From 10,000 acres at Castle Hill Station in the Canterbury high country to 25 acres on the clay soils at Hakaru in Northland has proven a big reach.
Hakaru is an old settlement on the east coast, midway between Mangawhai and Kaiwaka, an hour and a half north of Auckland. The property lies beautifully to the north and looks down into a green valley where the Hakaru River flows in the shade of old tōtara trees.
To the north, I have what I love in a view – the near and the far: paddocks, pine shelterbelts, the odd house lit up at night and, in the distance, the bush-covered
Brynderwyns – a range extending from Bream Bay in the east to the upper branches of the Kaipara Harbour to the west.
The highest point is at Cattlemount, 430m above sea level – not very high in comparison to Castle Hill but, still, the Brynderwyns make for a lovely backdrop and, at wine time, the most spectacular of sunsets.
I bought this piece of land on Hilltop Road last year. On its northern boundary it adjoins my daughter, Kate, and husband Rob's 100-acre farm.
To be alongside family at any time – but particularly when one is senior enough to be on the pension – brings with it the joy of companionship. And in my case, given that as yet I have no house on my land and live most of my time in Auckland, it is my family who will be acting as shepherds, moving stock and being alongside me over lambing time.
When I bought the land, the fences were on their last legs and the troughs – those good old solid mid-century concrete ones – were dry. You'd think I would have learnt,
having over capitalised at Castle Hill, but here I was again, re-fencing the whole 9ha.
New six-wire fences running north–south, making sure to incorporate within each paddock patches of bush and mature trees of mānuka and kānuka, tōtara and ponga, interspersed with poplars and willows.
The land conformation, with its humps and hollows, allows protection from the prevailing southwest wind and also, more importantly, from the rare but harsher nor'easter. The soils are typical of the North: impenetrable clay base with loamy soil above.
The farm is called Rua Manu – Two Birds. This is because the sale of Don Binney's painting Two Birds funded the purchase.
I have carried on celebrating some of my favourite artworks by naming each paddock after the artist: there is Binney's Birds, Frizzell's Field, The Maw, McLeod's Break, Fomison's Close, and Haystacks (after Rita Angus).
Establishing and bonding with a new property takes on all sorts of guises. I remember, with Castle Hill, it was painting the roadside letterbox and restoring and painting the pigsty.
Here at Rua Manu it was setting Ralf Krone – a wonderful plantsman and landscaper – the task of planting an orchard in late spring.
And, in true cart-before-the-horse fashion, all this happened before there was any water reticulation on the land.
Kate and Rob's farm has what is known by rural folk as 'liquid gold' – an endless supply of water: underneath their land is a bountiful freshwater spring. I now have a tank on the highest
point of the farm: the water is pumped up from their farm to the tank, and from there it is piped to each trough. Gravity is a great thing.
But over the months of the Northland drought, the second driest summer on record (only the exceptional drought of 1945-46 beat this one), Ralf and I had to drag a long
garden hose from the header tank to the trees. It took a long time to slake the thirst of the earth, even before the water made its way down to the tree roots. The newly planted
orchard pleaded for a dousing, and what apples there were – Royal Galas – resembled a crab-apple in size.
Finally when, in desperation, farmers in the North were looking to the Government for drought relief, almost overnight the rains came: monsoon-like, a one-in-a-hundred-year
downpour. The dormant creeks came to life, the willows and poplars rejoiced, and my Red
Bands suckered in the mud; only my trusty lancewood hill stick saved me from faceplanting.
The pasture revived briefly. But then "too much spoils the flavour" – the new growth drowned before it could muster enough sugars to make a satisfying meal for my 40 in-lamb mixed-age Romney ewes.
The flock comes from highly respected farmers Bob Steed, his daughter, Helen, and her husband, Rhys Dackers, of Tangiteroria, a district between Dargaville and Whangarei.
(You can read their story in Ross Hyland's 2018 book, Our Land Our People.)
Bob, the patriarch of the family, has spent a lifetime working to eradicate facial eczema from his sheep; and he has been a stalwart in spreading his knowledge and techniques to other farmers who wish to protect their flock from this cruel and debilitating disease.
Facial eczema is caused by a toxin produced in the spores of a fungus that grows at the base of pasture in warm moist conditions. When it is ingested by sheep and cattle, it causes damage to the liver and bile ducts. A damaged liver cannot rid the body of wastes. A breakdown product of chlorophyll builds up in the blood, causing sensitivity to sunlight which, in turn, causes skin irritation and peeling.
So that's the ewes taken care of. And now to the ram. On a trip to stay with friends on a farm just outside Masterton, I had admired the rear end of healthy lambs: Beltex, with "double the rump".
