Sheep will eat a variety of grasses, clover and pastoral plants, but it’s forbs — a herbaceous flowering plant that is not a grass — that they love. Sheep consume a much greater and tastier variety of plants than cattle so maybe they are the more enlightened species! If you ask my father, Rob, who has farmed both sheep and cattle for the better part of thirty years, he is of the same opinion. Here’s a word from him on exactly how cunning his sheep could be.
When you mention sheep farming to people, the notion might evoke bucolic homesteads and pastoral bliss in some, but I don’t share their enthusiasm. To me, it was physical labour and always a battle of wills with my sheep. Handling a mob of sheep on steep hill country requires good dogs and experience — and patience. When it came time to muster the sheep, as many contingencies as I could think of needed to be built in.
Even with plenty of good dogs and a bucket of patience, some sheep breeds were more work than others. When I was young, my parents farmed Romney sheep, which are good-naturedly placid, but in mobs of more than 100 they are quite difficult to move. As time went by we changed over from Romneys to Perendales, a breed much better suited to steep country. They lacked the heavy wool growth of Romneys but were prolific breeders and made very good mothers. This fact combined with their extremely mobile nature meant that they were ‘easy care’ at lambing time and required little intervention. It was pretty normal for me to lamb only two or three out of 1,500 births.
The job of mustering could be heaven or hell depending on many factors: the time of the day and temperature; the weather; the control I had on my dogs; or any sudden distractions such as fleeing wild pig, a playful mob of cattle or a startled flock of birds. My experienced sheepdogs were largely very intuitive and often needed little guidance, knowing exactly when to charge and when to sit back. However, eager young dogs often rushed in. When this happened, the older ewes would coldly assess the juveniles, often standing motionless until the very last seconds before leading a breakout or sidling into positions on the edge of the bush or cliffs that left the inexperienced dogs bewildered and wondering where the hell all the sheep had gone. At such times my patience was sorely tested.
The Perendales, and later, Dorset-cross ewes, were watchful and cunning. They knew exactly what chance I had on any given day of shifting them from one paddock to another or mustering them into a mob. I had to outsmart them.
When the mob was finally gathered, often close to a gate or at the approach to stockyards, which the cunning older ewes knew all about, then the pressure would really come on. By then, the dogs were often tired, the temperature might be getting unbearably hot, or the slope to the final destination might be downhill. Sheep are notoriously averse to a downhill approach to anything; their instinct is to move uphill.
Ewes and their lambs together move well enough as a mob until they get mismothered and this always occurs in a crammed situation. At this point the ewes and their lambs become oblivious to man and dog and frantically mill trying to relocate each other. Any increased pressure by dogs to move them the last few metres is often too much. The panicking lambs then turn on anything in their path and make a mass breakout followed by the ewes. They are about as easy to stop as a tidal wave.
When this happens, there are three options for the hapless musterer. Their instinctive option is to fall back, that is, give ground and try to re-muster first his dogs, which by this time are frantically all doing their own thing, then try to ‘pick up’ the lambs, who have by this time moved to the highest ground around with their mothers. This route is very much like a battle, where planning is vital, and contingencies even more vital.
The second option is to go bananas and have a meltdown, which the ewes really enjoy and flee even further away while the dogs, exhausted by now, look at you with great amazement.
Option three was my preferred method: go home and have a cup of tea while everything settles down and let the dogs recharge their batteries.
I must admit sheep farming did keep me incredibly fit. I once sprinted up and down the Big Face, a 120 acre (50 hectare), 1,000 feet (300 metre) high hill, three times in about half an hour during one epic battle with my sheep. It’s a young man’s game for sure.
Place a small line of forbs sauce on each plate. Place the mushrooms on the forbs sauce. Place the sheep’s milk cheese alongside. Garnish the mushrooms with the flowers and leaves. Place the lamb glaze next to the mushrooms and place the lamb on the glaze.
© 2012 All rights reserved. Published by Murdoch Books.