A different year awaits everyone in farming – and sheep shearing is no different, with the ongoing lockdown restrictions and social distancing put in place to stamp out Covid-19 reducing the number of shearers coming in from overseas.

Prior to the pandemic, more than 150 shearers – mostly from New Zealand and Australia – would fly into the UK to assist in the removal of wool from up to 20% of the UK’s national sheep flock. However, with many unsure as to whether they would be able to get flights, most have decided to remain in their home countries.

As a result, Lanarkshire’s Lance Armstrong, who runs one of Scotland’s largest shearing contactor runs, believes it is now time for UK shearers to ‘up their game’.

“We will not be flying anyone in from abroad this season, which is very unlike us,” said Lance.

“This is now the perfect time for the British shearers to step up to the challenge. It is their job to ensure we can work together to protect the safety and welfare of the sheep and make sure all sheep get shorn this season.”

Lance usually flies nine shearers and five wool handlers a year from New Zealand, but with the prospect of them not being able to fly back, has been forced to source British shearers which has proved a bit of a challenge.

“Kiwis come over to work, they don’t mess us about, they are here day in day out with shearing being their everyday life for the whole time they are here. They also bring a lot of humour to our squad so they will be missed this year, but we hope to see them return in 2021.

“Instead, we are having to take on British shearers and already have the British contractors that would usually be out in Norway or New Zealand. Therefore, I am confident we will be able to shear the sheep we normally do every year,” said Lance.

Very much a family affair, Lance Armstrong Shearing – which dates back 32 years – includes Lance and his wife Mary and their children Robbie, Cameron and Eilidh.

Mary is the organiser behind the scenes ensuring there is enough sheep in front of the men as well as scheduling day to day runs. The youngsters also play their part, with Robbie beginning to shear last year, while Cameron has been crutching since he left school this year and will be trained up to shear. And, although Eilidh is still at school, she assists with rolling wool when available.

The family also take on a beginner shearer every year to teach them the trade and encourage them to stay –despite the work hard.

“Each youngster tends to stay with us for at least four or five years when we are training them. When they come to work with us they know they will get the sheep in front of them and know they will get plenty of work to practice. There are plenty of boys who have worked with us that have great experience and pass it on to the younger ones.

“It is crucial that we keep taking on new people. At the end of the day, they are the next generation, and shearing needs to be continued. It is just through word of mouth that these guys are coming to us, so we are delighted we have one a year – they are a real asset to our business,” said Lance.

Lance is having to take on more youngsters this year to take the strain when he doesn’t have the Kiwis, though.

“With a lot of younger shearers joining our force this year, I just hope farmers will be patient with us, as they will not be able to shear as many as the Kiwis in a day, but they need to learn! This is a great opportunity for them to pursue.

“We also have two young boys coming up from Wales who are looking to improve their shearing skills, so it is great that we can offer this opportunity. We just hope they work hard and thrive,” added Lance.

Youngsters are also encouraged to take on British Wool Board shearing courses to help improve their technique and gain qualifications.

Shearing starts off with one trailer in April and gradually builds up throughout the season, such that by the end of the Royal Highland Show some eight trailer squads are on the go. As well as hiring shearers, Lance also takes on six wool handlers – another vital job and key to the overall success of his business.

“For anyone starting out in shearing, go for it, it is a great industry to be part of and there is always plenty of work. You can also take the opportunity to see the world as well as enhance new skills from all over, there are so many things to experience!

“The biggest thing I took from travelling to New Zealand and Norway was learning to work hard, as well as understanding farmers attitudes to get the job done and I have brought this home and put it to practice – although it is not easy pleasing everyone,” said Lance.

Weather plays a big part in shearing for the work to be able to continue which can prove challenging at times.

“It makes our job a lot easier if it is dry and the sheep can be kept outside before being brought inside for us to shear, so unlike a lot of the arable boys, we are hoping the sun returns and the dry weather continues.”

He added: “We are in uncertain times and no one knows what the future holds, but we just need to go out and get our heads down and get on with the work.

“I think contract shearing has a positive future, it lets us go in and do the job and allows farmers to concentrate on other jobs, especially with fewer people being on farms now they are busier with so many other things. There are plenty of youngsters coming through which is promising for the industry and always good to see for any work force.

“Shearing will always be needed in Scotland, as sheep are suited to our climate. We just hope we can return to a ‘normal’ season next year and have the overseas guys back, but for now the priority is for everyone to stay safe,” concluded Lance.

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, all of BWMB shearing courses for 2020 have been cancelled. A full refund will be given to those who have paid for their course.


The Scottish Farmer:

Lance in action