Sheep – Rattle your dags!

Yes, there are lots of sheep in New Zealand. Not as many as there once were but still lots of sheep.

new-zealand-sheep-farm-700-- Sheep are found on both the North and South Islands. They dot the hillsides. They gather in flocks. You see them being herded. You see them walking around forlorn and bare after they’re sheared. In the spring, you see the new lambs trailing around behind their mothers. You hear them ‘baaa’. Sheep are all over.

The ancient ancestors of New Zealand’s sheep first roamed the earth 250,000 years ago in Europe and Asia. They were wild, agile creatures that could readily flee from predators, not the docile white fluffy things we see now. Sheep were first domesticated around 9000 BC, and over time, they were bred to become smaller than their wild counterparts, and to have more wool than hair—yes, there is a difference. Further domestication progressed under the Greeks and Romans with sheep providing meat and milk for food and wool for weaving.

New Zealand’s sheep originally came from Britain.

There are dozens of different breeds of sheep in the New Zealand sheep lexicon. Are you familiar with the Merino, the Lincoln, the English Leicester, the Corriedale or the Halfbred? How about the Southdown, the Romney Marsh, the New Zealand Romney, the Coopworth or the Perendale?

If not, don’t worry. Read on.

Two Merino sheep, a breed noted for its fine fleece, were the first sheep to be introduced into New Zealand by—yes, that’s right—Captain Cook on his second voyage. Unfortunately, the two sheep died a few days later, and it wasn’t until 1834 that the first proper breeding group of Merino was imported near Wellington.

Merino with lambs (1)

Merino with lambs (1)

Despite some success, Merinos were found to be ill suited for wetter areas in New Zealand, and two other breeds, Lincolns and English Leicesters, were introduced. By the second half of the 19th century, these breeds had been crossbred to produce two new unique New Zealand sheep breeds, the Corriedale and the Halfbred.

Two other breeds introduced from England, the Southdown and the Romney Marsh, grew in popularity, the latter eventually to become its own breed, the New Zealand Romney, which by the 1960s accounted for 75% of the national flock.

New Zealand Romney

New Zealand Romney (2)

In the 1950s and 1960s two other cross breeds, the Coopworth and the Perendale, were introduced. These also gained in popularity. In the 1990s still other breeds were introduced.

From 1856 to 1987, sheep were the most important agricultural industry in New Zealand, with a particular surge occurring after 1882 when it became possible to ship frozen meat. The heyday of the sheep industry in New Zealand was probably in the years after World War II when Britain was willing to buy all the meat and wool New Zealand was able to produce, and New Zealand was only too happy to accommodate them.

In the 1970s both the higher price of oil and the increased use of synthetic fibers hurt the sheep industry. Since the 1980s dairy has generally become a more cost-effective use of land and consequently sheep numbers have fallen.

Sheep numbers peaked in 1982 at 70 million, which at that time worked out to 22 sheep for each person in New Zealand. Currently there are only 30 million sheep, a little less than 7 sheep per person.

The sheep industry remains in decline, and with meat contributing almost 90% of the net return for sheep in New Zealand, as opposed to wool.

Sheep are shorn once or twice a year depending on the type of sheep. This is done by shearing gangs who specialize in this work. Who can shear the most sheep in a set amount of time? Sheep shearing records abound. These vary depending on the type of sheep as well as whether the record is for a single shearer or a team of two or more. As an aside, in sheep shearing contests, participants are given time off for meals and a thirty-minute break in the morning and in the afternoon for a ‘smoko’, an Australian and New Zealand term for a short work break.

world shearing records- shearing for 8 Hour Records-1

Shorn fleece is placed on tables where it is sorted, weighed, graded and them made into wool bales. The wool is then transported to scouring plants—there are six in New Zealand—where the wool is thoroughly cleaned, after which most of it is shipped away, being eventually used for carpets, knitwear and other apparel.

But enough of all this, let’s get on with the fun stuff . . . What are sheep like and what’s it like to have sheep around? At least where we live, we only need to walk a few minutes to be walking amidst sheep.

First, it is said that sheep are intelligent with good memories. I guess all these things are relative.

“Remember that time we ate that grass on that hillside a few weeks back?”

