Battle of the blades (sheep-shearing variety, that is)

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For lucky sheep, it’s like a trip to the hair salon. For the unlucky ones, it can resemble a wild and woolly wrestling match against an opponent armed with a sharp object.

The 4,600 sheep picked for the 2012 World Sheep Shearing Competition in Masterton, New Zealand, and the national Golden Shears championships were in for a pampering last week, when top clippers from around the globe competed for a top prize of NZ$3,000 ($2,500).

The return of the biennial event to New Zealand for the first time since 1996 is seen as a homecoming by the sheep-shearing community.

That’s not surprising in a nation where sheep outnumber humans 10 to one and which this year lobbied for sheep shearing to be recognised as an Olympic sport.

“People here say the Golden Shears is the Wimbledon of sheep shearing,” said Doug Laing, media officer at Shearing Sports New Zealand.

Shearers from heavyweight countries New Zealand, Australia and Britain compete with entries from lesser-known shearing countries, including Germany, Estonia and Japan.

They are judged on speed and accuracy in both machine and hand-blade cutting categories.

Penalty points are given according to how long each shearing takes, as well as “imperfections” that include nicks and cuts to the sheep and double cutting.

Laing, a descendant of a shearing family, says nimbleness with the “blades” — a colloquial term for manual and electric shears — and getting the sheep positioned correctly are the key components of a close, comfortable shave.

“Once you’ve got the sheep’s balance sorted, and you’ve got them seated all right, it’s just like giving them a haircut,” Laing said.

Best results are also achieved by following the “Bowen style” favoured in New Zealand. Developed in the 1950s by a famed pair of shearing brothers named Godfrey and Ivan Bowen, the sheep is shorn in rhythmical sweeps while pulling the skin away from the body.

“Otherwise it ends up looking like a wrestling match,” Laing said.

Local shearer John Kirkpatrick, a three-time Golden Shears champion, was tipped to take the top machine-shearing prize at both the World Championships and the national Golden Shears competition.

Kirkpatrick, however, was expected to face stiff competition from compatriot Cam Ferguson in the finals. Ferguson holds the world record for shearing longwool lambs — a whopping 742 in eight hours.

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