Monday, April 15, 2013

How not to muster a paddock

Well, after four weeks of crutching and shearing across three properties, we have finally finished… And four weeks is practically world record time!

Crutching and shearing are pretty much as busy as it can get here – it’s a wool grower’s equivalent to harvest, though I’m endlessly glad we don’t have to do the 24 hour tractor driving sifts. Sometimes late at night on the drive back from Town, we pass cropping country where rows of tractor headlights are making beautiful symmetry in the paddocks after dark, and ST and I concede how lucky we are we don’t have to do that. (Though ST’s the kind of person who could work through the pain to see the gain, I’m the kind who’d be driven to the bottom of the whiskey bottle during week one.)

Despite the absence of a round the clock roster, it’s still a fairly full on period of pre-dawn to post-sundown shifts, seven days a week, for four - and sometimes up to six - weeks in a row. Twice a year.

While some days during this time my assistance is not required in the sheep yards or the paddock, and I’m relegated to regular “farmer’s wife” duty, other days it’s all hands on deck to make sure the sheep work runs smoothly. And on those days, I’ve got to tell you, I take a little issue with the tag of “farmer’s wife”. And yep, I know that’s a tag I’ve given myself – I’m well aware it’s up there in my little bio on the top right of this page. But on those days - and let’s put it out there that it probably boils down to most days -I feel I deserve the tag “farmer.” Not “farmer’s wife.” (And I’d put money on the fact that ST’s never introduced himself as a journalist’s husband…)

As a farmer’s wife I wear a lot of hats – executive chef, managing director of housekeeping, head of landscaping, administrative director, artistic director, costume designer, set designer, facebook account manager, and chief operating officer of any of my own projects I’ve got on the go. But just as often I wear my farmer’s hat, and although it’s not an Akubra, it’s still fairly freakin’ wide brimmed.

Unfortunately the wide brim does NOT increase the level of farming-nouse. In fact, you could probably say that the larger your hat, the smaller your… nouse... if you get my drift. And, perhaps more unfortunately, the sheep still haven’t got the memo that when I’m wearing my farmer’s hat, it’s supposed to mean I’m the boss.
Now, I don’t want to upset anyone by perpetuating the whole “sheep are a stupid animal” belief. But I have to say, even if they are generally intelligent, merinos are still definitely the dumb blonde of the species… (And now I’ve upset the blondes… woops!)…

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I head out on the quad bike to help ST bring the sheep in, my nouse isn’t getting any bigger, and the sheep still don’t seem to understand that we simply want them to walk in an orderly fashion, in the correct direction, at a suitable pace.

In the larger paddocks ST will usually head out before me, gather most of the sheep together in a group and then call me out to help walk them to wherever we’re taking them. (This is usually to the sheep yards at the shearing shed). But as soon as ST utters the words, “You just look after this mob while I go and check for more on the other fence line,” the little woolly bastards make a run for it. I’m fairly certain I can actually hear them plotting against me, “Oh! It’s this idiot again. The girl. She has no idea what she’s doing. As soon as the bloke leaves, you go that way, I’ll go this way and the rest of you should run directly at her.” Ahhhgggg…

It’s the same old story every time and I’m not quite sure what I’m doing wrong, aside from even bothering to leave the house!

Though I actually have an excellent sense of direction, for some misguided reason ST’s usual first query when he leaves me in charge of the mob in the middle of a 10,000 acre paddock is, “Now, you won’t get lost will you?”… and my standard reply is, “No. I’m not going to get bloody lost. I know exactly where I am. I’ll make it back to the yards just fine….. Now, I maaaaayyyy not have aaallllllll 800 of the sheep with me when I get there, but I’ll get there, don’t worry. You just run along babe.” For the men reading this, the above is woman speak, roughly translated to, “DON’T FREAKING LEAVE ME HERE WITH THEM! I CAN’T TELL WHAT THEY’RE THINKING, AND THAT SCARES ME!”

But he does. Every. Single. Time. And within seconds the leader of the pack will be veering off through a thicket of hopbush so dense I may as well be mustering monkeys on a unicycle in the Amazonian jungle. Of course when this starts to happen, I try to ride around them as quick as possible to turn them back in the right direction, but riding a quad bike super-fast through the crater-like pot holes of an ancient clay pan ain’t as easy as it sounds… and generally by the time I’ve lollygagged up to the front and turned the trouble maker around, some smart-thinker on the opposite side is hot footing it in the other direction, and the stragglers at the back have stopped walking altogether. Yep, it's. Just. That. Much. Fun.

It’s about this time my tongue loosens up and I’m vomiting expletives like the proper lady that I am.

