As the sheep and I get better at foraging for diversity, fences often create problems. While gates are open between adjacent paddocks in a grazing area, and the sheep certainly know to use them, fences impede the natural grazing pattern.
“We are tree-herds, we old Ents. Few enough of us are left now. Sheep get like shepherd, and shepherds like sheep, it is said; but slowly, and neither have long in the world. It is quicker and closer with trees and Ents, and they walk down the ages together.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
When I first started farming I planted trees for my own sake, for the aesthetic of copses to break up the grassland expanses, and for the pleasure of hearing wind in the boughs. Then, as I learned more about how ecosystems work, and the pivotal role of diversity in creating resilience, I planted trees for the sake of the land.
Back in my university student days, I took up photography with all the enthusiasm you would expect. I even learned how to develop and print my own photos. In my zeal, I took my trusty SLR camera with me everywhere, on every adventure. After a couple of years, though, I realised my world had shrunk to what I could see through the lens: I was framing my experiences by what would fit in the limited rectangle of the viewfinder. So I quit taking photographs, relying on the emulsion sheet of memory to record my adventures, hoping to regain a wide-angle experience. I regret not having a photographic record of those years, but I'm sure I was more present in each moment as a result.
As often happens to me, I mis-remembered this quote. It's not from the original Wilde play "The Importance of Being Earnest", but rather is a song entitled "A Handbag is not a Proper Mother" from the musical Ernest in Love, based on Wilde's play. Nevertheless, I'm sticking with my version, as I frequently feel like more like a suitcase than a handbag in the context of raising bottle lambs!
It was a chilly, windy day on the hill yesterday, but a perfectly lovely winter's graze. The flock currently have the run of White Gum Wood, the Grass Gully, Eagle Tree and the Back Gully. While there is a certain amount of biodiversity in all of those paddocks, the best native ecosystems are in the adjoining reserves.
The scientist in me finds unexplained illness among my flock deeply unsatisfying. You may remember that I lost 4 ewes, none of them pregnant, during lambing. The post-mortem, frustratingly, could neither confirm nor rule out the most likely culprit: pulpy kidney (clostridium toxicity). There have been no further deaths, but I've been keeping an eye on a ewe who began losing her fleece not long after the mystery ailment episode.
A week ago Saturday was the official end of lambing, though no one apparently told the ewes. On Tuesday, ANZAC day, I found Zac, apparently disdained by his birth mother in favour of the other twin. I did my best to get them back together in the paddock. Zac was willing, but mama was not. Zac is now my baby--or more accurately, I'm his mama--a relationship that will continue as long as both of us are alive.
Lambing is due to start the ides of March (15th) and continue for 5 weeks. Some of the ewes are looking distinctly pregnant, so I decided to get them into their lambing paddock early so they can settle down, create some short grass "camps" and generally be calm and peaceful in the run-up to lambing.
The sheer length and density of grass on the property is a long-term boon and a short term struggle. Capital "S" shepherding, the style I've been using and telling you about for the last 3 years is just not what's needed or even possible right now. I'm trying out the idea for myself of thinking of this as a time of small "s" shepherding--all of the many things I need to do to ensure the health of the animals, whether or not I move them any distance on a given day. I have to admit I miss the big Shepherding days and the hours spent wandering with the flock.
As the grass got longer and denser and covered more of the property over summer, I had to eat my own words about how much my sheep like long grass. To be fair, they truly don't seem to mind making their way into a stand of long grass to graze. But this season has taught me that while they don't mind visiting long grass, they don't want to live there!
23rd October - 15 November
Every season has its own particular challenges when it comes to shepherding, and this spring is certainly no exception. The challenges arise not only from the weather, which has been way outside the norm, but also from the myriad grazing decisions the sheep and I have made over the last few dry years. This year, the prevalence of bare ground--from overgrazing and from fire--has provided the precise conditions for a perfect storm of annual grasses and broadleaf plants.
9 - 22 October, 2016
Somewhere between irony and serendipity, my procrastination in writing this post has worked perfectly. "Taking Shelter" was meant to be the last catch-up, describing the period of nasty weather in early October, but the nasty weather has just kept coming. I'm writing this today, instead of shepherding, because the rain is coming in horizontally, from the south, and the ambient temperature is not far off freezing.
September 21 - October 8, 2016
This is another belated post--one more and I'll be caught up with my backlog. There we were, happily grazing the barley- and spear-grass infested flats, with the occasional treat of some Patterson's Curse, when we got hit with another nearly 3 inches of rain on our already saturated soils.
Anticipating the deluge, I moved the flock to higher ground--up into the dolerite country where there is shelter, and enough slope for the runoff to run off, rather than just pool like it does in the Road Paddock.