He’s shorn close to two million sheep in a career spanning six decades, and now one of western Queensland’s most well-respected shearing contractors is going to be inducted into the Shearers Hall of Fame.
Ron “Tolly” Bowden was announced last week as one of five new inductees by Shear Outback at Hay in New South Wales, making him just the second Queenslander to be given the honour since it began in 2002.
The other 2016 inductees include Victorian shearing contractor John Conlan, Kyneton, joining his brother, former world champion, Mark Conlan (decd), Bob Cuttler from Geelong, to be inducted posthumously, Peter Kelly, also deceased, from Ballarat, and Graeme Tyers (decd) from Western Australia.
Born in Muttaburra on Anzac Day in 1945, Tolly started work as a rouseabout for Norm Elliott at Winton when he was 13 years old.
He was shearing by the age of 17 and credits Norm with teaching him how to manage a shearing team.
When he was 18 he rung the shed at Bude in the Longreach district.
One of his most prized possessions – “a family heirloom” – is the 25 carat gold handpiece given to him by Sunbeam in recognition of his contributions to the industry.
It’s one of only three ever given out.
Sunbeam was sponsoring the world championships in Alexandra, in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, when Tolly was representing Australia some years ago.
“We didn’t do too good,” he said. “The Kiwi sheep are finer and have tighter wool.”
Now 72 and confining himself to penning up duties, thanks to bung knees, Tolly reckons it’s a life that’s given him a lot.
His top tally was 326 with narrow gear, but his legendary status comes as much for his dedication to improving the image of shearing through the famous Diamond Shears competition that ran for 20 years at Longreach from 1980, thanks to the efforts of himself, his wife Rae, Bob McPhee and Hans Joerns.
“I thought it was important to put shearers and shearing on the map,” he said. “I wanted them to be proud to be a shearer, to dress well and do a good job.”
It also put him at the centre of a circle of camaraderie, a bond of mateship that the best teams are made of, in Tolly’s experience.
In return, loyalty to clients is a principle he’s always upheld, which gave him a business that enabled him to buy three houses and a four wheel drive.
A lot of the camaraderie disappeared when everyone began driving themselves to work rather than sharing lifts, according to Tolly, who remembers a 250km ride on the back of a truck between Winton and Toolebuc with half a dozen other shearers in his younger days.
There are plenty of other changes that Tolly’s seen over the years – the introduction of wide gear and the productivity increase that came from that, the 1956 shearers’ strike for better wages, the wool floor price scheme and its collapse, the ceasing of wool scours in the west, and working on weekends.
The biggest change has come in recent years though, with the demise of the wool industry in western Queensland.
“Grazcos used to have 100 shearers in Longreach,” he recalled. “Nowadays you’d be lucky to scratch up two teams.”
His business used to shear 350,000 sheep in an average year; this year Tolly says it will shear somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 head.
“Yes, the fences are going up, but some people are going into meat sheep.
“That’s really barking up the wrong tree. You can’t get them fat enough out here.
“You’ve got to finish them at a feedlot down south so they’re the ones that are making the money.”
However, he hopes there will still be a productive business for his grandaughter Rayleen to take over one day.
“This has been my life,” he said. “Everything I have I got with my two hands out of the shearing industry, and I’ve always been proud to be called a shearer.”
It is anticipated that the Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place next Easter as part of the Festival of the Blades at Shear Outback.