We’ve tried to structure our farm year so that summer is a time of dormancy, maintaining the property, but avoiding too many big jobs in the heat. With an historic heatwave across southeastern Australia, and four consecutive days over 40 degrees for South Australia, we thought we’d make an exception to construct another shelter for our long-suffering sheep.
We pulled in at gate MH18, 50 metres from the summit of Mount Hayfield at the northern end of Mount Hayfield Road (off Springs Road, from Range Road). Through the pine plantations we could see flashes of sky and the brown paddocks stretching off to the north. It’s up in the highlands here, and where it’s not grazing land or forestry plantations, there’s still patches of native forest, the most significant of which is the Kalamunda Native Forest Reserve, part of the Second Valley Forest complex.
Continuing our research into the ecology of the Fleurieu, we’ve been looking for examples of what our own landscape might have looked like before clearing to help guide our regeneration efforts. Of the three local forest reserves, Kalamunda seemed like a good fit. Perched above Yankalilla, Kalamunda is a fragment of the kind of woodlands which were present across the Fleurieu.
It seems like summer comes sooner and sooner. Winter was short, and so dry that the dam never progressed beyond a puddle, then the sun was back, the grass grew for a moment then was baked dry again by an early heatwave. The northern faces of the hills turned a bleached gold, then quickly the green haze on the south sides followed. And we’re back, heading into the hot season again, settling into a holding pattern of heat and dormancy until the opening rains.
Tolstoy apparently called spring “the time of plans and projects”. Now a year into our sheep project, we’ve begun tweaking our grazing practices in an effort to manage our pasture more effectively. We’ve increased our flock size through both breeding and the acquisition of some hardy, desert-adapted damara sheep, brought in from a dusty paddock outside Nuriootpa to replace the ageing and increasingly delicate Wiltshire Horn matriarchs. The existing flock hasn’t exactly embraced the new arrivals, there’s plenty of bleating and foot-stomping. You could cut the tension with a knife when we pour out the sheep nuts. Among the damaras is Manchego, our new ram. Looking at Pecorino’s legacy, it’s clear he has big hooves to fill.
“The primary purpose of many small farms is to provide an opportunity for open spaces, fresh air, scenic landscape, privacy, peacefulness, or other unique qualities of rural life. Others are looking for a good place to raise a family … Others farm because they want to live close to nature; many are stewards of the land by choice, because stewardship gives purpose and meaning to their lives. For them, farming is an expression of spirituality.”
– John Ikerd
I wanted to read a memoir about women farming, as I often feel intimidated about participating in male-dominated farming in Australia. But in many ways it’s probably just the usual intimidation felt by city-dwellers feeling our way in completely new territory – it has certainly improved over time as we’ve made connections with local contractors, neighbours, shopkeepers and felt more part of the local community.
I came across this light memoir by Catherine Friend, about a female couple who run a 50 acre farm in Minnesota, USA (same size as ours!). They run about 50 sheep, as well as a menagerie of other animals, and sell their meat and wool commercially. Lambing season for them involves about 100 little white bundles sproinging around the place, which is my idea of heaven, including many bottle-fed lambs from ewes dropping twins, triplets, and quadruplets. Continue reading
After weeks of expecting a lamb at any moment, the season has begun with five dropping at once! Fathered by the late, great Damara x Dorper ram Pecorino (sheepish in all but his appetites, he came to an untimely end after over-doing it on lupins), these little crossbreeds have a distinct Damara bearing and appearance, with their floppy ears and dappled coats. While the alpacas typically have an adolescent aloofness, now that there are lambs about they’ve switched into vigilant mode, keeping a close eye on their young charges and leading the flock to water and fresh pasture.
After starting the flock with Wiltshire Horns, we found that this breed didn’t exactly relish our pre-treed (ie. open, windswept and exposed) environs, so we’ve started breeding the flock towards hardier, less selective grazers like the Dorper and Damara that also offer a yield in meat and hides. So with last year’s lambs being Wiltshire Horn x Dorper, these are all of the above, but mostly Dorper. As with virtually every aspect of this farming project, it’s an experiment!
Over the last couple of years we’ve assembled an impressive collection of woven polypropylene sacks. Typically used as bags for stock feed or pasture seed, in the spirit of Plastic-Free July, I thought it was time to put these single-use plastics to use and upcycle them into a patchwork, water-proof picnic blanket.
We’re great fans of temporary. Not aiming for permanence tends to mean that ideas can be trialled inexpensively, can be easily changed and that learning from failure can be quick and low-impact. In that spirit, as we develop the sheep enterprise of the farm, we’ve tried to keep things low-key. For yards, we use locally-made portable panels, but when working closely with sheep, we found the mesh sides problematic due to the ease with which horns or feet can become entangled. In more established circumstances, yards would have a working race for such a purpose, but the cost of a manufactured race can be steep. It was time to get out the tools and make our own.
When we took our sheep to be slaughtered towards the end of last year, in the spirit of using the whole beast, we asked the meatworks if we could keep the skins. Wiltshire Horns are not renowned for their hides, and while the abattoir workers looked at us a little askance, they played along. As soon as the animals were killed, we drove the skins across to Port Elliot, where tanner Tony Scott salted them and enthusiastically took us on a tour of his tannery, one of the few surviving such establishments in Australia.
This week a package arrived from Port Elliot. Inside were the skins, transformed from their dusty, paddock hue: the lamb skins soft and creamy, the elder beasts a light, dappled grey with black spots. While there’s no doubt that draping one’s home in animal hides brings with it a whiff of hillbilly, it’s also deeply satisfying to use as much as we can of our animals.
As an experimental run, most of these skins are already accounted for, but if you would like first pick on future hide harvests, let us know.
A few weeks ago, Pecorino, our new Damara-Dorper cross ram arrived at the farm. Initially, he seemed a little coy, intimidated by all from the alpacas to last year’s lambs. Within even a week, it was clear that he was becoming enculturated into the flock, following their cues to move to new pasture, and joining the usual welcoming committee whenever we come to visit.
Now, Pecorino’s assembled something of a support group around himself, composed of alpacas Fidel and Ernesto and a wether lamb. They tend to remain aloof of the rest of the flock, grazing a little away from the rest. While other sheep-farming pals tell us that this is not uncommon, we’re genuinely amazed to see how Pecorino’s robust desert breeding is exhibited in his grazing habits. Where the Wiltshire Horns hurry for shelter at the first glimmer of sunlight and sit panting until a cloud covers the sun again, Pecorino and his clique munch on, apparently regardless of temperature, and far less selectively than the others. Now all we need is for him to start sharing those genes around.
With the Year of the Sheep just around the corner on the Chinese calendar, it’s fitting that we’re celebrating the arrival of Pecorino. Pecorino is a Dorper-Damara cross ram, adopted from our friends Stefan and Amanda from their property at Inman Valley. Although our Wiltshire Horn-Dorper lambs have been pretty unfazed by the blinding summer heat, their Wiltshire Horn mothers have not fared so well. Enter Pecorino and his robust African desert-survival genetics and fat-tailed energy-storing mystique. Continue reading