Station Life in New Zealand
Letter V. A Pastoral Letter
Letter V. A Pastoral Letter.
December 1st, 1865.
All I can find to tell you this month is that I have seen one of the finest and best wool-sheds in the country in full work. Anything about sheep is as new to you as it is to me, so I shall begin my story at the very beginning.
I am afraid you will think us a very greedy set of people in this part of the world, for eating seems to enter so largely into my letters; but the fact is—and I may as well confess it at once—I am in a chronic state of hunger; it is the fault of the fine air and the outdoor life: and then how one sleeps at night! I don’t believe you really know in England what it is to be sleepy as we feel sleepy here; and it is delightful to wake up in the morning with the sort of joyous light-heartedness which only young children have. The expedition I am going to relate may fairly be said to have begun with eating, for although we started for our twelve miles’ drive over the downs immediately after an excellent and somewhat late breakfast, yet by the time we reached the Home page 32 Station we were quite ready for luncheon. All the work connected with the sheep is carried on here. The manager has a nice house; and the wool-shed, men’s huts, dip, etc., are near each other. It is the busiest season of the year, and no time could be spared to prepare for us; we therefore contented ourselves with what was described to me as ordinary station fare, and I must tell you what they gave us: first, a tureen of real mutton-broth, not hot water and chopped parsley, but excel-lent thick soup, with plenty of barley and meat in it; this had much the same effect on our appetites as the famous treacle and brimstone before breakfast in “Nicholas Nickleby,” so that we were only able to manage a few little sheeps’ tongues, slightly pickled; and very nice they were; then we finished with a Devonshire junket, with clotted cream à discrétion. Do you think we were much to be pitied?
After this repast we were obliged to rest a little before we set out for the wool-shed, which has only been lately finished, and has all the newest improvements. At first I am “free to confess” that I did not like either its sounds or sights; the other two ladies turned very pale, but I was determined to make myself bear it, and after a moment or two I found it quite possible to proceed with Mr. L—— round the “floor.” There were about twenty-five shearers at work, and everything seemed to be very systematically and well arranged. Each shearer has a trap-door close to him, out of which he pushes his page 33 sheep as soon as the fleece is off, and there are little pens outside, so that the manager can notice whether the poor animal has been too much cut with the shears, or badly shorn in any other respect, and can tell exactly which shearer is to blame. Before this plan was adopted it was hopeless to try to find out who was the delinquent, for no one would acknowledge to the least snip. A good shearer can take off 120 fleeces in a day, but the average is about 80 to each man. They get one pound per hundred, and are found in everything, having as much tea and sugar, bread and mutton, as they can consume, and a cook entirely to themselves; they work at least fourteen hours out of the twenty-four, and with such a large flock as this—about 50,000—must make a good deal.
We next inspected the wool tables, to which two boys were incessantly bringing armfuls of rolled-up fleeces; these were laid on the tables before the wool-sorters, who opened them out, and pronounced in a moment to which bin they belonged; two or three men standing behind rolled them up again rapidly, and put them on a sort of shelf divided into compartments, which were each labelled, so that the quality and kind of wool could be told at a glance. There was a constant emptying of these bins into trucks to be carried off to the press, where we followed to see the bales packed. The fleeces are tumbled in, and a heavy screw-press forces them down till the bale—which is kept open in a large square frame—is as full as it can hold. The top of canvas is then page 34 put on, tightly sewn, four iron pins are removed and the sides of the frame fall away, disclosing a most symmetrical bale ready to be hoisted by a crane into the loft above, where it has the brand of the sheep painted on it, its weight, and to what class the wool belongs. Of course everything has to be done with great speed and system.
I was much impressed by the silence in the shed; not a sound was to be heard except the click of the shears, and the wool-sorter’s decision as he flings the fleece behind him, given in one, or at most two words. I was reminded how touchingly true is that phrase, “Like as a sheep before her shearers is dumb.” All the noise is outside; there the hubbub, and dust, and apparent confusion are great,—a constant succession of woolly sheep being brought up to fill the “skillions” (from whence the shearers take them as they want them), and the newly-shorn ones, white, clean, and bewildered-looking, being turned out after they have passed through a narrow passage, called a “race,” where each sheep is branded, and has its mouth examined in order to tell its age, which is marked in a book. It was a comfort to think all their troubles were over, for a year. You can hear nothing but barking and bleating, and this goes on from early morning till dark. We peeped in at the men’s huts—a long, low wooden building, with two rows of “bunks” (berths, I should call their) in one compartment, and a table with forms round it in the other, and piles of tin plates and pannikins all page 35 about. The kitchen was near, and we were just in time to see an enormous batch of bread withdrawn from a huge brick oven: the other commissariat arrangements were on the same scale. Cold tea is supplied all day long to the shearers, and they appear to consume great quantities of it.
Our last visit was to the Dip, and it was only a short one, for it seemed a cruel process; unfortunately, this fine station is in technical parlance “scabby,” and although of course great precautions are taken, still some 10,000 sheep had an ominous large S on them. These poor sufferers are dragged down a plank into a great pit filled with hot water, tobacco, and sulphur, and soused over head and ears two or three times. This torture is repeated more than once.
I was very glad to get away from the Dip, and back to the manager’s house, where we refreshed ourselves by a delicious cup of tea, and soon after started for a nice long drive home in the cool, clear evening air. The days are very hot, but never oppressive; and the mornings and evenings are deliciously fresh and invigorating. You can remain out late without the least danger. Malaria is unknown, and, in spite of the heavy rains, there is no such thing as damp. Our way lay through very pretty country—a series of terraces, with a range of mountains before us, with beautiful changing and softening evening tints creeping over the whole.
I am sorry to say, we leave this next week. I should like to explore a great deal more.