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Rousie Recollections

Inside A New Zealand Sheep Station

By Catherine Whitney

…”But no one will believe me when I tell them that you have to bind your breasts in plastic wrap to work in a woolshed!” I said.

Lynn chuckled as she angled the empty 16-passenger school bus past a miniature horse grazing by a rusty mailbox. It was still very hard for me to realize that, three weeks before Christmas, New Zealand kids were readying for summer recess.

With the van empty we were headed for the Pongaroa tavern to pick up a keg—a “Shout” for the guys shearing the last of 7,000 ewes. I had to wait some time for Lynn to answer anything to my plucky observation.

The thing I’ve loved most about helping on the Woodhouse farm is their ‘just jump in’ attitude; there’s always something going on—animals to feed, quad bikes and working dogs firing up for the day, extra farm hands wandering into the kitchen.

My first day helping during shearing time no one even knew what corner of the farm I’d disappeared to.

When we sat down to a mutton roast and kumara (sweet potato) dinner that night, the family’s eldest daughter Samantha, a professional wool handler, asked how I’d liked helping in the shed.

“Sam!” Lynn started, almost spilling her merlot “did you give her the plastic wrap?!”

My bug-eyed perplexity answered.

Sure enough, the following morning a tiny red blister began on my sternum. The small abscess would eventually produce a miniscule, bore-like remnant of wool: A wool worm. Women protected their breasts because wool worms could create scar tissue in the nipple area, making it difficult to breastfeed.

As we were riding in the empty school bus that day, however, I realized that my novice observations were no more surprising than the fact that all 10 women at last month’s Rural Womens’ Group meeting had wrist problems because of using the elastrator to band lambs.

This is life here. This is sheep farming on a scale that North America rarely sees. And to be doing it in New Zealand in 2008, when wool prices were at their lowest in a hundred years, when “dairy” and “viticulture” are the magic words for export, when drought continues to founder even the most well-prepared farmers, this is an act of courage and of faith. With, of course, some wine, laughter and anti-inflammatory tablets thrown in.

Mustering the ewes
Mustering the ewes

The Tailing

I first met the Woodhouse family in late spring—October—during docking time. An organization called Farm Helpers in New Zealand (FHiNZ) had listed their contact info along with the written description: Sheep, housework, enjoy overseas visitors. “Docking time” (called “tailing” on the South Island of New Zealand) is code for the first muster after lambing time and the tail-docking, testicle-banding, ear-notching and drenching that rules sheep families’ lives for at least 10 days.

The mustering alone is a lesson in chaos.

Imagine a shopping mall filled with 7,000 mothers and their children. Now imagine a sudden fire drill. Imagine it on 2,000 acres of open pastureland with barking dogs and water and fence hazards and you start to get the idea.

One morning we sat down for a 10:00 a.m. cup of tea and Rob suddenly lifted his head, “Remind me there’s a straggler lamb in my utility box on the bike.”

Another time I found myself sliding down a bank of thistles to get a lamb out of a gully.

Still another time, a ewe got herself stuck while trying to run through a semi-hollowed tree stump.

About 300-700 ewes with lambs are brought into the yards at a time. Yards with the proper gating are set up at different points on the acreage. The docking can’t be done on very rainy or windy days because, after the lambs have been drafted away from the ewes and processed, they’re returned to “mother up”—a process that involves ewes’ and lambs’ ability to discern each other’s calls. The sound of the yards at docking time will, for me, always be reminiscent of the distant sound of car tires pulling up a gravel drive.

The story of the third-generation Woodhouse family farm is a story that has already passed from the scene in much of the U.S., and even much of New Zealand. As generations have moved towards the cities, New Zealand increasingly struggles with the familiar by-products of urbanization: Diabetes and obesity, violence, housing, rising food and fuel prices. Make no mistake, Rob and Lynne Woodhouse, their parents and siblings, have navigated some difficult waters and made many sacrifices to hold the farm together. But even more than the farm as a business, it’s the story of their lives.

While visiting, my accommodation was just across the road in “Nan’s house”—as their three girls called it. Rob’s mother had moved to Masterton, but the house had been left with the grandmotherly feel of knitted afghans and dusty magazine collections.

From the bookshelf I plucked a wheat-brown volume, Copyright 1917, Six Little New Zealanders by Esther Glen. Being careful with the brittle binding I opened the book to find, on the title page, a child’s most careful inscription: Nancy Houlbrook, The Homestead, Tiraumea. The following day, as we zipped along the road on our way to one of the stockyards, without knowing of my find, Rob pointed to another emerald rise in the distance. “My mother was born in a house up on that hill. House is gone now. That was Tiraumea Station.”

Rob’s three teenage daughters are clever and quick, able to spend hours lifting struggling 40-pound lambs into the docking cradle and willing to withstand the occasional spurts of blood from ear notching without a single complaint. (American kids may get Halloween in October, but New Zealand sheep farmers’ kids get put to work!)

Tailed lambs
Tailed lambs

Return To Rankanui

After docking time (and a few weeks’ absence) I returned to experience shearing.

