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CHAPTER V.
    Working of a Sheep-Run--Scab—C——\'s Departure for Home, etc.

The intending squatter might either purchase a sheep run outright, if opportunity offered, or if he was fortunate enough to discover a tract of unclaimed country, he could occupy it at once by paying the Provincial Government a nominal rental, something like half a farthing an acre. This would only be the goodwill of the land, which was liable to be purchased outright by anybody else direct from Government, at the upset price fixed, which in Nelson was one pound per acre for hilly land, and two pounds for flat land suitable for cultivation. Nobody could purchase outright a run or portion of it while another occupier held the goodwill of it without first challenging the latter, who retained the presumptive right to purchase.

To protect themselves as much as possible from land being purchased away from them, or from being obliged to purchase themselves, goodwill holders were in the habit of buying up the best flat land, as well as making the land around their homesteads private property. A run so divided and cut up would not be so tempting to a rich man, and would effectually debar the man of small means, as the present occupier would not sell his private property unless at a price which would reimburse him for the loss of his interest in the goodwill of the run, and the new-comer, if he did not possess the scraps of private property as well as the remainder of the run, would be continually harassed by the previous owner occupying the best portions, and would be liable to fine for trespass, etc.

When a tract of country is occupied for the first time, it will usually be found covered with tussocks of grass scattered far apart and lying matted and rank on the ground. The first thing to do is to apply the match and burn all clean to the roots, and after a few showers of rain the grass will begin to sprout from the burnt stumps. Then the sheep are turned on to it, and the cropping, tramping, and manuring it receives, with occasional further burnings, renders it in a couple of years fair grazing country. An even sod takes the place of the isolated tussock, and the grass from being wild and unsavoury becomes sweet and tender.[Pg 26]

It takes, however, three to five years to transform a wild mountain side (if the land be moderately good) into an ordinarily fair sheep-run calculated to carry one sheep to every five acres—that is, of course, for the native or indigenous grass; the same ground cleared and laid down in English grass would carry three to five sheep to the acre.

A settler having obtained his run is bound by Government to stock it within a year with a stipulated number of sheep per 1,000 acres, failing which he forfeits his claim to possession. A man holding a fairly good run of 30,000 acres may feed from 3,000 to 4,000 sheep upon it, making due allowance for increase and disability to dispose of surplus stock.

The farming is conducted as follows: The flock is divided into two or more parts, in all cases the wethers being kept separate from the ewes and lambs, and occupying different portions of the run, the object being that the ewes and lambs may have rest, the wethers being liable to be driven in for sale or slaughter.

A shepherd is put in charge of each flock, and he resides at some convenient place on the boundary, whence it is his duty to walk or ride round his boundary at least once a day, and see that no sheep have crossed it. If he discovers tracks made during his absence he must follow them until he recovers his wanderers.

It is not necessary that a shepherd should see his sheep daily; he may not see a third of his flocks for months, unless he wishes to discover their actual whereabouts; he has only to assure himself that they have not left the run, and it is practically impossible for them to do so without leaving their footprints to be discovered on the boundary.

The breeding season is spring and the shearing season summer, which corresponds to our winter in England. The usual increase of lambs, if the ewes be healthy and strong, is 75 to 95 per cent. in about equal proportions of male and female.

When the lambs are about six weeks old the entire flock is driven in for cutting, tailing, and earmarking. The tails are cut off and the ear nicked or punched with the registered earmark of the station, and a certain number of the most approved male lambs are reserved. A good hand can cut and mark two thousand lambs per day, and not over one per cent. will die from the consequences. When the operation is over, the flock is counted out and handed over to the shepherd to take them back to their run until the shearing season.[Pg 27]

At this time a complete muster is made; all hands turn out on the hills, and every sheep is brought in that can be found. Not infrequently in the hilly country an exciting chase is had after a wild mob that have defied the exertions of the shepherds and their dogs for a considerable time. These animals will run up the most inaccessible places, skirt the edges of precipices at a height at which they can be discovered only by the aid of a telescope, and have been known to maintain their freedom in spite of man or dog for years. When at length caught they present a ludicrous appearance; their fleeces have become tangled and matted, hanging to the ground in ragged tails, and can with difficulty be removed, their feet have grown crooked and deformed, and they rarely again become domesticated with the flock.

The shearing is carried on in a large shed, divided into pens or small compartments, each connected separately with the attached yards. It is usually done by contract, the price being £1 to £1 5s. per hundred sheep. Each man has his pen, which is cleared out and refilled as often as necessary, and at each clearance the number therein are counted to his name. The shorn sheep are passed direct to the branding yard, and from thence to a common yard, from which all are counted out at nightfall for return to the run.

A good shearer will clip one hundred sheep in a day, the average for a gang of men being 75.

