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A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays

Chapter X

page 126

Chapter X

Choice of a Run—Boundaries—Maoris—Wages—Servants—Drunkenness— Cooking—Wethers—Choice of Homestead—Watchfulness required—Burning the Country—Yards for Sheep—Ewes and Lambs—Lambing Season—Wool Sheds—Sheep Washing—Putting up a Hut—Gardens—Farewell.

In looking for a run, some distance must be traversed; the country near Christ Church is already stocked. The waste lands are, indeed, said to be wholly taken up throughout the colony, wherever they are capable of supporting sheep. It may, however, be a matter of some satisfaction to a new settler to examine this point for himself, and to consider what he requires in the probable event of having to purchase the goodwill of a run, with the improvements upon it, which can hardly be obtained under £150 per 1000 acres.

A river boundary is most desirable; the point above or below the confluence of two rivers is still better, as there are then only two sides to guard. Stony ground must not be considered as an impediment; grass grows between the stones, and a dray can travel upon it. England must have been a most impracticable country to traverse before metalled roads were made. Here the surface is almost everywhere a compact mass of shingle; it is for the most part only near the sea that the shingle is covered with soil. Forest and swamp are much greater impediments to a journey than a far greater distance of hard ground would prove. A river such as the Cam or Ouse would be far more difficult to cross without bridges than the Rakaia or Rangitata, notwithstanding their volume and rapidity; the former page 127 are deep in mud, and rarely have convenient places at which to get in or out; while the latter abound in them, and have a stony bed on which the wheels of your dray make no impression. The stony ground will carry a sheep to each acre and a half or two acres. Such diseases as foot-rot are unknown, owing probably to the generally dry surface of the land.

There are few Maoris here; they inhabit the north island, and are only in small numbers, and degenerate in this, so may be passed over unnoticed. The only effectual policy in dealing with them is to show a bold front, and, at the same time, do them a good turn whenever you can be quite certain that your kindness will not be misunderstood as a symptom of fear. There are no wild animals that will molest your sheep. In Australia they have to watch the flocks night and day because of the wild dogs. The yards, of course, are not proof against dogs, and the Australian shepherd’s hut is built close against the yard; here this is unnecessary.

Having settled that you will take up your country or purchase the lease of it, you must consider next how to get a dray on to it. Horses are not to be thought of except for riding; you must buy a dray and bullocks. The rivers here are not navigable.

Wages are high. People do not leave England and go to live at the antipodes to work for the same wages which they had at home. They want to better themselves as well as you do, and, the supply being limited, they will ask and get from £1 to 30s. a week besides their board and billet.

You must remember you will have a rough life at first; there will be a good deal of cold and exposure; a good deal of tent work; possibly a fever or two; to page 128 say nothing of the seeds of rheumatism which will give you something to meditate upon hereafter.

You and your men will have to be on rather a different footing from that on which you stood in England. There, if your servant were in any respect what you did not wish, you were certain of getting plenty of others to take his place. Here, if a man does not find you quite what he wishes, he is certain of getting plenty of others to employ him. In fact, he is at a premium, and soon finds this out. On really good men this produces no other effect than a demand for high wages. They will be respectful and civil, though there will be a slight but quite unobjectionable difference in their manner toward you. Bad men assume an air of defiance which renders their immediate dismissal a matter of necessity. When you have good men, however, you must recognise the different position in which you stand toward them as compared with that which subsisted at home. The fact is, they are more your equals and more independent of you, and, this being the case, you must treat them accordingly. I do not advise you for one moment to submit to disrespect; this would be a fatal error. A man whose conduct does not satisfy you must be sent about his business as certainly as in England; but when you have men who do suit you, you must, besides paying them handsomely, expect them to treat you rather as an English yeoman would speak to the squire of his parish than as an English labourer would speak to him. The labour markets will not be so bad but that good men can be had, and as long as you put up with bad men it serves you right to be the loser by your weakness.

Some good hands are very improvident, and will for page 129 the most part spend their money in drinking, a very short time after they have earned it. They will come back possibly with a dead horse to work off—that is, a debt at the accommodation house—and will work hard for another year to have another drinking bout at the end of it. This is a thing fatally common here. Such men are often first-rate hands and thoroughly good fellows when away from drink; but, on the whole, saving men are perhaps the best. Commend yourself to a good screw for a shepherd; if he knows the value of money he knows the value of lambs, and if he has contracted the habit of being careful with his own money he will be apt to be so with yours also. But in justice to the improvident, it must be owned they are often admirable men save in the one point of sobriety.

