tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

Mostly for pundrigion

OK so the other day I mentioned in passing that the different terrain and sizes of farms and numbers of sheep had affected the way we handle them here in NZ, which has in turn affected the way we identify them, and also the types of dog we use to work them. And someone asked for enlargement on that topic.

I am not sure she knows what a can of worms she's opened.

Basically, sheep and sheepdogs are my first love (after horses) and I'm a bit of a geek about them. I spent a fair chunk of time in my 20s and early 30s mucking about on farms with sheepdogs, and at one point I had a team of 6 dogs. I say 'team' loosely and I'm pretty sure that some of the folks I worked for would refer to them more as a rabble. However, it's true that for a while my livelihood depended almost entirely on the vagaries of sheepdogs. Oddly enough, this makes you keenly interested in them. I take pleasure in sharing that interest. So, here you go:

Just as an aside, I hate the word 'pommy'. It was used against me a lot as a kid, and not in a nice way. Call this a reclamation.

Right then, so the biggest difference between the UK and here is the size of the farms. There, I understand that farms tend to be between 300 acres and 1000. Here, 300 acres is not commercially viable for farming sheep. I hesitate to suggest an average size for a sheep farm, but most are over 1300 acres, many are in the 5000-10000 range, and we have a number of places that are anywhere between 20000 and 100000. And several over that size too. Glenaray, Molesworth, and Ngamatea spring to mind off the top of my head. So yeah, vast tracts of land.

Another thing that's different is that common grazing is not all that common here. I believe that in the UK, a farmer has their own farm, and then there's the shared bit on the hills, and in summer people let their sheep go up there and they mix and mingle with others and in the autumn when they're brought in again, they are separated and taken back to their individual home farms, where they are housed and cared for quite individually.

So British sheep tend to be in smaller flocks, on common ground and often mixed up with other people's flocks, and fairly tame. When the time comes to separate them, it's done 'on the hill' - ie, out in the paddock using dogs. You can get close enough to the sheep to do this, and this has led to the development of dogs that work the sheep close in to the person, using 'eye' to hold them in place and calm them. This video is a demo, you wouldn't normally have this many dogs or try to do this trick with them, but it gives an idea of how British dogs work - close contact and with fairly tame sheep.

And here is a video of a red border collie actually shedding sheep (separating them) on the hill. You can see that dog and person work together to separate the ones they want, and drive them away from the main mob. It's not easy to do, but you can see how it'd be easier with a small flock like this than driving them all the way home and then taking each separated group back to its individual farm.

This almost never happens in New Zealand, because a) the mobs are bigger, b) the distances are greater, and c) we don't have common grazing that necessitates this kind of sorting in the same way. Instead, we're dealing with mobs of often several hundred sheep at a time, and it's likely that unless there is a problem with the fencing, they all belong to the same person. We do have mountain stations with no boundary fence because the boundaries are above the snowline and fences don't last. Usually the boundary is a ridge or natural barrier, and occasionally sheep do cross these, but generally only in small numbers and these tend to either get swapped back by truck, or just swapped since neighbours are likely to end up with as many of each other's sheep, and it's only a tiny percentage of the total number so not worth the hassle.

Anyway, so what do we do instead? In New Zealand, sheep are brought in to a set of yards for handling. Most farms have a home set where the woolshed is, and if the farm is big enough, there may be outlying yards as well, so you don't have to bring the sheep as far for handling. So the job of the dogs is to round up the sheep from whatever area of land they're grazing on (anything from 50 acres to 10,000 acres), and put them in a yard. There is very little close-up handling of sheep in the open.

Because of this, the sheepdogs need to be able to run long distances and shift large numbers of sheep. The NZ equivalent of the border collie is leaner and longer-legged, generally with a short coat. These traits allow it to work hard on hot days, run for miles, and not have a thick coat that gets tangled in scrub while overheating the poor dog. A comparison:

British border collie:

NZ heading dog:

So we have these lean whippety little heading dogs to gather the sheep. A good one will work almost unsupervised from over a mile away, quietly gathering the sheep together and bringing them back to their owner. But they have a disadvantage in that they can only handle sheep that can see them, because they are silent. So kiwis developed another type of dog - a big, noisy one called a huntaway:

Typical NZ Huntaway:

This dog is a mongrelly cross of a bunch of different breeds, including labrador, border collie, lurchers and in some cases bloodhound (for the noise). These days it's a breed in its own right that breeds pretty true to type. Huntaways can clear large areas of country by barking their head off and making all the sheep move away from it. They are also dead handy for when the heading dogs have brought a bunch of sheep to you, and you then need to take them somewhere. The noise of the huntaways is good for getting big mobs moving.

Here is a short video demonstrating the two types of kiwi working dogs in action:

Other things that kiwi dogs are asked to do that you probably don't see much of in Britain include using heading dogs to 'tuck in' a mob of sheep that's hesitating at a gate - they basically float around the edges of the mob, not letting them move away from the gate, until one or two go through. Then they proceed to keep pushing gently at the back until all the sheep have gone through. It says something that this guy doesn't get out of his truck until close to the end.

Also, that barking is coming from the back of the truck where he'll have a couple of dogs tied up - not from the heading dog.

And once the sheep are in the yards, the huntaway comes into its own again, to really push the sheep through the yards. Sometimes you have to fit several thousand sheep in a yard, and one way to get them to bunch up enough to do this is to send a huntaway running across their backs up to the front of the mob. This causes them to rush forward in a wave, and then when the dog drops off their backs and runs back to the owner through the mob, the sheep will run past it to the front and bunch up there, making room for more sheep at the back. Here's a video of huntaways backing in a sale yard:

Once the sheep are all contained in the yard, whatever needs doing is done. If it's drafting, they are run through a special gate one by one and split into separate yards, which you can see in this video along with another backing huntaway:

(no i don't know why there's a cow in this mob)

It's much easier to spot the sheep to be drafted by an earmark than it is to see a painted mark on their side in this situation. So kiwi sheep generally have two earmarks, which gives you three pieces of information:

1 The owner (a particular shaped mark that indicates whose sheep it is)
2. Gender (the owner's mark goes in the left ear for ewes, the right ear for males)
3. Age - there is a standard set of placements that rotate around the ear, that will tell you what year the sheep was born (bearing in mind here that in NZ it's common to cull sheep at 5 years old):

These marks are visible as the sheep comes down the drafting race, and you can then sort them up to three ways. Other identifications that can be used if necessary include different colours sprayed on the topknot, or if you want to mark an animal for culling when out in the paddock (say you've found a flystruck one and treated it, but want to cull it next time they're in the yards) it's common to remove the tip of their ear with a knife so the owner's mark is gone.

So to summarise, the large mobs and distances involved have led to sheep being brought in as rarely as possible. Thus they are quite wild and much more easily handled in yards. This has led to a different system of marking ownership, and also to a completely different type of working dog to deal with the conditions.

And because no post about sheepdogs is complete without it, here is a picture of my wee dog First:

She was a NZ heading dog, the only one in my team I couldn't bear to part with when I moved to town. She was my best mate for 12 years and quite enjoyed the life of a town dog, but as far as sheepdogs go she did all right at that too. I've seen her take on rams four times her size and come off better. Because she was hardcore. Because NZ sheepdogs are. They have to be.
Tags: compare and contrast, i am a sheep geek, sheep, sheepdogs

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