In the past, October has been lambing month on my farm. Logically, it makes perfect sense: mid-spring (April equivalent for you in the northern hemisphere) with plenty of new growth for the mamas to make milk. However, year after year, September has seen reasonably settled weather and October has been truly awful.
For those of you who don't speak British Commonwealth idiomatic English, a crocodile can also mean a line of school children. The relevance of this term to the real topic of this Yarn will become clear later. (If you are one of those who read the last chapter first, skip to the video at the very end of the Yarn.) The real topic of this yarn is "Do sheep work?" More specifically, do my sheep consciously choose to cooperate in the work of the farm?
We've had 3 ½ inches of rain in May (hooray!) and the property is looking better than it has in months. Admittedly, it looks better from a distance than at worm's-eye level, where there is too much bare ground showing. However, the lovely spring green look is most welcome, along with the beginnings of run-off.
As often happens to me, I mis-remembered this quotation. I thought it was about doing six impossible things before breakfast, thereby revealing my lamentable tendency to jump into things with all four feet without due consideration of the consequences. Believing six impossible things is a lot harder, I think.
Devoted Tolkien fans will recognise “Flies and Spiders” as the title of the chapter of The Hobbit wherein Bilbo and the dwarfs enter the dismal forest Mirkwood on their way to reclaim their hoard of gold from the dragon Smaug. In Mirkwood, the flies are a nuisance, but the spiders are a fatal menace. This season in Tasmania, the roles are reversed.
This is a mini-skein of a Yarn, one I wrote alongside “Epiphany”. Although I wanted to include it somehow, it would have made Epiphany much too long. So you’re getting it as a bonus track. I didn’t take any photos of this episode—I was too busy trying to manage it. Instead I’m giving you photos of wildflowers blooming on the property at the moment, in defiance of extremely dry conditions.
Not the religious sort, more the “uh, duh” sort. Wikipedia describes this kind of epiphany as “an enlightening realisation that allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective”. Sounds better than “uh, duh”, huh? It started a few months ago, though I didn’t recognise it for the turning point it has turned out to be.
Life on the farm was pretty intense all winter, and particularly so after my trip in July. As I finally sit down to write this, shearing has come and gone and four tiny cygnets are swimming with their parents on a much-depleted Swan Lake. I’ll give you the shearing and end-of-winter shepherding report in the next Yarn, hopefully fairly soon. Meanwhile, here is the belated trip report.
As I continue my apprenticeship in shepherding, the subtleties of flock social dynamics are becoming more and more apparent. I’m on the cusp of shifting from the usual approach of “driving” the flock, with the dogs and me at the back, to “leading” the flock, with me at the front and the dogs where they need to be to hold or steer, but not pushing. Don’t get too excited about this cusp—I fully expect to teeter on the point of it for months, as the relationship of trust between me and the flock develops in fits and starts.
If over the last few months I’ve given you the impression that growing White Gum wool is all sweetness and light, November was certainly a counterpoint. It was a tough month, and December followed suit. The refrain has been “desperately dry”—we have had only 60% of our annual average rainfall, and our official 12-month rainfall deficit is sitting in the “severe” category.
t is undoubtedly too early for me to write this Yarn. In fact, I’m not supposed to be writing at all today, on two counts: first, it’s meant to be a shepherding day, and secondly it’s a weekend and I’m supposed to turn my computer off for the weekend, to help break the "dumb gas thrall" syndrome. I’m not shepherding because it’s snowing and blowing a gale (this on the southern hemisphere equivalent of the first of May) and I just plain wimped out.
I used to think design was an endpoint: a place you could hold clearly in your mind, once you had it figured out. The easy part of the job. The hard work was then finding your way to whatever it was you had designed. Farming and knitting have, between them, blown that concept clear out of the water.
In his 1943 classic “The Little Prince” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote (more poetically in French, mind you): "The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them?
Just for the last short while, I’ve felt confident enough to run my pack of working dogs using my electric Polaris ranger—the farm “buggy”. I’ve always been wary with the youngsters, but they’ve finally developed enough sense to run well away from the buggy. A few days ago we were trundling up the track through the lucerne, not far from the boundary fence, when Jax, the youngest, scared up a big black feral cat. She was more than a match for him in speed, and I watched in trepidation as they dashed away up the paddock.
Last Sunday, the 9th of February, we had the worst fire weather day we’ve had so far this year—38o C (100o F), gusting 60 kph (40 mph), zip in the way of humidity. Thankfully, there were no serious fires in the state, but with a fire danger rating of severe to extreme, it was a fairly nerve-wracking day. It was worse in Victoria.
When I first began farming, after I realised that it was not going to be as easy as it looked from the highway, I would ask “Why?” about any number of mysteries having to do with raising sheep. Almost invariably, the answer would come back in some variation of: “It’s the season.” Why is the spear grass so bad this year? It’s the wet spring. Why are the grubs so bad this year? It’s the dry winter. Why are we having so much trouble with intestinal worms? It’s the wet summer.
The question, all spring, has been: “Is that a mating pair, or are they brother and sister?” Last year the parents of one (or both—or possibly neither, but I’m not willing to accept that option) nested in wintry July and raised a clutch of five cygnets, who took wing in December, but have returned sporadically since. So I’ve been watching these two for any sort of courtly behaviour.
Oddly, the darling red-breasted flame robins show up here in autumn, bright harbingers of winter in the otherwise increasingly sere and blond grassland. In their inimitable cheeky way, they lure you along the track, flying from fencepost to fencepost, singing and daring you to follow. The mundane explanation of their autumn appearance is that they spend summer at higher altitude, and only descend to pass the winter in (slightly) less demanding conditions.