Their political knowledge is absolutely nil, and, were the colony to give them political power, it might as well give gunpowder to children.

How many hands shall you want?

We will say a couple of good bush hands, who will put up your hut and yards and wool-shed. If you are in a hurry and have plenty of money you can have more. Besides these you will want a bullock driver and shepherd, unless you are shepherd yourself. You must manage the cooking among you as best you can, and must be content to wash up yourself, taking your full part in the culinary processes, or you will soon find disaffection in the camp; but if you can afford to have a cook, have one by all means. It is a great nuisance to come in from a long round after sheep and find the fire out and no hot water to make tea, and to have to set to work immediately to get your men’s supper; for they cannot earn page 130 their supper and cook it at the same time. The difficulty is that good boys are hard to get, and a man that is worth anything at all will hardly take to cooking as a profession. Hence it comes to pass that the cooks are generally indolent and dirty fellows, who don’t like hard work. Your college education, if you have had one, will doubtless have made you familiar with the art of making bread; you will now proceed to discover the mysteries of boiling potatoes. The uses of dripping will begin to dawn upon you, and you will soon become expert in the manufacture of tallow candles. You will wash your own clothes, and will learn that you must not boil flannel shirts, and experience will teach you that you must eschew the promiscuous use of washing soda, tempting though indeed it be if you are in a hurry. If you use collars, I can inform you that Glenfield starch is the only starch used in the laundries of our most gracious Sovereign; I tell you this in confidence, as it is not generally advertised.

To return to the culinary department. Your natural poetry of palate will teach you the proper treatment of the onion, and you will ere long be able to handle that inestimable vegetable with the breadth yet delicacy which it requires. Many other things you will learn, which for your sake as well as my own I will not enumerate here. Let the above suffice for examples.

At first your wethers will run with your ewes, and you will only want one shepherd; but as soon as the mob gets up to two or three thousand the wethers should be kept separate; you will then want another shepherd. As soon as you have secured your run you must buy sheep; otherwise you lose time, as the run is only valuable for the sheep it carries. Bring sheep, page 131 shepherd, men, stores, all at one and the same time. Some wethers must be included in your purchase, otherwise you will run short of meat, as none of your own breeding will be ready for the knife for a year and a half, to say the least of it. No wether should be killed till it is two years old, and then it is murder to kill an animal which brings you in such good interest by its wool, and would even be better if suffered to live three years longer, when you will have had its value in its successive fleeces. It will, however, pay you better to invest nearly all your money in ewes, and to kill your own young stock, than to sink more capital than is absolutely necessary in wethers.

Start your dray, then, from town and join it with your sheep on the way up. Your sheep will not travel more than ten miles a day if you are to do them justice; so your dray must keep pace with them. You will generally find plenty of firewood on the track. You can camp under the dray at night. In about a week you will get on to your run, and very glad you will feel when you are safely come to the end of your journey. See the horses properly looked to at once; then set up the tent, make a good fire, put the kettle on, out with the frying-pan and get your supper, smoke the calumet of peace, and go to bed.

The first question is, Where shall you place your homestead? You must put it in such a situation as will be most convenient for working the sheep. These are the real masters of the place—the run is theirs, not yours: you cannot bear this in mind too diligently. All considerations of pleasantness of site must succumb to this. You must fix on such a situation as not to cut page 132 up the run, by splitting off a little corner too small to give the sheep free scope and room. They will fight rather shy of your homestead, you may be certain; so the homestead must be out of their way. You must, however, have water and firewood at hand, which is a great convenience, to say nothing of the saving of labour and expense. Therefore, if you can find a bush near a stream, make your homestead on the lee side of it. A stream is a boundary, and your hut, if built in such a position, will interfere with your sheep as little as possible.

The sheep will make for rising ground and hill-side to camp at night, and generally feed with their heads up the wind, if it is not too violent. As your mob increases, you can put an out-station on the other side the run.

