Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Autumn Muster Begins

Thursday, March 10th, 2011
Spray Point Station
Marlborough, South Island

The high country muster is a thing of legend in New Zealand (and anywhere else where the main industry involves sheep), and this year we get to take part, if just for a few days! Mustering refers to rounding up the sheep off range-land, or in this case the immense fenced paddocks, and driving them all back down to the station. The spring muster is for shearing, and the autumn muster is for dipping and drenching- processes that protect the sheep against things like lice and fly-strike. The well-known images of mustering usually involve musterers on horseback, but here at Spray Point the land is too steep even for horses, so where there's not a track to drive the Ute on, mustering is done on foot.

Matt and I were awake at 7 AM this morning and up into the hills with Roland before the sun came up; once the sun is on them, sheep won't move because they get too hot. In the truck, we drove up a winding, rocky track to the top of the massive slope to the East of the house, stopping along the way to send the dogs after small mobs of sheep spread across the hills. In this massive paddock, the easiest way to muster is to get all the sheep to one side of the paddock, then drive them down the fence line to where there is a gate into a paddock that abuts the road. So as we went up we got the sheep to head for the fence at the north end by yelling, honking the horn, and occasionally sending the dogs down the steep slopes to head off the ornery ones that turned the wrong way or refused to budge. After wending our way to the top, stopping regularly to scan the hill with binoculars (during which times we spotted several red deer and also a black fallow deer), we had flushed out all the sheep we could find, and while Roland went back for three that turned back way down at the bottom of the hill, Matt and I went on foot to drove the rest of the mob, a couple hundred Merinos in all, down the steep fence line to the road. I took the position behind the mob, and Matt went along out on the side, to keep any from veering off course. As Kate told me many months ago in Opotiki (and reiterated by Roland), regarding herding sheep, "If you don't sound like a lunatic, you're not doing it right." Thus, as we made our way down the (sheer, at points) slope as the sun came up, over rocks, through tussock and Matagouri (a native pricker bush that grows absolutely everywhere here, with thorns and inch and a half long), slipping in sheep droppings, we whooped, hollered, clapped, and waved our hats. It felt very intrepid, driving a big flock of sheep down a high country ridge on a chilly fall morning. From when we set out on foot, the trip down took just under an hour, and we were successful- every sheep we drove down the hill went straight through the gate at the bottom, and when Roland arrived shortly after, we drove them all down the road into a smaller paddock by the river. After sending the dogs around to catch a few more that were grazing in an unfenced paddock, the sun was well up and things were getting warm. We got a pretty clean muster of that particular section (although you never get all the sheep on the first try- there's bound to still be some up there, hiding in the scrub, according to Roland), and also managed to pull out a big fly-struck ewe for immediate drenching, so I once again made the trip back to the house in the back of the Ute with the dogs, holding a big daggy sheep on my lap!

We'll probably be mustering every morning for the rest of the time we're here (there are still about a thousand sheep out there that need to be drummed up), and I'm not complaining- at the moment few things could make me happier than being out in the early morning, working with stock and taking in the incredible views from the ridges high above where I sit now.

Yep, that's me!

Roland scouting over a precipice, with the house and river far below.

Sunrise over the Richmond Ranges. On a clear day, you can see Wellington in the distance. 

Typical track, typical Ute. 


As you can probably tell, our duties up here at Spray Point are varied! We've done everything from entertaining and taking care of the kids to digging drainage ditches to making up the cottage for guests to giving computer help. Among other things, in the past week I have:

  • Called on my office manager skills and helped Jenny troubleshoot some printer problems (successfully).
  • Helped Roland install and learn a new computer mapping program so they can keep better track of the Carbon Farm. 
  • Gotten Ben and Sarah bathed and pyjama-d while mum and dad finished up outside chores.
  • Cooked two high country farm dinners when Jenny was away all day- the latest was pork roast with cracklings, roasted potatoes and onions with garlic, peas, and gravy. (Come to think of it, have I ever cooked a roast on my own before?)
  • Washed and sliced umpteen peaches and pears and canned them with Jenny. 
  • Done several loads of laundry for the family and the cottage.
  • Fed the birds and chooks every day, and collected the eggs. 

Besides all that, Matt and I have dealt with horses breaking out of their paddock, and have so far this week herded a cow (twice, it broke back out) out of the front yard and into a paddock, and just now Matt called me out to help him round up an escaped sheep. Matt has been helping Roland dig a ditch around the deck to put in piping so Jenny will have a tap at the back of the house for watering the flower garden there, and earlier in the week Matt built and installed some lips/sills for some shelves in the basement, to keep jars from coming off the front.

Yes, I've got a good man :)

Yesterday Roland hired a hydraulic log splitter for the afternoon, and all the grown-ups spent about five hours working all out, getting a big load of firewood in (without work gloves- Kiwis seem to have a bit of a complex about owning or wearing gloves: i.e., they don't). It was hard work, but incredibly satisfying, and I impressed Roland and Jenny with my stacking skills- normally all their wood is just chucked in the shed in a big heap (which we still did a bit of), and they were surprised to see how much space can be saved by making neater stacks. I'd hereby like to thank my parents for teaching me how to make an efficient and structurally sound firewood pile :) 

All of this wood was split by Roland, shifted by Matt and Jenny, and stacked by yours truly, in the course of an afternoon. Whew!

Matt and I start work in Nelson on Monday, so we have a few more days up here, and I'm going to savour them. We are learning so much; I can cook for a family of six, I know how to work all the various kinds of latches on stock gates (and am now in the habit of jumping out of the Ute to open and close gates when driving through) and am no longer intimidated by most stock, I've learned how to "drove" sheep (and I'm good at it, it turns out), and we've learned so much about the natural world and history of this place, how much a good sheepdog can be sold for, how possum fur is collected and processed, and all kinds of other things we would never have known if we hadn't come to a place like this. We've learned quite a bit about running a hospitality business as well as a farm, which is very good knowledge for us to have. It will be good to see new places again, but I will really miss being so integrated into family life- something we haven't had in a long time. We were immediately made to feel at home here, and Matt and I are constantly involved in simple daily things like cooking and cleaning house, settling sibling squabbles, and usually have a kid on either back, lap, or hip.

We haven't been off the station since we arrived over a week ago, and won't leave it until we drive out to Nelson. Town is only just now starting to sound good- there's so much going on up here that a trip to town hardly seems necessary. And another great advantage to our stay up here- we haven't spent a cent since we drove up from Blenheim!

1 comment:

Simply Authentic said...

What amazing experiences--the mustering and just the general day in and day out details of being on a family farm, etc. Sounds like it's been a wonderful setting for both of you...and for the family too!