New Zealand: A sheep station (and mussel lagniappe)

March 29, 2017 • 11:30 am

Yesterday Don MacKay and I were invited to a “sheep station” (the word “ranch” isn’t used here) to tag along with a bunch of American wine buyers visiting New Zealand to sample the local sauvignon blancs and pinots. Don and his wife Karen are long-time friends of the station’s owners, Paul and Muff Newton, and the Newton’s big station, which goes way up into the hills, is called Kaituna Ridges. While the link says it has 5000 Romney sheep, it’s more like 8000 after lambing season. There are about three sheep for every person in New Zealand (about 4 million people).

The wine buyers were given a visit to the station as lagniappe (and, I suppose, to give them a taste of local culture in hopes that they’d buy more wine!), but we were allowed to see the demonstrations too and even have tea and scones. It was two hours or so of great fun.

Here’s part of the station. Paul and Muff’s property, and the areas grazed by their Romney sheep, go way up into the hills. The anmals roam freely, eating the grass, and are collected by using a combination of a four-wheeled motorcycle and a passel of working sheepdogs.

It was warm yesterday, and sheep congregated in the shade:

There are about a half-dozen working dogs on the station. The black and white ones are the New Zealand equivalent of border collies: smart, active, and good at following whistled commands to round up sheep. Their legs are longer than border collies as they have to run long distances uphill, and have been bred for that. Care is taken not to overwork the dogs.

There are also a couple of larger brown dogs that not only chase the sheep, but are trained to bark, also on whistle command. The barking scares the bejeesus out of the sheep and make them run fast to the station or paddock. The combination of the barkers and “round-up” dogs make bringing the sheep in very efficient. And it has to be when you have 8,000 sheep!

Paul with one of his dogs, which he secured between his legs.

Muff did a swell demonstration, using a small plastic whistle, whose sound carries great distances, to call in a bunch of sheep. Someone asked her how many calls she could make, and she had no idea, but they can make a dog do anything. Further, the calls are dog-specific: they can be issuing commands to three dogs at a time, all working a group of sheep, and each dog knows which command is for him. I have no idea how this is done, but it does work, as you can see:

The sheep were collected from a great distance and brought to us in a compact pack. The whistle tells each dog whether to run round the flock clockwise or counterclockwise. This is an amazing demonstration of human/animal mutualism, though what the dogs get out of it I’m not sure! (It’s exercising their genetic imperative.) It’s impressive to watch how a dog can corral a lone sheep that escapes the pack and bring it back to the group.


We were then treated to a demonstration of sheep shearing by Paul, who began life as a shearer.  Each shearer, and they hire six during shearing season, brings his own moccasins (to avoid injuring the sheep, as you hold them with your feet), as well as his own shearing head to cleave the wool.

The sheep come in through a door one at a time and, I must say, are handled rather roughly. Time is of the essence as there are so many sheep. A good shearer can do a sheep in about 2.5 minutes, but there are contests and records, which includes over 600 sheep shorn by one man in 8 hours, or about one sheep every 48 seconds! It’s hard work, and professional shearers go from station to station, moving between New Zealand and Australia.

It begins:


The flank:

Front leg and belly:

Under the head:

Done! A denuded sheep (a thin layer of wool is left):

The wool from one sheep:

A close-up: the wool from these sheep is curly, forming little spirals:

Muff spins the wool into thread and then knits it into lovely caps and scarves. Sometimes she makes a thread of wool mixed with possum fur, which makes for a very soft fabric.

Some sheep, like Merinos, which have very fine wool, are shorn with shears. Here are instructions for taking care of your shears:

Havelock, the nearest large town to the MacKay’s house, is famous as the Green Mussel Capital of the WORLD. New Zealand green-lipped mussels (Perna canicula) are farmed in the nearby bays but processed in Havelock. The local tourist office has three friendly green mussels in front. ‘

Green-lipped mussels are large (not as large as the ones below!) and delicious.

Here I am in front of the town sign:

We went out for a mussel dinner on Tuesday night. This is the best place to get them, and also has a good selection of local craft beer. Here are Karen and Don, with all of us ready to tuck in:

We started with a dozen fancy Bluff oysters, just coming into season.

Don had a dozen slightly broiled mussels with four different toppings. See how large they are?

Here’s my dinner: a dozen green-lips steamed with wine and butter, served with fries, garlic mayo, and a good brew. They were terrific, and a dozen were enough for dinner after the oyster starter. The green lips are clearly visible.

