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Ewe-turn on the Falklands: From gruelling sheep farming to tourism

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An employee shears a sheep at a ranch in Goose Green on the Falkland Islands. Tourism has become a source of secondary employment for many of the Falklands’ inhabitants, who traditionally were dedicated to sheep raising. PABLO PORCIUNCULA BRUNE/AFP

Ewe-turn on the Falklands: From gruelling sheep farming to tourism

Late in life, Tony Heathman has sought out pastures new – the 70-year-old former sheep shearer now spends his days driving tourists around the Falklands Islands.

If that sounds like an odd career switch, his story is typical on the remote British archipelago, where tourism is an increasingly popular side hustle for workers in the grueling livestock industry.

Heathman works for his 38-year-old daughter Nyree’s Estancia Tours in the South Atlantic territory, having long ago handed over his farm to his other daughter.

“A lot of people will save up their leave and take days off to just drive down here for a day when the big ships come in,” Heathman said on a gusty trip to Volunteer Point, a peninsula famous for the islands’ signature species, the king penguin.

Driving tourists around one of the Falklands’ main attractions is Heathman’s main job these days.

“It’s very lucrative. Some people just rely on it for extra cash,” he says. “It’s a day out to meet people and exchange views on various subjects, talk about life on the Falklands and worldwide – I enjoy it.”

Sheep farming nevertheless remains a traditional way of life for some islanders – enduring despite a rapidly modernising society and an exodus of workers to the archipelago’s one town, Stanley.

Gruelling work

There are 92 farms and some 500,000 sheep on the Falklands.

Goose Green farm on East Falkland island employs five sheep shearers and as many “rouseys” – the women who shake out the freshly shorn wool. It is grueling work.

“There’s a learner on the end. He’ll shear 160. The two boys in the middle, they’ll shear 400 today. It depends on your ability,” Goose Green farm manager Keith Alazia, 47, said.

His five employees will work for around eight and a half days straight, shearing 13,500 sheep between them – around 1,500 a day.

Then they’ll move on to another farm. They can earn almost one pound sterling per sheep.

“People have sheared 25,000 in the Falklands in a five month season, so that’s the best part of £25,000 in that time,” said Alazia.

But on a remote island chain with harsh weather where locals say you can experience all four seasons within an hour, such strenuous work is not for everyone. Neither is sheep farming.

“You have the real Falkland Islanders who still live on farms and are 90 years old, and go out every day and gather sheep,” said Joanne Baigorri, a credit officer at the islands’ only bank.

“But you have some of us who like to be in town with our comfort and heating and internet and things like that.”

Life on the Falklands can be slow, to the extent that the recent opening of a cinema in the capital Stanley caused a stir.

Safe place

There are no nightclubs, while the internet is expensive and can be frustratingly slow. Restaurants open for business at around 6pm and often stop taking orders by 8:30pm.

But that small town vibe has its plus side too – this is a place where people don’t lock their homes or cars.

“I love living here. I have three children, this is such a safe place to raise your children,” said Baigorri, 27, as she shopped in Stanley’s supermarket.

It’s also a surprisingly cosmopolitan place.

Falkland Islanders proudly boast about 60 nationalities among a population of just 3,400.

Ten per cent are Chileans, while there are also burgeoning communities of Filipinos, Saint Helenians and even Zimbabwean deminers.

“I fell in love with the Falklands and fell in love with a local person,” said Gabi McRae, a 31-year-old Chilean who works in quality control at the Falkland Islands Meat Company.

Life can sometimes be difficult, though, as the weather can cause havoc with air and boat travel.

Many internal flights are called off due to gusting winds and occasionally the ship carrying food stocks runs into difficulties, from the weather or Argentina, which continues to claim sovereignty despite Britain asserting its authority since 1833.

“Sometimes you can find it hard to find things you actually need,” said McRae.

“For example, I might want to bake a cake and you’ve got no sugar, and there’s absolutely no sugar on the entire island.”

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