I’m staying with Gaye and Michael on their farm in the Wairarapa. They run sheep for meat and for wool, some of which Gaye keeps to spin into yarn. Recently I helped Michael round up the sheep for their annual shearing.
“The sheep are really nutty,” he warned me. “They’re Finns, a Finnish breed, and we got them because their fleece is good for spinning, but they like to jump around a lot.”
The shearer told Gaye off. “You should have got nice, quiet Romneys,” he said, because he’s the one who has to wrestle them to the ground to get the fleece off them.
I hid behind the chicken shed while Michael chased the sheep up the field. There were ten of them, all rams. When they got close, Michael called to me to come out of my hiding place. “Wave your arms so they can see you!” I wondered if I just looked like a blob in the landscape to the sheep, indistinguishable from the gorse bushes. I raised and lowered my arms and the sheep stopped in their tracks. They looked at me then turned their heads and looked back at Michael, uncertain. I moved ever so slightly and they bolted back down the field.
We resumed our starting positions. I edged out from behind the chicken shed like a table football goalkeeper when the sheep came my way. They weren’t getting past me.
I waved my arms again but the sheep were bolder this time. They looked for ways round me.
“Make a noise!” Michael called to me.
When Michael makes a noise to chivvy along the sheep, he claps his hands, bangs sticks together, makes a harsh, staticky-sounding kshkshksh noise in his throat or yells, “Come on you bloody idiots!”
This is what I did: I looked at the sheep and I said, “Not this way,” shaking my head, as though I could reason with them. I didn’t even say it that loudly. I just assumed that the sheep at the front would relay my message to the rest of the flock.
Just for a moment, I thought I had them. Then one at the front leapt up in the air, all four legs kicking out as if to clear an imaginary fence, and raced past me. The rest bounded along after him.
Finally we got the sheep over the bridge and through the next two gates into the pen. The pen is divided into three enclosures. We got the rams in one and the ewes in another. Then, disaster. We heard a metallic clash as one of the rams threw himself at the gate and managed to squeeze through the gap where it didn’t quite meet the gate post. He quickly became lost amongst the ewes.
I pointed to a sheep that I thought had a manly looking face. “Is it that one?”
Michael shook his head.
“How about that one peeing on the ground?” That seemed like an uncouth, male thing to do.
“No, that’s a ewe.”
Right enough, the way it bobbed its bum and bowed its legs a bit to pee should have been a giveaway.
“How about that one there?” I pointed to a sheep with a pendulous mass quivering on its underside.
“No, I thought that too,” Michael said, “but it’s just a ewe with a fat belly.”
He waded through the sheep, lifting up their tails, searching for the one out-of-place ram. Sometimes one of the sheep would startle and run crazily round in the pen before leaping up to land on the backs of the other sheep.
“See what I mean? Nutty.”
Michael searched and searched and searched but could not find the ram. Eventually he concluded that his first count had been wrong and he actually had twelve ewes, not eleven, and one had just been misfiled with the rams. Indeed this proved to be the case. After the sheep had been shorn it was clear that none of the twelve ewes had an unexpected appendage.
Shortly after returning the freshly shorn sheep to their paddocks, three of the rams bounded over electric fences to join the ewes. At least now it was very easy to spot which of the sheep were the interlopers.