I was delighted when I found that Bob, too, was using Beltex along with Romney and Suffolk rams at Kereru Station. The Beltex sheep, when it was imported in 2017, was the first new breed to land on New Zealand shores in about a decade. The name reflects the breed's origin – an offshoot of Texel sheep from Belgium.
Talk about rear ends – this breed has double-muscled hindquarters, coupled with fine bones, which ensures maximum killing-out percentage of the finished lamb. The breed usually has no difficulties with lambing, and the lambs are born small and vigorous. The double rump develops shortly after birth.
Bob's Beltex Porky lives up to his name: he looks like a pig-sheep, with small head and very muscly body, especially when viewed from behind. But despite his looks, he was assigned to our ewes and trucked in from the west coast to Rua Manu in the east.
I had yet to build stockyards, so the stock truck had to back up to a temporary stage with a plywood ramp. The sheep showed their fine breeding and resilience by leaping from a goodly height onto a field of "virgin" grass.
We noted the day Porky got amongst his girls, sniffing and chasing – in fact,
harassing them. We figured lambing would begin after, say, four months, 148–154 days of gestation. The magic date, July 25 , was marked on the calendar.
A few weeks later Rhys arranged for six steers to join the flock: the steers wrap their teeth around the long grass and the "Masports" feed on the rest.
Yards will have to be built, not only for the pre-lamb shear and the 5-in-1 vaccine, but also so we can have a practised eye look over the health of the stock.
Bob provided the best plan for the yards – a 1940-50s tried-and-true Lands and Survey Department design, with straight posts, expertly nailed boards, great drafting races with a roof above – and Cam, the young fencer, took on the building project.
Part of the structure takes the steers, with higher, stronger sides and a tight holding pen and a veranda for those applying pour-on.
I shall call the yards "Serendipity". We all go up the drafting race of life whether we are a ewe, a lamb or us. To the right mixed age, left annual draft and in the end, for all of us,
straight ahead as culls.
Joe Murphy, a long-time (now retired) shearer, dairy farmer, truck and digger driver, came with his generator, handpiece, blades, grinder, and his hand-made moccasins that
have seen many a season. He hung his machine from a nail and set up as best he could on a platform of plywood to shear Porky and the ewes. It was quite a change from his earlier days when he would face a shed of thousands.
As the morning went on, the plywood became like a skating rink with lanolin, and Joe's job became trickier as he slipped and slid from side to side.
But, true to form, he took it all in his stride and managed to shear effortlessly and with precision, all the while telling us yarns of his family life in the North.
Farming is all about networking and collegiality. Rhys was the one who recommended Joe Murphy. My builder, Nick Smith, lives up the road, and he recommended Dave Woodley for sculpting the land. Dave Burchard, the recently retired manager of nearby Bream Tail Farm, is not only a gun gorse-destroyer, but more importantly was able to tell me what it's like to farm in the area.
Cam Gould is a young man starting out in his own business and, if the fences on Rua Manu are anything to go by, he has a stellar career ahead of him.
It's no different whether you are farming in the South or the North, whether you are new to the area or you've been there for years. She's a tough life: 80 per cent of a farm's
income you can't control – weather being the biggie; then, on top of that, exchange rates, markets, consumer tastes. Each farm has its own set of problems: advice is sought and readily and freely given. Farming friends are among the best of the lot.
Actually, I think I'll have to stop sounding off about my Castle Hill experiences. Merinos are a country mile different from Romneys: they sulk; they're not the best of
mothers – they can't count to two, let alone three; and they can live on the smell of an oily rag. Romneys on the other hand are voracious eaters or so they seem to me as they try to fill their bellies on rye, clover and, possibly the most unsatisfying of all, Kikuyu grass.
It was my early experience of lambing ewes on Castle Hill that led to my first mistake with our lambing at Rua Manu. Although, according to our calculations, there was still a week to go before lambing would start, we came upon a cast ewe – her legs in the air, her stomach filled with lamb, the flattened grass under her showed she had been in distress for a while.
Thinking she was having trouble lambing, I immediately got into action: hand up the vagina, crushing the water bag as I went – and no legs, nothing except a firmly closed cervix. Oh dear, why had I not just got her up on her legs and steadied her until she could move under her own steam?
We asked Dan, a young guy working on the neighbouring farm, to have a look. Dan comes from a family of beef and sheep farmers, and he arrived clutching what was so
familiar back in the day at Castle Hill: blue baling twine. But he too was unsuccessful. I hadn't been dreaming: there were no legs. It was a vet we needed.
It was mid-afternoon before Thomas from Maungaturoto Vet Clinic strode across the paddocks – as best he could, given the boggy conditions. He was obviously ready for all emergencies, weighed down with buckets of impressive-looking gear. With elbow-length plastic gloves and heaps of Vaseline he tried to dilate the cervix, but sadly not enough to allow a lamb to make its way down the birth canal. The long-suffering ewe, dosed up to the eyeballs with penicillin, spent the night in the drafting race, where water and shelter afforded her a better night than out in the open.
