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           Home >  Regions  > Northland  :

August On Our Lifestyle Block
Written and illustrated by Zela Charlton - 07/09/01

There are daffodils out around the house - and I have just had the first chimney fire for years. This seems to sum up the strange mix of seasons in August.

The daffodils are naturalised; that is, I threw some of the bulbs that I had had in carefully tended beds around the house out into a wild bit of grass and weeds and some of them grew and multiplied. They will come up too early though, and get beaten down by the storms that are inevitable at this time of the year. But they persist, and for a very short time I enjoy them.

The fire was due to the electricity crisis. In order to save my ten percent (in an already very power conscious house!) we have had our Kent fire burning over-time, and as we had cut down a dead gum tree last year, that is the wood we have been burning. There may be an oily residue in this wood that accumulated in the chimney. It was very dramatic and the firemen were very helpful.

For next winter we will cut down one of the poplars as that wood seems to burn well. That is one of the things that is different when you have a small farm. You do not just think a month or two ahead, but plan years ahead even with things like firewood, and plant trees for future winters.

Winter continues in Town - but for the life-style-blocker it is now really Spring and of course Spring means lambs - if you have sheep, that is, and many of us have opted for at least a few sheep. After all, for many of us animals are what it is all about, not just gardening on a bigger scale.

One of our first purchases was a pen of six ewes, and even now, many years later, there are still four of their descendants keeping down the grass in the orchard. They are very privileged animals, confident and trustful, knowing the routine of their days and even of the year, walking to the right pen for their shearing sessions. I no longer consider sheep to be stupid animals; they just need a bit of time to think problems through and, like myself, they get flustered if someone shouts at them or a dog rushes around confusingly.

Our first lambing was very traumatic. We had poured over the diagrams in the books, learning that the lambs should present both front legs together for an easy normal delivery, and we were appalled at the instructions as to how to insert fingers to find legs that were turned back, or heads that were twisted sideways. Happily the first ewes knew what they were doing and all but one simply produced their babies without us even being there. The one we did witness seemed to need comfort more than physical assistance, and we were there on our knees, murmuring encouragement but making very poor midwives.

I know that lambing takes place earlier or later depending on the region, but we had the whole thing worked out quite simply. My youngest son's birthday is on March 17. My birthday is August 15. We put the ram in with the ewes on my son's birthday and were ready for the lambs on my birthday.....

Of course August in Northland is often marked by gales and heavy rain and above everything, mud. Like human babies it appeared that lambs would decide to be born in the night, and we have clear memories of walking round the paddocks with a torch that could hardly penetrate the driving rain, peering under the hedges for a slightly whiter blob that might be a ewe in difficulty. We used to make a final inspection round last thing before going to bed. One very nasty night, I was the one delegated to this task. It was my turn, and of course we had a very equal partnership. I got up under the macrocarpa trees, where I knew there was a ewe who often had a problem birth. Seeing me, she lumbered to her feet and fell over again. I knew that I should get hold of her and see if she was in fact lambing and needed help, so I approached quietly. She got up to run, and I seized hold in a slightly unorthodox fashion; we were both wet, the ground was slippery with mud, and we finished up rolling on the ground, till we ended up, me on my back with the sheep upside down, on top of me. At that point I had a vision of how absurd it must look and began to laugh. When my husband arrived to see what was happening and shone his torch on my face I think he was alarmed at the bizarre sight and sounds. The ewe was fine and I went back to have a nice hot bath.

We were very inexperienced about most things at the beginning. The first year with lambs was, as always, very wet and we were concerned that the lambs were getting cold and we had no shelter for them. So in the evening we drove the little flock round into the garden and into our garage under the house. It was a double garage, and we had put some hay bales to divide it off so that there was a nice smallish pen for the sheep. We had not thought it through - what townies we were! The ewes were upset and animals when upset defecate and urinate liberally. The lambs were not very upset, but they did not realise that they were supposed to stay in the confines of the hay bales and jumped up so that they could go and play around the car, lose their mothers and bleat loudly. We retired upstairs. Wet sheep have a particular pungent smell, and after a short time we wrinkled our noses as the aroma spread through the house. It gave us a better understanding of those peasant farmers all round the world who live above their animals and enjoy the heat they generate. We did not need the heat and the smell was indescribable. We felt very silly and it took us several days to clear up the mess and get rid of the smell. We never tried that experiment again, but our farming neighbours somehow got to know about the event and had a good few laughs at our expense.

When you only have a few animals one of the problems is to remain a bit detached - not easy, but essential. Animal welfare does not mean being soft (as we had been in the garage incident) but in being responsible and accepting that these animals are not pets, but have a function. Sheep provide wool - but they also provide meat, and unless you sell or kill them for the table you would soon be overstocked. More about that another time.

So - Spring lambs mean something quite different for me these days - we no longer have lambs and I miss the fun of watching them play king of the castle or form a little gang in the evening to race around the paddock and annoy their mothers. I do not miss those dark wet nights, though, or the kneeling in the mud with my hand inside an ewe, trying to decide which bit of a lamb I have got hold of.

But soon we will have fluffy little chicks and goslings to enjoy.

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