In order to prevent the sheep straying beyond your boundaries, keep ever hovering at a distance round them, so far off that they shall not be disturbed by your presence, and even be ignorant that you are looking at them. Sheep cannot be too closely watched, or too much left to themselves. You must remember they are your masters, and not you theirs; you exist for them, not they for you. If you bear this well in mind, you will be able to turn the tables on them effectually at shearing-time. But if you once begin to make the sheep suit their feeding-hours to your convenience, you may as well give up sheep-farming at once. You will soon find the mob begin to look poor, your percentage of lambs will fall off, and in fact you will have to pay very heavily for saving your own trouble, as indeed would be the case in every occupation or profession you might adopt.

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Of course you will have to turn your sheep back when they approach the boundary of your neighbour. Be ready, then, at the boundary. You have been watching them creeping up in a large semicircle toward the forbidden ground. As long as they are on their own run let them alone, give them not a moment’s anxiety of mind; but directly they reach the boundary, show yourself with your dog in your most terrific aspect. Startle them, frighten them, disturb their peace; do so again and again, at the same spot, from the very first day. Let them always have peace on their own run, and none anywhere off it. In a month or two you will find the sheep begin to understand your meaning, and it will then be very easy work to keep them within bounds. If, however, you suffer them to have half an hour now and then on the forbidden territory, they will be constantly making for it. The chances are that the feed is good on or about the boundary, and they will be seduced by this to cross, and go on and on till they are quite beyond your control.

You will have burnt a large patch of feed on the outset. Burn it in early spring, on a day when rain appears to be at hand. It is dangerous to burn too much at once: a large fire may run farther than you wish, and, being no respecter of imaginary boundaries, will cross on to your neighbour’s run without compunction and without regard to his sheep, and then heavy damages will be brought against you. Burn, however, you must; so do it carefully. Light one strip first, and keep putting it out by beating it with leafy branches, This will form a fireproof boundary between you and your neighbour.

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Burnt feed means contented and well-conditioned sheep. The delicately green and juicy grass which springs up after burning is far better for sheep than the rank and dry growth of summer after it has been withered by the winter’s frosts. Your sheep will not ramble, for if they have plenty of burnt pasture they are contented where they are. They feed in the morning, bunch themselves together in clusters during the heat of the day, and feed again at night.

Moreover, on burnt pasture, no fire can come down upon you from your neighbour so as to hurt your sheep.

The day will come when you will have no more occasion for burning, when your run will be fully stocked, and the sheep will keep your feed so closely cropped that it will do without it. It is certainly a mortification to see volumes of smoke rising into the air, and to know that all that smoke might have been wool, and might have been sold by you for 2s. a pound in England. You will think it great waste, and regret that you have not more sheep to eat it. However, that will come to pass in time; and meanwhile, if you have not mouths enough upon your run to make wool of it, you must burn it off and make smoke of it instead. There is sure to be a good deal of rough scrub and brushwood on the run, which is better destroyed, and which sheep would not touch; therefore, for the ultimate value of your run, it is as well or better that it should be fired than fed off.

The very first work to be done after your arrival will be to make a yard for your sheep. Make this large enough to hold five or six times as many sheep as you possess at first. It may be square in shape. Place two page 135 good large gates at the middle of either of the two opposite sides. This will be sufficient at first, but, as your flocks increase, a somewhat more complicated arrangement will be desirable.

The sheep, we will suppose, are to be thoroughly overhauled. You wish, for some reason, to inspect their case fully yourself, or you must tail your lambs, in which case every lamb has to be caught, and you will cut its tail off, and ear-mark it with your own earmark; or, again, you will see fit to draft out all the lambs that are ready for weaning; or you may wish to cull the mob, and sell off the worst-woolled sheep; or your neighbour’s sheep may have joined with yours; or for many other reasons it is necessary that your flock should be closely examined. Without good yards it is impossible to do this well—they are an essential of the highest importance.

Select, then, a site as dry and stony as possible (for your sheep will have to be put into the yard over night), and at daylight in the morning set to work.

