Life of an early shepherd

Last updated 08:49 04/12/2012

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South Canterbury Museum takes a close up at the region's 19th century pastoral runs later this week.

Building the Backbone opens at the South Canterbury Museum on Friday. The exhibition explores development of the the pastoral runs in South Canterbury from the 1870s to the 1890s by looking at the lives of the people who lived and worked there, including the leaseholders, pastoralists, shepherds, station hands, shearers, women, children and domestic staff as well as bullock drivers and swaggers.

Fifty two runs stations have been identified using a map drawn in the 1870s.

While the museum has photographs from only about half of those runs, the total number of images available is substantial. To make the images available, the museum is trialling the use of iPads.

The images will be loaded into folders on an iPad so the visitor can select the one they wish to view and use the iPad gestures technology to zoom in on the detail.

Because the iPad screen is small, the images will also be shown on a linked television screen. This means that others in the exhibition space will also be able to see what the person using the iPad can see.

Dating from the 1850s and 1860s, South Canterbury stations were large in size and often remote from the comforts of civilisation.

As the 19th century progressed, many became established as highly-productive units, often in the face of considerable adversity.

British markets for wool and then frozen meat made sheep farming very profitable for those who were prepared to work hard and forgo comfort.

As they expanded, the sheep stations provided employment for many new settlers as shepherds, farm hands and domestic staff.

Mustering, the gathering of all of the sheep together for such tasks as shearing, dipping or lambing, was done several times during the year.

The autumn muster was one of the main musters. Sheep were brought down from the higher summer feeding grounds to the safer lower grazing areas that were less likely to have high snow falls. It also allowed the ewes to get better grazing so that they were in better condition for lambing.

Sheep dogs were often brought out by the Scottish shepherds when they emigrated to New Zealand. The dogs were companions as well as workers; they and their masters often lived in isolated places.

As a result, the working relationship between the shepherd and his dog was often extraordinary, with a very complicated series of actions being understood by the dog in a few commands.

The shepherds were understandably very proud of their dogs and dog trials soon became a popular pastime. An early dog trial took place at Haldon in 1869 after the autumn muster, with James Cordy as judge. Despite being stiff and foot-sore after the long muster, "Polly" owned by D McKay of Haldon Station was declared the winner.

Lambing was timed to coincide with the flush of spring growth. The sheep were dagged or shorn around their hind-quarters so that they did not suffer from fly strike. Lambs were tailed a few weeks after birth.

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In the nineteenth century some farmers washed their sheep before shearing and they were run through a dip to get rid of scabs and later parasites like lice and keds.

Shearing sheep was one of the most important events in the farm calendar. Hand shearing was hard work but a good shearer could shear up to 100 sheep per day. It was good money, as a shearer was paid at least 15 shillings per hundred. Because the work was seasonal, this still averaged close to the rate paid to other farm workers.

Shearers were itinerant, often working in Australia and New Zealand. Before shearing sheds were built, the shearers sheared on mats or tarpaulins to keep the fleece clean.

John Stansell wrote that he learnt to shear sheep."First at Cannington station, owned by Mr Harry Knight . . . started shearing at 20 shillings per hundred. Your hands got very sore and swollen, and I remember many a night the pain would not let me sleep. So I used to get a hook pot filled with salt and water hanging to the side of my bunk, and try to sleep with my hands in the salt and water."

Living conditions could be a bit rough. John Stansell remarked that "those days our sleeping shed consisted of weather boards and galvanised iron roof and no lining, with tiers of two bunks all round with a large dining room in the centre and wooden forms to sit on and earthen floor.

"As the dogs used to take advantage of our mansion, fleas were plentiful . . . so to mitigate the annoyance, if we could get hold of a quiet dog, we would plant him in our bed and cover him well with blankets. Then we would take him out with all the fleas . . . but this was a luxury not all could enjoy because there were more men than dogs and some of the dogs and their owners were a bit savage."

There are numerous reports of shearers striking for better pay and conditions for having to shear wet sheep.

- The Timaru Herald

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