John Dalla - Keeping the art alive

He's won eight national titles in nine years and is gearing up to attend his fourth World Championships, but South Australian John Dalla is just as focussed on keeping the art of blade shearing alive in Australia.

Dalla has dominated the sport in the lucky country for the last decade and when he's not on the end of a set of hand shears himself, he divides his time between his Orrie Cowie Merino Stud on the York Penninsula, west of Adelaide and his role as a trainer for Australian Wool Innovation.

"We've just started blade shearing schools to develop the skills here and there's been huge interest, a lot more than I ever imagined," he said. "We could run more schools but it's been a matter of finding the time to do it."

Dalla says most of the attendees at his training are learning blade shearing as a hobby.

"The majority are working with small flocks or are farmers who want to practice on a few," he said. "You get the occasional one who wants to get into the stud industry or shearing rams. It's a pretty lucrative business but it's so short-lived. You only shear for 9 or 10 weeks of the year. We don't do any commercial blade shearing here," he said.

Most of Australia's blade shearing is done on stud farms to leave a more natural finish for showing rams and ewes in competition, meaning Dalla struggles to find blade shearing competition in his home state of South Australia.

"I have to travel inter-state to compete, but when you get down into Victoria or New South Wales there are shows with 20 or 30 blade shearers. There are plenty of people competing and getting quite good at it here," he said.

Good enough to stop southern Africa's stranglehold on the World Blade Shearing titles?

"They've dominated for a long time. I put it down to the sheer number of sheep (estimated to be as many as 17 million per annum) that are still blade shorn in South Africa and Lesotho, along with the quality of their workmanship and with them doing it all the time, they have got the speed as well," Dalla said.

It has been a remarkable run. The last ten World Blade titles have been evenly shared between South Africa and Lesotho, a high-altitude land-locked kingdom encircled by South Africa. In fact, you have to go back to 1988 in Masterton to find the last non-African to win the title, 2017 New Zealand blade shearing representative Tony Dobbs.

Dobbs also makes an appearance, and an important one at that, in John Dalla's shearing past.
"I came over to Fairlie to a blade shearing school in 2007 when I was 19 and Tony Dobbs and Noel Handley were the guys that really got my shearing going a lot better. That was the year I won my first national championship," he said.

So, what chance of the student beating the teacher?

"I could only dream of beating Tony over in New Zealand," Dalla said. "He's pretty hard to beat on his own sheep, or anywhere for that matter."

With three top 10 finishes in three World Championship appearances, John Dalla shouldn't be ruled out as a contender in 2017. But, even if he threatens the favourites from southern Africa or southern Canterbury, perhaps his biggest accomplishment will remain his tireless work to keep the historic practice of blade shearing alive and well back home in Australia.

The 2017 World Shearing and Woolhandling Championships will be held in the South Island of New Zealand for the first time in its 40-year history in Invercargill from 8 to 11 February. Tickets and event information can be found at www.worldshearingchamps.com.


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