm between York and Beverley yesterday, while his 20-year-old son Tane was shearing at Broomehill.

"My son started last year," he said. "He started doing 80 to 100 (sheep shorn a day) and he's averaging 160 a year later."

Mr Spencer said shearers in WA could make good money. The standard rate per sheep is just under $2.74, with top shearers averaging more than 200 sheep a day.