The Kiwi woman shearing in a man’s world

This Kiwi legend went from a broken jaw to a world record - and now she's encouraging other women.

It was the summer of ’74. Jills Angus Burney was 14 – weeks of school holidays stretched out in front of her. But Jills was no ordinary teenager.

There were no nights spent staying out late or spent sleeping in until noon. Instead, Jills was in hot, dusty Wairoa, hundreds of miles away from her home in Feilding, working her first shearing shed.

Now 56 and a lawyer, Jills is a pivotal character in the documentary No 1 Stand. A former women’s world record holder and the only woman to have beaten David Fagan, New Zealand’s most successful shearer, in a competition, her lifelong passion for shearing is now being passed on to a new generation, including the female shearers who feature in the film.

Jills was 16 when she did her first full day shearing and she remembers the 5am start surprisingly fondly.

“Someone had left the shed unexpectedly and I had pestered the ganger to let me shear. By the end of the day, I had huge blisters on my hands. I remember going to school the next week and not being able to use my pen because the blisters were so bad.”

She shore 50 sheep that first day, a tally she’s kept to herself until now.

“You know, I’ve never ever told anyone because it wasn’t many!”

Jills, who recalls practicing her technique on a bean bag shaped like a sheep, tried to enter the Golden Shears for the first time in 1980. Coincidentally, it was also the first year a world championship had been held in New Zealand. Because of that, entries had to be capped and Jills failed to make the cut.

Still, as fate would have it, Jills did get to compete – under somewhat unusual circumstances.

“About a week before the Golden Shears, I met Barbara Marsh at the Pahiatua Show,” she explains. “Barbara had been shearing since the ‘60s. She was an icon in our day. She was 40ish, a big, statuesque woman, tall and strong, and very glamorous with long hair. She was just like, wow!” Jills continues.

The former champion is now a mentor for young women.

“Barbara gave me the name of this woman, Pam Wihi, who she knew wasn’t going to turn up – so my first Golden Shears I didn’t really even enter. I shore under someone else’s name. The whole time, I was worried the organisers would realise I wasn’t this other person. And clearly I wasn’t Pam Wihi. I’m a little Pakeha,” she laughs.

Jills’ career, which has also supported her through journalism school and university, has since taken her to Australia (where she once worked in 42°C heat) the US (“where it was -20°C in Idaho”), Wales and Scotland.

She’s picked up numerous titles in her time, with her 1989 women’s world record for shearing 541 lambs in nine hours standing for 18 years. It was Emily Welch, another of the documentary’s central characters, who took the title in 2007.

She was only 16 when she did her first full day of shearing.

Being a woman in a man’s world has had its moments, she says.

“Funnily enough, I never had any problems in Australia.

“I think they were just stunned that a girl could do two to three hundred sheep. But the New Zealand guys would get their noses out of joint once you started getting competitive, especially if you are doing more than them or beating them in a competition.

“When I was in the South Island in ‘85, I got my jaw broken by a guy who smacked me over for beating him – he was drunk. Really all I could do was let my work speak for me. At the time, it was terrifying and definitely an experience I could have done without. Thankfully, the girls these days aren’t subjected to that sort of thing. A month later, I won the senior merino title, which was the first time a woman had won a New Zealand championship title.”

While Jills no longer shears professionally, she continues to keep her hand in as a judge and mentor, and shears a small flock she and her partner Debra run on their lifestyle block at Homebush near Masterton.

Words: Julie Jacobsen

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