Friday started out breezy and cool, but burning expectation cut through the chill like butter.
We were going mustering! Never been? Neither had I. I’d barely ever seen a sheep, other than at a petting zoo, let alone herded one from one enclosure to another. But this was a week of firsts, so why not add mustering to the bill?
Bill, Ngawai, and Bill’s brother, John, have been mustering sheep and running Anaru farm for over forty years. I can only imagine their chagrin when their cousin Oliver told them that the American author wanted to muster sheep, even shear them if she could. They never let on, but I imagined them grinning behind closed doors at my eagerness to do both. Still, they took me along.
Anaru farm sheep live on acre upon acre of rolling hills. Actually, if you look at them, I swear they look more like mountains. In fact, where I come from – the sprawling Midwest – we’d definitely categorize them as mountains. I really think calling them hills was an early marketing scheme to get doubtful English country folk to come over and work the New Zealand land. These were no hills.
But then, the sheep didn’t mind. And neither did the dogs.
Kiwis began breeding their own sheepherding dogs at the turn of the last century. Today, you’ll see little else than huntaways and herders on the sheep farms there. These dogs are a mix of Irish Setter, English Hound, Old English Sheepdog and Labrador. Their looks vary from dog to dog. Some look like border collies, and others, like labs, or simply kinda Heinz 57-ish.
No matter how they look, they are indispensable on the steep “hills” of a New Zealand sheep station. I figured that out after I hiked up and down the first one following Bill in search of lost – or unwilling – sheep. His dogs, Judy and Jill, were much faster at taking the hills, finding the sheep, rounding them up, and basically, sparing Bill’s knees…and mine. What’s more, the dogs were more than eager to do their part.
Tongues a lolling, they flew down ravines, up steep inclines, and through native brush after obstinate sheep. I huffed along behind.
Everything was going fine, until the mini-revolt. Three “grand dames” wanted nothing to do with mustering. They stared sheepishly at Judy, while the dog barked and barked. I could only imagine what she was saying, what I’d be saying if it were me: “Get a move on you, bloody sheep!”
Their reply: The silent treatment.
Judy got even louder. I began to worry. I’ve watched this tactic tried a time or two when a language barrier proved steeper than a New Zealand hill. So far, I’d never seen it work.
But Judy wouldn’t give up. She got louder. She nipped at them, pranced on her front paws, and yelped at them until, to my amazement, the sheep, practically sighing, finally turned and ambled off after the rest of the mob. It was then that I knew, I was just along for the ride. Judy and Jill were the real heroes. I couldn’t even get a sheep to look at me, although I did, at one point, take on the job of standing at the side of a hill to keep the sheep from going back over. They looked at me dubiously, as if they could see I knew nothing about herding sheep. Then Judy save me. She bounded up the hill, barking at the sheep, as if teaching them their manners around naïve American authors. The sheep shrugged and then sauntered off in the direction I was supposed to be sending them in.
At the same time, Bill was working on the sheep (and I was huffing along behind), Ngawai and her dog rounded up some of the cattle in the same paddock. The cows had calves that were supposed to follow their mothers into the new paddock. I got to watch after Oliver picked me up in the jeep. I’d like to think that he did in to show me what was going on and not because I’d proved incredibly useless at mustering sheep.
At least I had company. Two young calves barely inches from the gate from one paddock to the next just weren’t quite the sharpest horns in the lot. Their mothers staring them down from the center of the gate itself – even lowing at them to hurry along – these two “blokes” batter-rammed the fence, trying again and again and again to push it down and escape to the new paddock, rather than just amble around the open gatedoor to Mummy.
The doting mothers finally went back through the gate to get their confused young.
But instead of following Mama back through the fence, the boys ran off, and the mothers after them. I began to wonder if I should get out of the car to help. But the dogs came flying up the hill, barking at the calves.
The mothers hightailed it through the gate. And the boys?
You guessed it – batter-rammed the fence just inches from the gate…again.
It was a long day of lesson learning for them and for me. They finally made it through the gate, and I finally learned that if you want to muster sheep, you better have a fine New Zealand herding dog.
Even if I wasn’t a natural pro, I had the time of my life just trying. It was a sight to hike the ravines, snake along tinkling creeks, push through thickets of ferns, and then, to see the huge mobs of sheep coalesce together from left, right and middle. In a wave of creamy white they flowed through the gate and into the next enclosure.
It was a sight I’ll not soon forget – the taste of fresh wind, the burn in my calves, and the Spring sun on my face. That was mustering New Zealand style.