Liam, a vet from Mangawhai, came next morning and, after a good deal of grunting, managed to get the – by then dead – lambs out. He gave the ewe more penicillin and
predicted: "She's got less than a 1 per cent chance of surviving."
But survive she did. Only a few days later she was suffering from flystrike – surprisingly, as this was midwinter, and flystrike is a summer curse. We gave our survivor a
dose of Maggo and a green stripe to identify her: this was important so we could see that she was eating and moving easily, and not with the jerky gait associated with flystrike.
I blame myself entirely for her torture and the death of the lambs. I have always been a person who leaps straight in to fix a problem. Sometimes it works but on this occasion it definitely did not.
We moved the ewes every couple of days; their diet consisted of a tasty meal
followed by lean rations. They were enormous – they looked as if their lambs were lying
abeam instead of fore and aft.
On Thursday, July 23, a couple of days prior to ETA, we had a set of triplets and a set of twins. This pattern continued over the next month: plenty of twins, only one single, and six or more sets of triplets.
The triplets begin by looking like a group of handbags but after a week or so the greediest looks big and strong, the middle one not far behind, and the smallest still resembles a handbag. In days gone by the handbag would be given to a neighbouring kid to feed up for the annual school lamb and calf day.
The weather over the lambing period was terrible – icy rain and wind from the worst quarter, the northeast, with just the odd dry day. If ever there is an advertisement for wool it is the way sheep survive such inclement conditions.
We had the usual losses: a few lambs caught among the swampy reeds; a ewe that chose to give birth on a precipice with disastrous results; and a ewe that came up to me and my grandson, George, as we were doing the early evening lambing beat. We were surprised at how tame this ewe was – I was able to get a tissue out of my pocket and wipe her snotty nose. She wandered off, heavily laden, to a hump where we thought she would certainly lamb. We waited to see what is one the most extraordinary miracles of nature – the way a lamb is born, slithering out of the birth canal; the way the ewe licks the mucus from the lamb's face, nose and mouth; then, as so often with our ewes, a second lamb would fall alongside the first, and sometimes a third.
But instead of giving birth this ewe died, there and then, in front of our eyes. Her snotty nose would have been the result of pneumonia – and we had no penicillin. We now do.
Fingers crossed she was the last of our losses.
Thankfully Rhys and shearer Joe are coming on Monday. Armed with experience, dog Gemma and a docking cradle, Rhys will help us with docking – or tailing, as it is known in the south.
It's not a moment too soon, as we have a few hobblers among the ewes and lambs. I feel like I'm back again with the Northland equivalent of footrot – scald. Scald, an infection between the toes' is the most common cause of lameness in lambs. It occurs most commonly when conditions underfoot – or under hoof – are wet and muddy ... perfectly understandable in our case, as the paddocks are so wet. I can't wait until October for digger driver Dave and his brother to drain Rua Manu and establish ponds and drain the swales.
After that, winter 2021 will be a breeze: no one – stock or shepherds – will find themselves wading through mud.
Docking is like a stocktake: there is pride in how many lambs arrive at the yards compared to the number of lambs born. It's a noisy time getting them in – lots of bleating
and calling, getting lost, lambs searching amongst the mêlée looking for the right mother as they head for the yards.
It is the sign of a polished performer that the dog is able to manage the flock without what is known as a lamb break – less likely here on Rua Manu, with our smaller numbers, but at Castle Hill it was a disaster as we had to begin again, and release the mob in order to gather them in again.
The lambs are drafted off and here they are, this year's crop. There is a certain degree of self-congratulation as we appraise their fine form, the double rump already
pronounced, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – though the latter not for long!
We each take a job: picking up, rings on the tail and balls, drench, injection, tag, and a squirt of diluted Maggo around the tail and pouch. Lots of chat, stories, lots of leaning on the boards talking about footy, hunting, Covid and the consequences of lockdown.
The lambs look affronted: they stagger back, calling to their mothers. Anyone who alights on the wrong udder gets the butt. With only 38 ewes it is easy to identify the
limpers, the dirty bums, any trouble with the udders. It's funny how in life, in crowds, our focus so often falls on the faults, it's the defects that seem to stand out – all this before celebrating those that are healthy, pleasing to the eye and true to their breed.
Sixty-six lambs, clickety-click – a 165 per cent lambing rate. Not enough to make you rich ... but, then, there is so much richness just in being on the land. After all farming is all about capturing, packaging and marketing sunlight. And now, until crutching in six weeks' time, they are free to wander, embracing the warmer temperatures and, God willing, the sweetness of spring grass.