The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 20, 2003


Counting sheep · by the millions

Following Tom Raftery's suggestion in his June 6 cartoon, I grabbed my coat (well, actually my raincoat) and headed over to Towle Field to check out the sheep. They were soggy and the steady rain seemed to interrupt their munching.

I sat in the car and pondered the quirkiness of nature. While the Carlisle sheep are rain-soaked this wet spring, many of their distant cousins in Australia have died in one of the country's worst droughts in 100 years. Millions of others have been slaughtered or sold by farmers who could no longer bear the financial burden of raising them under such severe conditions.

I recently spent three weeks in Australia and New Zealand where, in addition to admiring the enormous beauty and cultural richness "down under," I learned a lot about sheep.

The dusty outback

Australia's sheep industry has been in decline since about 1990 when the world wool market collapsed. The country's 58 million ewes are now more valuable for their lamb production than for their fleece, but Australia has been struggling for its share of the world-wide market for lamb. Still, Australians continue to celebrate the halcyon days of old when wool was profitable, sheep shearers were local heroes and thousands of sheep dotted every lush landscape.

Our first stop in Australia was the small town of Griffith, New South Wales, about 300 miles west of Sydney. We stayed with my traveling friend's long-time pen-pal whose three sons once ran a sheep station (a ranch) in Gooligaw, not far from Griffith. But the brothers · Gary, Steven and Jeff Condon · gave up on sheep and now grow rice, wheat and canola on their three farms located in an irrigation area controlled by the government. We were surprised to learn that Australia harvests rice but absolutely astonished to see miles and miles of orange groves, cotton fields and olive trees in the irrigation area. Clearly, farmers here had successfully transitioned from sheep to crops.

One cloudless day the Condons took us and their families into the outback, also called the bush, on a long day's journey into dust and desolation. They warned us that this part of the outback, a semi-arid region accustomed to hard times, had gone without substantial rain for the past three years. Evidence of the harsh environment was everywhere. The rust-colored clay roads were rutted and our four-by-four vehicles left a wake of dust visible for miles. The skimpy vegetation · mostly scrubby bushes · was brown and desiccated, hardly adequate food for foraging animals. Riverbeds and creeks had long since dried up and the animals, once plentiful, had died or moved on.

Our Aussie friends were amazed at the almost total absence of kangaroos in the bush. "Why, you used to see thousands of 'roos out here, running next to the road, across the road," Gary recalled. "They were such a nuisance. Now, there's nothing." We did see one red kangaroo (Australia also has grey kangaroos) off in the distance, a few emus, and several flocks of galahs, pigeon-sized grey and pink birds visible everywhere in New South Wales. Occasionally we spotted thin cattle huddled under a lone tree or a few sheep grazing on the barren land.

Sheer Outback

But the bush is full of surprises. Now and then we drove through tiny towns dotted with a few small houses, dogs dozing in the road, and a welcoming pub. We stopped for lunch at a larger, livelier, more prosperous town called Hay, and visited a new museum called Sheer Outback, home of the "Australian Shearer's Hall of Fame." In the early 1900s, sheep shearers in the outback, famous for their speed and skill, were as popular as today's Aussie football stars. A sound and light show chronicled the historic shearers who expertly used hand blades for 12 hours a day and compared today's shearers whose electric equipment transformed the sheep industry.

We watched a Merino sheep being sheared. Merinos are the most popular breed in Australia, comprising 80% of the country's sheep population. A good shearer removes the sheep's wooly coat (its outer layer is filthy!) in one continuous piece. It is then laid out on a huge table, weighed and graded by experts. The drought has produced not only skinnier sheep, but also finer wool, say the experts. We were offered a small sample of wool; at the slightest touch, the lanolin coats your fingers and gives off a pungent but not unpleasant odor.

We returned from the outback at twilight. For the benefit of his American visitors, Steven Condon drove his four-by-four across the paddocks (pastures) at his farm. In the headlights we saw perhaps 25 grey kangaroos hopping away from us, just like wind-up toys. These were the lucky ones, making their home in the irrigation area and, much to the farmers' dismay, eating their crops.

