The sheep’s back…
Historically, Australia was said to have derived its burgeoning economy from the sheep’s back. Our history is marked by the introduction of Saxon merino sheep to the colonies in 1804. Farming wool became iconic and superfine Australian wool became world-renowned, beloved everywhere for its softness and purity.
Today, my husband and I set off to buy in new merino breeders at an auction. We drove for two hours into the midlands of Tasmania, across dirt roads with swirls of dust curling up behind the back of the ute. We passed through the farm gates and bumped over a dry paddock to where disorderly lines of dirty utes and stationwagons were parked under whatever shade could be garnered. In the yards attached to the shearing shed, red-shirted agents yarded 5000 merinos, more dust filling the air and coating faces, hair, boots and jeans. Dogs barked, men yelled, sheep bleated.
Whilst it’s social, it’s informal. Buyers (ie farmers) had literally left their paddocks, leaped in their utes, dashed to the sale (lunchtime), shaken hands, laughed, joked, jumped over the yard fences and checked the various sheep for sale and then quietened and mustered into groups, talking about likely prices. Nearly all men, fifty or so of varying ages – young and old, handsome and ugly, tall and short, fat and thin. Only eight women. And then the agents calling ‘Sale-o, sale-o!’
People gathered at the first pens where the tops were yarded; more dust, denim shirts now dirty, dogs hot and tired. My hands held to my forehead as I’d forgotten a cap. A moment’s quiet as the auctioneer sucked back water and then a brief housekeeping note on the running of the sale and the first pen went up. A pen of 350 one and a half year old ewes. Good lines, good wool, good condition. The week before at market, the culls from this farm had sold for $200 plus per head.
‘What’ll you start me at? $200? No? Come on, $180? Okay, $160 over there.’
‘Yep fives, 185, 190, 195, is that it, is that all, am I DONE?’
Our agent called 200, which means he wanted a run of 200 head for us.
The auctioneer clapped his folded forms against his hand, dust rose. And over the sheep’s back he looked at my husband and I and at our agent, ‘ 200 at $195, SOLD! 150 left starting at $170?’ And off he went again, selling the rest of the pen.
It was rapid-fire. They moved on from one pen to another, pen after pen of sheep until the whole 5000 were sold to new owners. Dust continued to rise and when I turned back as we walked to our ute, all I could see was a taupe fog and sheep and men mingling like spirits of the bush. It occurred to me that I was observing a scene that has been played out in the same way since colonial times. No difference at all really. Forget about the cars and the denims, essentially its all the same. The dogs, the heat, the dust, the bonhomie, the nods and winks…
And I think that’s what I love about farming more than anything, that whilst science helps us farm better, there are some things that never change and this kind of day is one of them and there’s a real surety in that.
I enjoyed hearing about your day with the sheep – sounds fun!
Was wonderful, Jane. If the fellows hadn’t been so coy, I would have taken some wonderful pics of such strong country faces, idiosyncratic, suntanned and craggy. You should see my laundry basket though… all our clothes went straight in ready for the wash tomorrow and the lens of the camera had a veil of dust over it.
And maybe there’s a story in there too, Prue? Set in the early days?
Very evocative scene.
How do you get the sheep home?
I’m not sure I could even try, Ann. I have a friend from not far away from our farm, Rachael Treasure, who is a bestselling author of Australian country-based novels. She’s published by Penguin and has an enormous German following as well as being adored by the Australian reading public.
Ann, the sheep are moved to the new owners by stock carriers – large multi-floored trucks where the sheep are loaded onto the different levels and then road transported. Our new flock is only small as we only wished to top up the numbers we already have. So not a lot to transport but there will other drop-offs on the truck as well. It’s amazing they get the right sheep to the right properties!
In Queensland and the Northern Territory, the carrying is done by road train, trucks that have two or three trailers pulling behind with three of four floors. Monstrous beasts. But then the properties they travel between are more than a million acres sometimes, so large amounts of stock are moved around.
Of course in colonial days and even into the 1950’s, sheep and cattle were driven by stockmen and dogs along the roads, grazing as they travelled. If we had done that from ‘Ratharney’ to ‘Camden’, even with our little mob of 200, it would have taken at least two stockmen on horses, a couple of dogs, and maybe three days?
I envy you days like that
It was good, Si. But I bet you see the same thing occurring on market days through North Yorkshire. I think farmers are the same the world over.
A fascinating glimpse into what is for me a totally new world, Lady Mesmered. As always, you make us live it with you.
And a new word, too: ”ute”. Quick, angular and metallic. And a touch rough. I love it.
Thanks Giselle. It’s a good world, fraught with the difficulties of climate and animal husbandry and market pressures, but the good outweighs the difficult.
Ute? Great name, short for utility. We have ‘ute musters’ around the country and all the younger men and women take their polished and customized utes to a big get-together and its very social and the best are judged and a good time is had by all.
I don’t see why you shouldn’t write historical fiction, Prue. Particularly if it’s specifically set in Tasmania, rather than other parts of Australia. The only book I’ve read set (partly) in Tasmania is English Passengers. A strange but clever book.
It’s always there waiting, I suppose. I think its the theory of what you live you don’t want to write about. And yet, they do say write what you know best, don’t they?
Writing for me is fundamentally an escape and I can remember feeling so alive when studying medieval and Renaissance history and yet positively glazing over when we studied Colonial history. Mind you, this year i discovered I’m descended from a convict, Owen Millington, transported from England to Port Arthur, Tasmania for stealing a sheep!
Perhaps I should fictionalise his life!
Why not? The Secret River is a terrific book!