A male mussel (females are orange as they have roe). It’s a substantial bite.

Each New Zealand town has a monument to its young men who died in World Wars I and II, many in Gallipoli. In World War I, the Kiwis fought together with the Aussies in the ANZAC alliance: the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.

Havelock has two famous sons, both of whom left New Zealand to make their names in science. One is William Pickering, an aerospace engineer who, in the U.S., designed guidance systems for both ballistic missiles and spacecraft. He’s commemorated near the war memorial.

William Pickering (who was on two Time Magazine covers)

The other, more famous, is Ernest Rutherford, the physicist who won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. His achievements were many and legendary; here’s a precis from Wikipedia:

In early work, Rutherford discovered the concept of radioactive half-life, proved that radioactivity involved the nuclear transmutation of one chemical element to another, and also differentiated and named alpha and beta radiation. This work was done at McGill University in Canada. It is the basis for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry he was awarded in 1908 “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”, for which he is the first Canadian and Oceanian Nobel laureate, and remains the only laureate born in the South Island.

Rutherford moved in 1907 to the Victoria University of Manchester (today University of Manchester) in the UK, where he and Thomas Royds proved that alpha radiation is helium nuclei. Rutherford performed his most famous work after he became a Nobel laureate. In 1911, although he could not prove that it was positive or negative, he theorized that atoms have their charge concentrated in a very small nucleus, and thereby pioneered the Rutherford model of the atom, through his discovery and interpretation of Rutherford scattering by the gold foil experiment of Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. He conducted research that led to the first “splitting” of the atom in 1917 in a nuclear reaction between nitrogen and alpha particles, in which he also discovered (and named) the proton.

Ernest Rutherford

41 thoughts on “New Zealand: A sheep station (and mussel lagniappe)

  1. What the herding dogs get out of herding is pretend predation. Dogs are predators, a trained Border Collie or sheep dog has had the completion of predatory thinking bred and trained out of them so that they chase but do not kill. They are allowed, I think,to nip but not draw blood, at heels. They accomplish much with a look, a hard stare at a sheep. They are a wonder – for stamina and biddability . They are not for everybody – quite intense and must have a job. Read The Shepherd’s Life byJames Rebanks (England, not NZ). Great book, about a lot more than sheep and dogs. PS For dog people: From NZ, lamb jerky dog treats/food available here “Ziwi Peak”. (Sorry, JC, if I cross a line here – Cats might like them, too! ; – )))

    1. The desire for action and the intelligence of border collies is legendary. My wifes’ border collie/springer spaniel mix was the smartest dog I had known. We had to fairly continually spell words in front of her b/c she would listen and know that we were going out. After a time, even spelling did not work.

    2. The d*gs are trained to be either “heading” d*gs or “huntaways”. Heading dogs are eye d*gs and achieve the round up by using their stare. Huntaways bark.

      When you go to Rotorua Jerry, I recommend a trip to the Agrodome.

        1. It does, but it’s been around longer than the movies so you could say Thunderdome sounds a bit sheepish! 😀

  2. Mmmmm muscles. I don’t think I’ve had the green lipped kind but I had some gathered fresh from a beach in NZ and done with a yummy curry sauce.

    1. My favourite is marinated mussels. I chop them up and mix them with chopped red onion and seafood dressing, then put the mixture in a croissant or fresh bread roll for lunch. Delicious!

    2. They’re really excellent, and we’re able to get them frozen here in Pittsburgh so you should be able to find them in Canadia too.

  3. The Geiger, Marsden, Rutherford experiment always strikes me as one of the best lab experiments ever. At the start of the day, the atom was just a fuzzy blob of some sort in the eyes of the world. By the end of the day, they have calculated from the scattering angles, observed directly in microscopes on a phosphor screen, that most of the atom’s mass must be concentrated in a nucleus at the center. Discovering such a tiny and crucial detail of the structure of matter was a great day for science.

    1. One thing Gerry didn’t note from the Rutherford monument was how close he came to missing the scholarship that got him to Nelson College (secondary school). If I recall correctly there was only one but a second student who was most likely to win was unable to sit the exams.

  4. What a brilliant post, Jerry! An animal/human mutualism (absolutely, the dogs are fulfilling an artificially selected imperative), a demonstration of professional sheep-shearing, a delicious-looking mussel species I haven’t yet tasted, and a synopsis of a brilliant nuclear physicist! Previous posts regarding Keas were excellent too, especially the tidbit that avacado is poisonous to these birds. Would love to know what compounds don’t agree with it. Happy further travels!