New Zealand sheep

Until I visited New Zealand, my only connection with this incredibly beautiful country had been New Zealand lamb at the supermarket and a haunting movie called The Piano. In a too-short week, I was constantly awed by breathtaking scenery and I almost stopped noticing sheep · they seemed to be everywhere. Yet New Zealand's sheep population dipped from 70 million in 1982 to about 40 million now, due largely to the government's withdrawing subsidies to farmers in the mid-1980s. Many of New Zealand's sheep farmers shifted from wool production to increased lamb production, with the goal of twin births for pregnant ewes, achieved by creative management of willing rams who twice impregnate the ewe. As a result, New Zealand has been more successful than Australia in exporting lamb to world-wide markets.

Our tour of New Zealand's North Island took us to beautiful Rotorua, where we visited the Agrodome, an enormous sheep farm and educational center. Here we were introduced to 19 breeds of sheep, both ewes and rams, among them the Merino, Dorset, Romney, Corriedale, Drysdale, Polwarth and Suffolk. The Romney is New Zealand's most popular breed; its strong wool is used in carpets, upholstery and blankets.

My favorite was a large, jet-black Border Leicester with a patrician nose and a lofty attitude. We could pat the sheep, speak to them, and have our photos taken with them, but the Border Leicester was unfriendly. At a demonstration inside the enormous barn, the sheep shearing "victim" was a frightened Merino lamb whose ordeal was over in less than three minutes; she was then shooed, naked and shivering, into a holding pen until her fleece began to grow again, which happens very quickly. In an outdoor demonstration, a demented-looking border collie herded three confused lambs. Just as in the movie Babe, the dog was seriously fixated on his job and never lost eye contact with his charges.

On a bus trip in the South Island from Te Anau to Queenstown, our driver Russell provided us with first-hand information about raising sheep in New Zealand. A former sheep farmer, Russell told us that the precipitous drop in the sheep population was due partly to industry economics and drought conditions. More importantly, he observed, "Sheep farming is too labor-intensive for farmers. They're moving to raising red deer and wapiti [for venison], and growing trees, mostly the radiata pine." These are far more profitable than raising sheep, Russell told us, and from our bus window we saw many herds of deer in fenced paddocks.

In the North Island and parts of the South Island, Russell explained, the weather is temperate and sheep and cattle remain outdoors year-round, with no shelter. Grasses for grazing are plentiful, but wary farmers do store silage because southern New Zealand winters can be as cold and changeable as our New England weather. Newborn lambs are, of course, particularly vulnerable in the spring when Mother Nature can play cruel tricks.

New Zealand farmers practice pastoral rotation, Russell said. The lush grassy areas are fenced off and the sheep graze in one paddock for up to a week. Then they are moved to another paddock, allowing the grasses to grow again in the nibbled-down area. Although this practice sounded fairly easy to us, Russell convinced us that deer farming and forestry were less labor-intensive and more profitable. He, of course, made a career move from sheep farming to bus driving.

Revisiting Towle Field
At Towle Field, a black sheep grazes peacefully as the guard dog snoozes in the upper left.(Photo by Ellen Miller)

The day after it rained, I took advantage of a rare appearance by the sun to revisit the Carlisle sheep. Carlisle's migrant sheep are Katahdins and Dorpers; they're managed by Sheepscape of New Hampshire. Since these breeds don't even have fleece, they don't require shearing. The Carlisle flock of about 400 come in many colors · beige, brown, black, mottled, spotted, white · and consist of mothers and lambs. I learned that many of the lambs are almost native Carlisleans, since they were conceived last fall at Towle Field! Katahdins and Dorpers are known as excellent grazers (often termed "vigorous foragers"), perfectly suited for Carlisle's conservation lands riddled with buckthorn, poison ivy, and other undesirable invasives.

It was a bucolic scene, indeed. The white guard dog was napping under a tree at the edge of the fenced field. It must have been siesta time, since most of the flock was also resting and dreaming in the middle of the field while a few of their hungrier companions grazed. For a few minutes I heard only quiet munching. Then one sheep among the reclining sheep uttered a loud "baaaa," whereupon one by one the entire group got up and "baaa-ed". The cacophony sounded much like an unruly opera chorus.

Then the sheep chorus all headed toward the back of Towle Field to get on with their work.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito