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Australian Sheep Shearers Deserting Industry

Australia's wool industry faces a chronic lack of sheep shearers. They are being lured to better paid jobs in the booming mining sector, just as demand from China, which buys about 60 percent of Australian wool, is soaring. Phil Mercer has more from Sydney.

Australia's sheep shearers have been deserting the industry in droves. The most recent figures show that between 2003 and 2006 almost a quarter walked away.

The shearing sheds face tough competition from Australia's mining sector, which is experiencing unprecedented growth thanks to strong demand from China and increasingly India.

However, demand from China for Australian wool has also surged, pushing prices to their highest level in more than four years.

Analysts say that the Chinese bought 58 percent of Australia's wool between July and November 2007 sparking concerns that supply will not be able to meet demand.

Resource companies offer better wages and conditions than shearing, one of the toughest jobs in Australia.

Joe Sullivan from research company Australian Wool Innovation says workers continue to leave the industry.

"Let's be honest - one, it's a hard, physical job," he said. "Shearers have a limited lifespan in the role but also because of competing industries and with the resources boom, we're having quite a significant demand for labor from the mining industry."

Sheep shearing is often a backbreaking job, where thousands of kilograms of sheep meat are shifted every day. Hours are spent dragging sheep out of their pens and removing their tangled fleeces with electric clippers.

A good shearer can get through 200 sheep a day, and is paid about $2 per fleece but the punishing work often leads to chronic back pain and other injuries.

Australia's long-standing drought has reduced sheep numbers and although farmers need fewer shearers there still are not enough to go round.

Efforts are being made to attract new recruits and increase productivity. There are training courses around the country and researchers are looking at ways to make the job easier.

Despite the drought and a shortage of skilled workers, Australia remains the world's largest wool exporter.