16 Jul 2021

Supporting Shearers

From Country Life, 9:23 pm on 16 July 2021
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Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Serena Lyders grew up in shearing sheds - she is now an advocate for support and mental health services to be made available to people working in shearing gangs.

Serena knows shearing and the sheds. It runs in her family; she is the fourth generation in the shearing shed.

"My sons are all in shearing. My brother is a world record shearer. My father was a shearing contractor.

"Growing up in Ohai in western Southland, shearing was very prominent in our community. I was a senior wool handler at 13. We worked every holiday as people did then. Right from young, we were working and getting paid, working around Southland, before moving at 18 to Dannevirke. I learned to shear and did the shearing shows."

But Serena knows the hardships that can come with the shearing life, and she has been determined to do something about it.

She is part of a push to help those in the industry overcome a range of problems.

"It is an unheard and overlooked community," she says.


Work can be transient, the hours long, access to services and help difficult to get.

"We did a survey and found that shearers wanted a range of things; counselling services, help with addiction for drugs or alcohol, and parenting advice; people are away from their kids and struggle to look after their family when away for a long time. Some have mental health issues. There is also a big rainbow community in the shearing industry."

Serena, of Ngāti Porou, is part of Whānau Consultancy Services which tries to help shearers access the help they need.

"There's some awesome initiatives out there," she says. "If they would just talk to each other that would be amazing."

There are several contributing factors to shearers being unable to get help, says Serena. They may be only in a place for a few months before moving.

"Then they have to get a day off to see someone - and tell their story all over again. It just makes it hard."

She talks of family members working long hours, then catching the work van home for a further stint on the road.

"In many places, there will be no clinic open after they finish work, no GP, no chiropractor open, when they get off work."

Serena left shearing to train as a primary bilingual teacher to help children like those she knew as a youngster to aim high and strive for the best.

"If you are going to be a shearer, be the best shearer. Be the best wool handler. Aim high and see the world.

"My father said wherever you are in the world, if you have shearing skills, you can get home."

Social work

After training as a teacher, she turned to social work and has been working to help people for some 16 years.

She is determined to help young people and says the suicide statistics for young Māori are "horrendous".

Asked if things have changed in the shearing shed, she points to the group of older women who she grew up around who acted as mentors, advisors and protectors.

"They helped you make good choices. There was lots of drinking and promiscuity but they mentored you through that. I don't see that so much now."

On the other hand, she sees more professional athletes in the industry now; people who want to train for a show or a record and will go for a run after work rather than settle in for a drink.

Recently she and other counsellors organised a course for rangatahi.

"Many may have a terrible experience in school, then join the shearing industry and find themselves away from family and friends, or rules. They have to fend for themselves. We look for ways to help and talk to them."

There were talks on mental health, reading a payslip, self-management for alcohol, keeping physically safe, even making sure you drink enough water. There was also cultural teaching around the taiaha.

"We wanted young people to know they can travel the world, they can be world champions. They just need to be strong."

She says it was lovely to see young people blossom.

"Hopefully we can spread that across the country."