I arrived in the dark and as I stumbled onto their porch I heard the bleating of a days-old lamb. Lambing time and docking were long over. I wondered if my six-hour drive had made me crackers. One of the girls came to the door just as the lamb was butting against my leg. “That’s Chuckles. He’s ready for a feed but we’re watching Second Hand Wedding.”

Without looking up from reading one of the weekly farming newspapers Rob said, with the kind of defeat that only a father of three teenage daughters knows, “Hoggett lamb.” (Hoggetts are year-old supposedly maiden ewes.)

While I was there Chuckles graduated from four feeds daily to three, and after being found sleeping under the back wheel of the truck, he was put out in the front pasture with the horses. He’d eventually join the collection of a dozen “pet” sheep the girls have reared over the years, the ones that often escape into the garden across the road at Nan’s house. They only did that once while I was there for shearing.

“I remember my father was so proud of his rousies,” Lynn had begun to tell me at one breakfast during that time, “How they presented the wool to the buyer back when prices were good.”

Technically, they call them “roustabouts”—the women who do almost everything in the shed except shear. (How else would you be able to denude 1,000 sheep in a day if duties weren’t specially allocated?)

In The Shearing Shed

In the Woodhouse shed there are four shearers. Each stands in front of a queue of sheep, the motor for his shearing hand piece mounted over his head, a swinging wooden door to his left from which he emerges every five minutes dragging a ewe, and a porthole to his left through which he pushes each naked, confused sheep when he is finished.

The shearers sweat like mythical creatures, the way gods might perspire oceans or rivers into being. It rolls off their sodden hair, off their shoulders; it blinds their eyes. It mixes with the sweat and lanolin of the sheep so that the men must wear special moccasins to get any traction at all. And while rousies sweat less, they are under no less pressure.

In grabbing the fleece, they pick up where the front legs would be then fold the fleece back to overlap the hind legs, then tuck under—so when they swivel around to the skirting table they fling their arms out and it falls open. Then, because there may be three fleeces on the skirting table and more falling off the sheep behind them, they pluck off the dung and detritus as fast as they can before folding the whole thing back into an armful and stuffing it into the wool press.

Each fleece is different, but they’re all still hot from the shearer, like big, odorous balls of cotton candy.

There’s a wool press operator who bales and marks and changes the bags when each gets to 190 kilos (418 lbs.). The wool-buyer was to arrive at eleven.

There may be as many rousies as shearers. One or two are “on the board” with brooms that look like modified hockey sticks to clear the locks and belly wool from building up.

As I learned, you better hang on to that lanolin-covered broom handle. She who lets the handle slip buys the beer at the end of the day. (I couldn’t figure out why everyone kept clapping when mine clattered to the floor!)

A head rousie orchestrates who does what. There’s even a system to what kind of waste wool goes where and how it’s bagged. And all of this is happening to the concert-volume sounds of AC/DC and Eminem from the subwoofer in the corner.

The Rankanui shearing floor.
The Rankanui shearing floor.

Most shearers even have a cigarette in their mouth while they shear. The only time a “smoko” is a hindrance is when they take a rare moment to straighten up just enough to meet the eyes of the nearest rousie as they pinch a tiny nub of the fleece at their feet and yell something. The first time I was in the path of this behavior I froze. Over the music, the hum of clipper motor, and the kiwi accent (buffered by a cigarette in the mouth) all I knew was that I did not know.

With gentle annoyance—after all, these blokes were paid by the sheep and time was money—one of them seamlessly communicated to one of the other women. She plucked at the matt of hot wool the way someone would remove a dead fly.

At the skirting table, she told me the secret: Black Wool. I gazed in wonderment at what she passed me. How could they see that? “Put it in your pocket; it goes in the rubbish,” she said. Pulling my clothes from the washer later that week I found a felted clump of black wool like a prune in the back pocket of my jeans. It was confusing at first, especially because the Woodhouses did not choose to cull black sheep from the flock.

In the heyday of “rousie-ing” (a generation ago, as Lynn had been describing) the skirting and folding skill of the women could affect wool prices. Fleeces would’ve been systematically refolded before pressing into a bale. A wool-buyer on his walk-through would sample from each bale, in addition to watching the action at the skirting table.

In our woolshed that day we were harvesting carpet-grade wool for a price so low that the purpose of shearing had almost been reduced to a favor to the sheep at the cusp of summer. The Woodhouse farm made money as a lamb-producer. Black ewes were productive as long as they were mothering lambs.

At the same time, the fleeces we bagged were scanned with a spectrophotometer to grade their ability to take up color dye. Yellowing from urine, sweat, and lanolin, in addition to stray black fibers, would affect this grading. Micron measurement also came into account, of course, but no one expected this wool to hold a candle to South Island merinos or mohair—the only stuff really worth selling in the wider markets these days.

When the black ewes were shorn rousies often took the fleece home to process and knit. And I knitted fiendishly while I was there. I bought overstuffed bags of every color of New Zealand wool because I suddenly felt personally invested. The purchase might even help pay for all that wine and ibuprofen.

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