Sunday, July 20, 2008

To Sheep Perchance To Dream

It was in a tiny little rural Hamlet (sorry, sorry) that we spent our scrimped-and-saved vacation pennies. We eschewed more obvious winter vacation spots (I've got to start using the word "holiday" for "vacation" one of these days) such as Rotorua and its hot springs or Whakapapa and its powdery ski slopes. Both are drivable North Island destinations that could have fit in our budget but were likely to be infested with tourists. Neither of us wanted a "tourist," um, holiday at all. What we really wanted to was to time travel a bit to earlier more formative days and try to understand what makes this place what it is. Turns out that it's sheep.

Well, at least in part.

Here I'll quote some statistics just to put a few things in perspective. Sheep outnumber humans in New Zealand 12-to-1. I was originally told "there are more sheep than people in New Zealand" by a few New Zealand savvy individuals before we left, but that doesn't quite put a fine enough point on it. A dozen for every bloke and blokette in the place.

Sheep arrived with Captain Cook (who, I still imagine, looks a bit like Captain Crunch) in 1773---only a scant few years before our own Founding Fathers signed our Declaration of Independence and gave the big middle finger to the Queen. It was for the Queen that the honorable Captain originally landed on these shores putting it on European maps and guaranteeing future boatloads of Britons, sheep, pigs, guns and infectious diseases which were met with varying levels of enthusiasm by the already well-established Maori population. Cook gained world renown for the incredible skill with which he explored, charted and recorded previously unknown parts of Australasia and the Pacific Islands for which he was eventually boiled and roasted in our own US state of Hawaii some years later.

But back to sheep.

The first sheep here were Merino sheep which are prized for their very fine wool. Today Romney and Perendale sheep are the most numerous. New Zealand is the largest exporter of "strong" wool in the world. And meat has supplanted wool as the largest reason to raise sheep in the first place. Yummy, yummy meat.

Where we stayed, at Sharika Farm, they had flocks of sheep with Romney, Perendale and Suffolk blood. The black-faced sheep in the pictures are of Suffolk lineage--originally from Wales--and the white-faced sheep are Romney from Kent in Southeast England where they've been raised since the Middle Ages.

Perendales are Romneys mixed with another breed, Cheviot, at New Zealand's own Massey University by a man named Peren. Sir Geoffrey Peren selectively bred them over many generations as hardy sheep that could handle the steep hills and produce favorable wool. Massey U is in Palmerston North---a pretty sizable and modern town we drove through on our way back home.

You can ignore the goat in the above picture. She thinks she's a sheep and she's really really convinced. Her name is Nina. See how confidently she strides alongside her fellow sheep?

About every six months the wool gets long enough to shear and the sheep get rounded up for a morning haircut. We were lucky that we were there when a few dozen ready to go and Andrew loaded them into a sort of corral/barn/shearing building, donned his leather shearing slippers (they help grip the ground and help him keep his balance when shearing and look a bit like high top moccasins) and let 'er rip.

The shears were a sturdy mechanical device. Not at all like my electric beard trimmer. They connected to a driveshaft with a flexible elbow joint which itself connected via an elbow joint to a rotating steel spindle dangling from the roof of the shearing shed. I'm guessing some kind of electric motor was responsible for spinning the shaft which drove the shears, but it was hidden out of sight and was only heard from--not seen. A rope dangled from the ceiling as well, and it was used to turn the shearing device on and off between sheep.

Andrew would wade into the pen, select one of the young rams seemingly at random and grab it around the midsection and drag it backwards through a sort of anti-sheep airlock that separated the pen from the shearing platform. Once he had the sheep assuming the position, he'd pick up the shears, yank the rope and get down to business.

Sheep shearing is an incredibly physical undertaking. I never really gave much thought to how the whole thing went down, really. I kind of assumed it'd be like a veterinarian's examination of a sick pet. You put the sheep up on the table, pull out the shears and bzzzzt bzzzzt bzzzzt, done. I figured the shearing part was where all the technique was... the speed and angle of the shears, the order of wooly strips to remove and so forth. It's not. It's in maintaining a firm and unyielding command of the sheep and manipulating its body in the right ways at the right times to position it where it needs to be.

Here Andrew had the head secured between his knees, the haunches pinched between his heels, his left hand in the crook of the rear leg pressing down to force the knee to extend and the shears buzzing quickly along the inside of the leg. He took command of the sheep in such a way that the sheep had no option but to relax. It knew in its tiny walnut-sized sheep brain that struggling was futile and that while it was scared, it was at least feeling somewhat supported and stable if not completely comfortable.

This is where the skill is. This is where the learn-by-doing and the years of experience come in. This is the reason Andrew is able to live in Italy or Wales or Scotland for months at a time on the dime of the company that hires expert shearers from overseas.

Sheryl stood next to Andrew with a large paddle and pushed wool into piles. It was this job that Zoe took over for a half dozen sheep and that Sheryl took back when the girls had left to talk through the fence to the horses towards the end of the shearing. I'd distracted Sheryl from her job by talking to her about horseback riding and some of the wool began to pile up. I had several seconds to snap this picture before she pushed the wool into the pile. The morning sun had risen and was streaming in through the shed.

You can see one sheep's worth of wool, ready for lifting into the bin and my Blunnie peeking in from the lower left corner of the frame as I sat on a large bale of already-processed wool.

As the wool piled up it'd get lifted into the bin for compression and baling. The girls were very handy with the compression part.

It was a tremendous privilege to be included in this whole ritual. It was a very intimate look at something that's been occurring in New Zealand for hundreds of years in much the same way as we witnessed it. It was just another morning down on the farm, but one with four outsiders feeling very much on the inside that day.

1 comment:

Dr. Cathy Ezrailson said...

How lovely. I enjoyed touring NZ via your travelogue(??). The pictures are fascinating, too. I have snagged some and put them up on my desktop so that I can share. I have the one with the girls brushing the horse looking rosy-cheeked and happy.