Westport is a town that is known for many things, beautiful scenery and entertainment, but there is one more thing that has put Westport on the map and that is a young sheepshearer from Drummin.
Martin Hopkins will be competing for Ireland in the World Sheep Shearing Competition in France in July. He qualified for the Irish team last year and is still one of the youngest competitors on the circuit.
The young Mayo man was born to sheep farming parents Martin and Mary-Joe and he has been helping them with their farm for as long as he can remember.
As long as they could handle sheep, Martin and his two brothers James and Gavin, have been allowed to shear the sheep themselves. Their father taught them everything they know about hand-shearing, as this was a practice he used regularly.
The champion shearer has since rented land and now farms a flock of 100 sheep, consisting of Mayo Blackface and a smattering of Texels.
Martin’s first introduction to competition was the night before a local championship, when an older man encouraged him to take part and said, “Don’t take a bit of heed of anyone else.”
Although nervous, Martin went ahead and took part in his first ever competition. Often accompanied by his younger brother James (19), the pair take part in events as a team.
He didn’t win that particular event; however, he has successfully taken home a number of gold positions in U18’s at first, before moving on to win the Connacht Senior competition.
It was then that Martin decided to join the open blades class. “There used to be a senior Blades class but that’s all gone now, it’s just called open blades for anyone over 18,” he said.
All competitors had to qualify last year to enter the World Champion Sheep Sheering competition that is being hosted in France on the first week of July. Martin had to compete in four separate events to qualify.
The circuit was run by the Irish Sheep Shearing Association and the Irish team was selected from the top two open blades challengers, the top two electric shearers and the top two wool handlers.
“By the third competition, I was joint-second with a guy from Kerry and the last competition was held in Kerry, so I was lucky, thankfully it went the right way,” he said.
His proud parents Martin and Mary-Joe were thrilled at his success as their son came second and made the team.
The event will consist of each team being given six sheep to shear, three per person and there will also be an individual championship that anyone can enter.
There are approximately 30 countries signed up to take part in France, with South Africa being the reigning champions.
The championship has a panel of judges and the shearers will be judged on the quickest time along with the neatest finish.
Two judges will go out the back and examine the sheep for nicks and quality of the completed job. Martin can shear a sheep in about two minutes.
He also explained that “When you’re shearing, you’re also judged on your second cutting, to make sure that you’re not going back over what you’ve done already; the aim is to get it all off with one close of the shears”.
The competition is based on a points system with shearers being penalised with added points for a nick or a bad cut. The winner will have the least amount of points at the end.
At home, Martin is busy with his own farm but will work shearing sheep for neighbours during the summer.
He will use an automatic shearer for about 90% of the time; however, “We still do some of the sheep on the hills with the blades, just so it leaves that extra bit of wool on them and they’re shorn later in the year, around July or August”.
His brother Gavin is completing his Junior Certificate this year so he is busy, and his teammate brother James has taken up an apprenticeship that will keep him away from competition at the moment.
Martin, on the other hand, is a student at GMIT, studying BSc in Education - Design, Graphics and Construction, in order to become a secondary school teacher.
This means that he will have free summers to enter all the championships that he wishes and that is exactly what Martin plans to do.
He also offers the same advice that he received to anyone who would like to become a sheep shearing competitor themselves.
“Just give it a go, It’s hard at the start, I’ll never forget the advice that I was given to me at the start, he said not to take any notice of anyone else there, he said even if John Wayne comes beside ya, just don’t take any notice.”
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