    1. Yes, brilliant, as Mr Turner recounts, Dr Coyne. Shearing time is mighty interesting including those massive amounts of lanolin to the shearers’ upper extremities.

      ‘cept now ? Consider me, now, officially jealous cuz thus: “They were terrific, and a dozen were enough for dinner after the oyster starter.” (And I so do not at all like being jealous of A Thing. But, truly, those exact noms be it.)

      I am fairly certain that that specific municipality just today made it onto my Yet – To – Get – Done Bucket List.


  5. Working dogs are just a great thing to see and experience. I honestly don’t think some bird hunters would do it if not for the dogs, as that is the real sport in it.

    Really great post to get a better look at NZ.

    1. Dog trialling, where someone gets his/her dog to round up a small number of sheep (usually 3-4 – it’s harder with a small number), get them over/through etc obstacles, and into a pen is a sport in NZ.

      1. The most impressive trial I have seen is “sheep splitting”, where there are 2 dogs & 2 pens, and half the sheep have to go into each pen.
        I did once see an absolutely Bolshie sheep, which just stared back at the dog: “Remember, there are people watching, so don’t even think of biting me”. The poor dog couldn’t budge him at all.

        1. Yeah, that is impressive. I haven’t seen it live, but I’ve seen it on TV.

          I saw a Bolshie sheep once where the d*g and one sheep got into a staring contest too. The sheep even stamped its foot a couple of times like it was going to charge. I think it was a cryptorchid (male with only one testicle removed instead of both) so you would expect it to be more aggressive. The dog won in that case eventually though.

  6. Rutherford was mentor to more Nobel winners than any other scientist ever. I doubt that that will ever be surpassed.

    1. I like to think that Geiger was inspired to invent his famous radiation detector by the gold foil experiment. He and Marsden had to spend hours looking at a tiny fluorescent screen through a microscope’s eyepiece for hours on end and manually count radiation events. Geiger’s detector automated this.

  7. I’m surprised that the sheep are unaware of their numerical and size advantage over the d*gs and have not used it against them.

    1. There’s a black comedy movie called ‘Black Sheep’ where the sheep take control. I think it’s hilarious, but some people say they can never look at a sheep the same way again.

      1. It is utterly hilarious. And no, it’s not a film to watch before walking through sheep country. [Jaws’ theme]

  8. Get yourself a possum fur and wool beanie while you are there, you’ll love it next winter. My son bought me one back – it’s great.

  9. There are sheep and wool festivals here in the US that feature sheep dog trials. Very interesting to see up close, and the dogs are impressive.

    The festivals also feature sheep shearers, and I watched one shear a sheep with hand shears, and IIRC it only took about 2 minutes. I believe they keep the sheep on their backs to immobilize them; the sheep don’t seem to mind too much. My impression has mostly been that sheep aren’t too smart.

    The coat of wool shorn off the sheep is called the fleece. As one of the photos shows, it’s dirty, and so the wool has to be washed and combed before it can be spun. The curling in the locks of wool is called ‘crimp’, and it gives spun wool yarn some elasticity. Some sheep breeds have been bred to have more crimp in their wool. And the photo showing wool spinning – what she’s spinning is a ply (strand) of yarn, rather than a thread.

    For those who are interested, the big Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is the first weekend in May, and it’s located about an hour west of Baltimore.

  10. I remember watching a “Time Team” (*footnote) episode – I forget which muddy field it was set in – where the inimitable Phil Harding pulled half a set of Roman-era shears out of the mud which were practically identical to the ones depicted here. A very stable design.
    For those distressed by the d*g-worshipping, a little antidote. Though if you’re going to fawn over a d*g, collies in general are probably not a bad breed to deign to fawn over.
    *footnote “Time Team” : UK TV series of 3-day archaeological evaluation digs ; 14 series IIRC, ca 250 programmes. Single-trowel-edly responsible for a large expansion in study of archaeology in the UK. Frontman was the comic actor Tony “Baldric” Robinson.

    1. That show sounds very interesting. I’ll have to see if I can find any episodes available to stream.

      1. I’d be surprised if there weren’t any, but the monsters of copyright infringement lurk that way.
        Box sets – took me a few seconds on Amazon. Probably best to start with renting a “best of” to see if you like it.

  11. There was once an effort, that seems to have come to naught, to render sheep shearers obsolete by administering a dose of (IIRC) a hormone that would cause the hair follicles to contract in synchrony, so that the wool could then be pulled off by hand.

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