“Oh, yeah, now that was some good grazing, yes it was.” IMG_1333

Vision— sheep have eyes on the sides of their heads, which gives them wide range of vision but they can also focus both eyes forward with a narrow range of binocular vision. The biggest thing I’ve noticed with sheep is that when you get up close to them, they will lift their head and give you this quasi-startled look, a who-the-heck-are-you-look. It’s as if they have never seen anything as strange as you in their whole life. Even though people have been passing to and fro all day every day, each time it’s like they’re seeing humans for the first time and don’t know what to make of us. Or sometimes they will just stand there chewing their cud with this bored-looking disinterested look on their faces as they look at you.

What are you looking at?

We like to keep together and follow each other—what’s the big deal?

It’s also said that sheep can’t see above their heads. Well, I can’t either. That’s why I’m susceptible to be clunked over the head with large sticks or rocks or having pianos fall on my head.

Hearing is very important to sheep. They don’t like high-pitched noises. They don’t like dogs barking or people shouting (Americans!); if you have to talk, low volume is preferred.

Sheep have a better sense of smell than we do . . . by hey, doesn’t every animal.

Sheep exhibit what’s called ‘following behavior’. They tend to follow each other. If one moves away, others will tend to go in that direction—well, like sheep. They also exhibit flocking behavior. By staying in a flock or group, animals can face in all directions and watch for predators. I’ve heard it said that you can observe this when you attempt to harass them in a remote pasture when no one is around. First, if you get too close to any individual sheep, it will flee and usually try to make its way around to rejoin the main bunch. If you harass a whole group of sheep, they will run a short distance, and then often form into a flock and then turn around and face you, waiting to see if whatever it is that is after them (in this case, you) is still coming.

They are also fast. One of Rebecca’s goals in coming to New Zealand was to hold and pet a sheep. So far, no such luck. She did try to run one down and grab it in a remote pasture once but the contest wasn’t even close. The particular sheep looked more bemused than concerned.

As an interesting piece of Kiwi trivia, the phrase “rattle your dags” is a colloquism for “hurry up” or “get moving”. Dags are the dried excrement hanging from the wool at the rear end of a sheep, and rattling them would refer to when the sheep is running, hence the phrase.

Rattle your dags! (well, you get the idea) (4)

Rattle your dags! (well, you get the idea) (4)

The lambs are cute. Things are generally timed so that the lambs are born in the spring when the grass is at its best, and this is when you’ll hear the most “baaaing” going on. Sheep vocalizations, technically called ‘bleats’, are made primarily between ewes and their lambs. After only about a day after birth both a ewe and its lamb can recognize the distinctive bleat of each other. This is really quite amazing because at least to me, all the “baaaas” sound more or less the same. But no, a tiny lamb will become separated from its mother. The lambs are funny in this way. They seem to wander off at a particular age, seeming to forget they have mothers or that they need them. Then the lamb will suddenly look up and seem to remember, “Hey, where am I?” or “Where is she?!” and give out a little wailful bleat—“baaa”. No response. It will baaa some more looking around with its little worried lamb eyes. Eventually some low-pitched baaa will answer from across the hill and the lamb will go running off back to its mother.

IMG_1809IMG_1808 Sometimes it is the other way around. The mother will lose track of her lamb(s) or want them to follow. She emits a low pitched ‘baaaaaa’ and the lambs will return or follow her. And like with much of life, there seems to be no hardship which mothers won’t put up with for their offspring. Often when reunited with their mothers, the lambs (some of them can be quite large after a few weeks) forcefully attack the mother’s udder butting it with their heads virtually lifting the mother’s hindquarters off the ground.

It’s fun having sheep around. Sheep are in great part what give New Zealand its pastoral, idyllic quality: lush green hillsides dotted with white sheep under a royal blue sky with a smattering of puffy white clouds. Makes you want to just lie down in the thick grass under one of the giant trees and take it all in. That’s New Zealand.  

1) Birthday socks, birthday gnomes…www.mooseyscountrygarden.com600 × 410Search by image ‪2) Romney Sheep breeding stock – New Zealand Romney Sheep for salewww.highcountryromneys.com492 × 359Search by image 3) New Zealand Sheep Farm – Photo of Canterbury New Zealand at KiwiWis × 461Search by image 4) Rattle your dags!! | Photo www.travelblog.org600 × 399Search by image


5 thoughts on “Sheep – Rattle your dags!

  1. Looks like you got up close to the baby – was ‘mom’ okay with this photo? These guys, ‘dags’ and all are really cute!!

  2. Oh such sweet faces…. Does NZ have ‘open ranges’ for the sheep ? …Or were you trespassing on someone’s sheep ranch ?

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