In fact, I think we need to set some code words before I tell you this next tale. It’s no secret those of us here at Burragan are big fans of the odd well-placed colourful adjective, or noun, or verb. We’re still pre-children and the closest one I can think of would be about 60km away (Hey Clare! You’re probably not old enough to use the computer yet, but say hi to your mum for me! ) so we’re quite free to express our feelings in “mature” and “emotive” ways. I want you to think of the top three most awful swear words you have ever heard. Thinking of then? Yep. Those ones. The really, reeaaallly bad ones. And now we’re going to replace them with ‘Holy crazy cow udders,’ ‘Hallelujah brother, Amen and Mercy! ’ and ‘For the love of God, Ryan Gosling should father my babies.’ (Sorry ST, you’re next in line, I promise xx)

But back to the story at hand! Soooo, despite what I’ve mentioned above actually coming across as complete incompetence, I USUALLY do end up with MOST of the sheep where they’re supposed to be . And that’s in the big paddocks. So it was with great overconfidence during this shearing that I took to the task of moving just 30 sheep from a dam (or tank! ‘scuse my Victorian heritage there for a second) on one side of the House Paddock, through the House Paddock, and out a gate on the opposite side of the House Paddock, all by my little self.

Let’s a get a visual on this shall we… Aptly named due to its geographical situation surrounding our house, the House Paddock is among the smallest of paddocks on Burragan. Though no exact measurements have been taken, conservative estimates would put its area somewhere between 500 and 1,000 acres (yep, basically I have no sweet holy crazy cow udder of an idea). As you’ll see from the diagram below, the Burragan homestead is somewhat central in the layout of the paddock, with sheds ‘n’ crap to the north, the rubbish dump to the south, and a dirt road extending from its east to west boundaries. I’ve also added some green as a rough indication of where thick patches of Box Gum trees are present, due to the House Paddock’s location in the middle of a great big holy crazy cow udder dry swamp bed.

So, I’m on the quad, right? Starting from the dam down the bottom, right? And ST always says it’s easier to take the sheep around the far side of the paddock, away from all the sheds ‘n’ crap because sometimes it can be tricky to keep them walking through that area. So they go through the gate at the bottom no problems and I shut it behind me just in case there’s a monumental Hallelujah brother, Amen and Mercy! But just as they should, my little mob veers off to the right (Good work team!) so I push them along in hopes of steering well clear of the old dry dam because it’s always a disaster zone there.

Unfortunately as we approach the dry dam, for seemingly no reason whatsoever, my one mob of 30 splinters into three mobs of 10. That’s OK, I’m calm, I’m calm. This always happens, I’m prepared, I can deal with this. “Holy crazy cow udders!!!!!!” I’m thinking to myself.

Riding around to the left, I try and push them back together as the far-right mob moves further away towards the southern fence line. “OK everyone, just stay calm. Look, if we can just stay together in one group, and walk in the right direction, no one’s going to get hurt OK? It’s all really simple. Just do as I tell you, and you can all go home to your loved ones.”

My pack leaders are galloping (do sheep even gallop? I don’t know, but I’m sure that’s what they were doing!) ahead into the Box trees, some stowaways in the middle were attempting a run for it through the saplings on the bank of the dry dam, several others were just dazed and confused, wondering which mob to follow, and one stupid Hallelujah brother, Amen and Mercy decided right then would be the perfect time to sit down behind a tree. I rode over to her and revved my bike, urging her to get up and join any of my mini-mobs.

Revvvvv, revvvv… I got off and tried to help her by lifting her 50kg frame to her feet, “Holy crazy cow udders!! Hallelujah brother, Amen and Mercy!!! Amen and Mercy! Amen and Mercy!!”… My frustration turned to panic as I realised I’d lost sight of the mob leaders. I’d spent way too much time on this holy crazy cow udder – I’d have to leave her behind.

Back on the bike and racing ahead, I tried to re-join my mobs over the other side of the dry dam. If I could just make these back ones walk fast enough to catch up with the first ones, which were quickly veering much more south than necessary, then we’d be fine. Easy girls, easy…

For some reason totally beyond my comprehension sheep like to walk on an angle… let me demonstrate to you via way of another diagram, the direction those sheep walked me across the House Paddock this day… and yes, I said THEY walked ME… not the other way around. Basically I was just a misplaced human chaperone on their leisurely Monday morning walk…

You with me?? Right so now we’re up the top of the paddock and this job has already taken about 50 million times as long as it should have. I’m feeling horrible because A) I’m dying of thirst despite not being more than two kilometres from the house, and B) I’ve said some things to those sheep that I’ve never said to anyone before in my life. Things that can’t be unsaid.

But we get to the road and I’m like, “Hallelujah brother!” because look, guys, look, there’s a road leading straight to the gate that we’re supposed to be going through. It’s easy! Let’s just all stick to the road, walk in a straight line, and we’ll be there in no time… But nope, nut, not interested…

Rather than walking on the road, my 29 sheep walk all. Over. The. Holy. Crazy. Cow. Udder. Paddock. And I’m bawling my eyes out, “For the love of God, Ryan Gosling should father my babies!!! How could you do this to me!? WHY! WHYYYYY!?”

And I’m screaming it, “For the love of God, WHY!?” Screaming it like a choir boy possessed, “Just father my holy crazy cow udder babies! Ryan Gosling! Sweet, brother, Amen and Mercy, just holy cow brother, father them Ryan Gosling!”

And it must have worked. Finally I was speaking their language. And my 29 sheep trotted through the top gate, cow kicking as they jumped over the next hill in search of fresh feed and cool water.

And I rode back to the house, hung my farmer’s hat on its hook, and poured myself a mother freaking wine biatches. Mission completed. Who’s the “farmer’s wife” now, hey?

Just five more months until next shearing…