Fill the yard B with sheep from the big yard A. The yard B we will suppose to hold about 600. Fill C from B: C shall hold about 100. When the sheep are in that small yard C (which is called the drafting- yard), page 136 you can overhaul them, and your men can catch the lambs and hold them up to you over the rail of the yard to ear-mark and tail. There being but 100 sheep in the yard, you can easily run your eye over them. Should you be drafting out sheep or taking your rams out, let the sheep which you are taking out be let into the yards D and E. Or, it may be, you are drafting two different sorts of sheep at once; then there will be two yards in which to put them. When you have done with the small mob, let it out into the yard F, taking the tally of the sheep as they pass through the gate. This gate, therefore, must be a small one, so as not to admit more than one or two at a time. It would be tedious work filling the small yard C from the big one A; for in that large space the sheep will run about, and it will take you some few minutes every time. From the smaller yard B, however, C will easily be filled. Among the other great advantages of good yards, there is none greater than the time saved. This is of the highest importance, for the ewes will be hungry, and their lambs will have sucked them dry; and then, as soon as they are turned out of the yards, the mothers will race off after feed, and the lambs, being weak, will lag behind; and the Merino ewe being a bad mother, the two may never meet again, and the lamb will die. Therefore it is essential to begin work of this sort early in the morning, and to have yards so constructed as to cause as little loss of time as possible. I will not say that the plan given above is the very best that could be devised, but it is common out here, and answers all practical purposes. The weakest point is in the approach to B from A.

As soon as you have done with the mob, let them page 137 out. They will race off helter-skelter to feed, and soon be spread out in an ever-widening fan-like shape. Therefore have someone stationed a good way off to check their first burst, and stay them from going too far and leaving their lambs; after a while, as you sit, telescope in hand, you will see the ewes come bleating back to the yards for their lambs. They have satisfied the first cravings of their hunger, and their motherly feelings are beginning to return. Now, if the sheep have not been kept a little together, the lambs may have gone off after the ewes, and some few will then be pretty certain never to find their mothers again. It is rather a pretty sight to sit on a bank and watch the ewes coming back. There is sure to be a mob of a good many lambs sticking near the yards, and ewe after ewe will come back and rush up affectionately to one lamb after another. A good few will try to palm themselves off upon her. If she is young and foolish, she will be for a short time in doubt; if she is older and wiser, she will butt away the little impostors with her head; but they are very importunate, and will stick to her for a long while. At last, however, she finds her true child, and is comforted. She kisses its nose and tail with the most affectionate fondness, and soon the lost lamb is seen helping himself lustily, and frolicking with his tail in the height of his contentment. I have known, however, many cunning lambs make a practice of thieving from the more inexperienced ewes, though they have mothers of their own; and I remember one very beautiful and favourite lamb of mine, who, to my great sorrow, lost its mother, but kept itself alive in this manner, and throve and grew up to be a splendid page 138 sheep by mere roguery. Such a case is an exception, not a rule.

You may perhaps wonder how you are to know that your sheep are all right, and that none get away. You cannot be quite certain of this. You may be pretty sure, however, for you will soon have a large number of sheep with whom you are personally acquainted, and who have, from time to time, forced themselves upon your attention either by peculiar beauty or peculiar ugliness, or by having certain marks upon them. You will have a black sheep or two, and probably a long-tailed one or two, and a sheep with only one eye, and another with a wart on its nose, and so forth. These will be your marked sheep, and if you find all of them you may be satisfied that the rest are safe also. Your eye will soon become very accurate in telling you the number of a mob of sheep.

When the sheep are lambing they should not be disturbed. You cannot meddle with a mob of lambing ewes without doing them mischief. Some one or two lambs, or perhaps many more, will be lost every time you disturb the flock. The young sheep, until they have had their lambs a few days, and learnt their value, will leave them upon the slightest provocation. Then there is a serious moral injury inflicted upon the ewe: she becomes familiar with the crime of infanticide, and will be apt to leave her next lamb as carelessly as her first. If, however, she has once reared a lamb, she will be fond of the next, and, when old, will face anything, even a dog, for the sake of her child.

When, therefore, the sheep are lambing, you must ride or walk farther round, and notice any tracks you may see: anything rather than disturb the sheep. page 139 They must always lamb on burnt or green feed, and against the best boundary you have, and then there will be the less occasion to touch them.