Upon the fleece being removed it is gathered up by an attendant placed for the purpose, and handed over to the sorter, who spreads it upon a table and removes dirty and jagged parts, and sometimes it is classed. It is then rolled up and thrown into the wool press to be packed for export.

The wool bales so pressed measure 9 ft. by 4 ft. by 4 ft., and contain on an average one hundred fleeces, and each fleece runs from three to four pounds in weight. The lambs\' wool is pressed separately, and commands a higher price than that of the adult sheep.

The hand press is a wooden box, made the size of the canvas bale, which is suspended therein by hooks from the open top; the box has a movable side, which is loosened out to give exit to the bale when pressed. The pressing is done by the feet, assisted by a blunt spade, and the bales are generally very creditably turned out, the sheep-farmer priding himself on a neatly pressed bale. When pressed the end is sewn up and the bale rolled over to a convenient place for branding, when it is ready for loading on the dray.[Pg 28]

Previous to shearing, the sheep are sometimes driven through a deep running stream and roughly washed, to remove sand and grease. Wool certified to have been so cleaned will command a higher price than unwashed wool.

At the time to which I refer, most of the runs in Nelson Province were "unclean"—that is, infected with scab; and it became so general that it was considered almost impossible to eradicate. The disease was most infectious. A mob of clean, healthy sheep merely driven over a run upon which infected sheep had recently fed would almost surely catch the disease.

A sheep severely infected with scab becomes a pitiful object. The body gets covered with a yellow scaly substance, the wool falls off or is rubbed off in patches, the disease causing intense itchiness, the animal loses flesh and appetite, and unless relieved sickens and dies.

The Nelson settlers, although they could not hope to speedily eradicate the pest, were nevertheless bound by the Provincial Government to adopt certain precautions against its spreading. Every station was provided with a scab yard and a tank in which the flocks were periodically bathed in hot tobacco water, and such animals as were unusually afflicted received special attention and hand-dressing. These arrangements strictly enforced proved successful to a great extent in keeping the disease in check.

Mr. Lee\'s run was scabby, although not so bad as some of his neighbour\'s, and the strictest precautions were observed to keep it as clean as possible.

Upon arrival at Highfield we had immediate opportunity to see for ourselves the most interesting part of the working of the run. The cutting season had just commenced, and the mustering and shearing would ere long follow.

My chum C—— was a particularly smart fellow at everything appertaining to this kind of life. He speedily picked up the routine, and made himself so generally valuable that Mr. Lee offered him the post of overseer, with £60 a year as a beginning, and all found. But C——, on the plea that the pay was too small, refused it. This was his great mistake, to refuse what ninety-nine men in a hundred would have jumped at in his circumstances! It would have been the first step on the ladder, and with his abilities and experience he had only to wait a certain time to become a partner. But his heart was not in the country, and nothing would reconcile him to remaining in it. Within two months of our coming to Highfield he determined to return home.[Pg 29]

This resolution being taken, nothing would shake it, and the day was fixed for his departure. He and I were badly suited I fear to work together, and had he had some other chum perhaps he might have agreed with the new life better, and turned out a successful colonist; for most certainly, although we were not able to see it at the time, he had eminent opportunities open to him for becoming one.

I rode twenty miles with him on his way to Christchurch. He was to stay the first night at a station twenty-five miles from Highfield. On the bank of the Waiou river we parted—we two chums who had come all the way from the Old Country to work and stick together. I thought it then hard of C——, although I had no right to expect him to stay in New Zealand in opposition to his own wishes and judgment to please me. As I watched him cross the river and presently disappear between the hills further on, a feeling of strange loneliness came over me. Well, I was not much more than a child!

I must have sat there ruminating for a considerable time, for when I came to myself it was dark, and I remembered that I was in an almost trackless region which I had passed through only once before in daylight, and in company, when we had a view of the hills to guide us, and that I was at least seven miles from the nearest station (Rutherford\'s), but of the exact direction of which I was not certain. However, I had been long enough in the country to have passed more than one night in the open air, and at the worst this could only happen again, and I was provided with a blanket strapped to my saddle. I was not, however, to be without bed or supper. I mounted my mare, which had been browsing beside me, and gave her her head—the wisest course I could have taken. After an hour\'s sharp walk I discovered lights in the distance, which soon after proved to be those of Rutherford\'s station, where I was most hospitably received.

Considerable astonishment was expressed at C——\'s—to them—unaccountably foolish action in throwing over, after two months\' trial, an opportunity which most men situated as he was would have worked for years to obtain.

C—— reached the Old Country in due time, resumed his small farm, married, had a large family, and died a poor man.

The following morning I returned to Highfield feeling myself a better man and more independent now that I had myself only to depend on.
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