Besides the yards above described, you will want one or two smaller ones for getting the sheep into the wool-shed at shearing-time, and you will also want a small yard for branding. The wool-shed is a roomy covered building, with a large central space, and an aisle-like partition on each side. These last will be for holding the sheep during the night. The shearers will want to begin with daylight, and the dew will not yet be off the wool if the sheep are exposed. If wool is packed damp it will heat and spoil; therefore a sufficient number of sheep must be left under cover through the night to last the shearers till the dew is off. In a wool-shed the aisles would be called skilions (whence the name is derived I know not, nor whether it has two l’s in it or one). All the sheep go into the skilions. The shearers shear in the centre, which is large enough to leave room for the wool to be stowed away at one end. The shearers pull the sheep out of the skilions as they want them. Each picks the worst sheep, i.e. that with the least wool upon it, that happens to be at hand at the time, trying to put the best-woolled sheep, which are consequently the hardest to shear, upon someone else; and so the heaviest-woolled and largest sheep get shorn the last.

A good man will shear 100 sheep in a day, some even more; but 100 is reckoned good work. I have known 195 sheep to be shorn by one man in a day; but I fancy these must have been from an old and bare mob, and that this number of well-woolled sheep would be quite beyond one man’s power. Sheep are not shorn so page 140 neatly as at home. But supposing a man has a mob of 20,000, he must get the wool off their backs as best he can without carping at an occasional snip from a sheep’s carcass. If the wool is taken close off, and only now and then a sheep snipped, there will be no cause to complain.

Then follows the draying of the wool to port, and the bullocks come in for their full share of work. It is a pleasant sight to see the first load of wool start down, but a far pleasanter to see the dray returning from its last trip.

Shearing well over will be a weight off your mind. This is your most especially busy and anxious time of year, and when the wool is safely down you will be glad indeed.

It may have been a matter of question with you, Shall I wash my sheep before shearing or not? If you wash them at all, you should do it thoroughly, and take considerable pains to have them clean; otherwise you had better shear in the grease, i.e. not wash. Wool in the grease weighs about one-third heavier, and consequently fetches a lower price in the market. When wool falls, moreover, the fall tells first upon greasy wool. Still many shear in the grease, and some consider it pays them better to do so. It is a mooted point, but the general opinion is in favour of washing.

As soon as you have put up one yard, you may set to work upon a hut for yourself and men. This you will make of split wooden slabs set upright in the ground, and nailed on to a wall-plate. You will first plant large posts at each of the corners, and one at either side every door, and four for the chimney. At the top of page 141 these you will set your wall- plates; to the wall-plates you will nail your slabs; on the inside of the slabs you will nail light rods of wood, and plaster them over with mud, having first, however, put up the roof and thatched it. Three or four men will have split the stuff and put up the hut in a fortnight. We will suppose it to be about 18 feet by 12.

By and by, as you grow richer, you may burn bricks at your leisure, and eventually build a brick house. At first, however, you must rough it.

You will set about a garden at once. You will bring up fowls at once. Pigs may wait till you have time to put up a regular stye, and to have grown potatoes enough to feed them. Two fat and well-tended pigs are worth half a dozen half-starved wretches. Such neglected brutes make a place look very untidy, and their existence will be a burden to themselves, and an eyesore to you.

In a year or two you will find yourself very comfortable. You will get a little fruit from your garden in summer, and will have a prospect of much more. You will have cows, and plenty of butter and milk and eggs; you will have pigs, and, if you choose it, bees, plenty of vegetables, and, in fact, may live upon the fat of the land, with very little trouble, and almost as little expense. If you grudge this, your fare will be rather unvaried, and will consist solely of tea, mutton, bread, and possibly potatoes. For the first year, these are all you must expect; the second will improve matters; and the third should see you surrounded with luxuries.

If you are your own shepherd, which at first is more than probable, you will find that shepherding is one of the most prosaic professions you could have adopted. page 142 Sheep will be the one idea in your mind; and as for poetry, nothing will be farther from your thoughts. Your eye will ever be straining after a distant sheep—your ears listening for a bleat—in fact, your whole attention will be directed, the whole day long, to nothing but your flock. Were you to shepherd too long your wits would certainly go wool-gathering, even if you were not tempted to bleat. It is, however, a gloriously healthy employment.

And now, gentle reader, I wish you luck with your run. If you have tolerably good fortune, in a very short time you will be a rich man. Hoping that this may be the case, there remains nothing for me but to wish you heartily farewell.