Departing Renwick just after breakfast, we drove south along the east coast under gray skies toward our next destination, the Shed and Breakfast. The journey, we estimated, would take nearly seven hours and we wanted to arrive before dark. We made a brief stop in Kaikoura for fuel and then again alongside Highway 1 to flick on the hotspot for a skype call with Paul’s family. The Shed just happened to be located approximately halfway between Renwick and Bluff. With a visit to Stewart Island still on our wish list, we needed a place to stay to break up the twelve hour drive across the country to Bluff where we would catch the ferry to Stewart Island. When we found the Shed and Breakfast online it looked like it would be perfect with one exception, we had concerns about staying warm. With winter approaching, we were a bit hesitant to book it. That hesitation was overruled after reading the clever captivating description in the form of a poem along with consistent, stellar reviews of both the accommodation and the host. Below is the poem that helped persuade our decision to stay at the Shed and Breakfast.
HUNTER HILLS ORGANICS
SHED and BREAKFAST
My farm is at Hunter, just off Highway One
210 hectares of land, fed by wind, rain and sun
Over 500 sheep and 90 plus cows
Provide some of the work for a few of the hours
Cooking and creating are also included
And driving the quad bike it won’t be excluded
Fresh eggs, milk and bread are always provided
And vegetables as well, just digging required
Rustic, eco and friendly is your stay in a shed
The pictures below kitchen, living room and bed
So add to these pictures your personality and time
Washed down with music, conversation and wine
Just call me and visit, I assure you of fun
My home it’s at Hunter, just off Highway One
We scheduled to stay nearly a week, ignorant to what a lasting impression this experience would have or we surely would have arranged to stay longer. Before we’d even left Renwick, we had been in touch with David about our concerns regarding heat at the shed. His prompt and sincere attempts to find a solution went above and beyond anything we expected. He then emailed us to let us know that there would be freshly baked bread and roast chicken for dinner on the evening we arrived. Those simple gestures made us feel welcome and we were both eager to meet David in person. As we approached the property we easily spotted the “oldish” white mailbox David described as marking the driveway.
It was nearing sunset and as we pulled in, the dogs, Barley and Pup cheerily greeted us with David not far behind offering a warm welcome with a big smile and firm handshake. He motioned to what was quite literally a shed then escorted us inside to reveal an utterly charming rustic apartment.
He expressed genuine excitement at the length of our stay and how it would allow us to get to know each other so much better than if we were only there for one or two nights. We shared the excitement and it was pretty clear that even though we’d just met with handshakes, we’d be parting company with hugs.
He left us to get settled and then returned a while later with the delicious dinner of roast chicken, salad and fresh bread. As darkness fell over the property, the cool night air crept into the shed, but somehow it did not feel that cold amidst such warm hospitality. We stayed plenty warm the first night with multiple layers of wool blankets coupled with hot water bottles. What was a bit more challenging was staying warm in the early morning before the sun’s heat helped raise the temperature, but David had purchased new electric throw blankets which worked well to heat Paul’s office (a chair next to a small end table). Plus he had provided large thick wool jerseys that we could pull over our clothes. Before heading out to help a neighbor, David took a moment to give us an abbreviated tour of the shed where he lived, the garden, and his pantry generously offering us anything we could use during our stay. He explained the layout of his farm and encouraged us to take a self-guided tour of the property on the quad bike. We, along with Barley had a short look around a portion of the five hundred acres but clouds and bit of rain sent us back inside the shed.
Once the rain subsided and the clouds gave way to blue skies, we headed outside for some hacky sack. Before long David had joined us. Then with all three of us sharing stories and asking questions, it was too much to keep the sack in play. David cooked some homegrown beef and potatoes and joined us for dinner. Conversation came easy and we were fast becoming friends. We seemed to share a common bond in that he and I were both raised on a farm and Paul was familiar with the rural farming lifestyle. Even so, neither Paul or I had ever been on a sheep farm. All I really knew about sheep was that they had four legs and grew wool. We were eager to learn more about raising them. He filled us in on the tentative plan for the farm activities for the week which included loading a few calves onto the truck, rounding up the lambs, sorting them, crutching them, and meeting with the livestock buyer. David was keenly aware of Paul’s work schedule and made the effort to arrange his schedule so both of us could participate some farm activities. The next day, a gorgeous sunrise illuminated the eastern sky while we gazed out, relieved to see the forecast was warm and clear.
The cattle truck was arranged to arrive just before Paul’s break time so we went out to help load the calves. That left us with three cows, mourning the loss of their babies calling for them with lonely, woeful bellows and constant pacing throughout the next few days.
Once Paul finished work, we met David on the driveway to review the plan for gathering the lambs. He presented three of the thousands of scenarios of what might happen and assured us that none of them would likely be the way it actually played out. Herding livestock rarely goes as planned and the chances for unforeseen circumstances are even more likely when herding youthful, energetic animals that startle easily, like the lambs we were about to round up. He added that once we see what actually happens, we’ll simply exercise some flexibility and adjust the plan to ultimately get the lambs inside the yards (that’s what I grew up calling the corrals). Now, some of you may not be familiar with herding livestock but the process is not unlike daily life. We make plans, but life only rarely follows those plans. We either lose our minds with anger and frustration and act like fools trying to force life to comply, or surrender our plan to observe what life has to offer instead. Such is the experience of herding livestock. Our yelling, arm waving, and driving like a maniac only makes us look like fools and proves quite ineffective at making the animals comply. Here is what the sheep herding adventure looked like on one warm afternoon in May on Hunter Hills Farm. Off we went, Paul and I on the quad bike and David, Barley and Pup in his car down the driveway, across the sealed road, and down the trail to the paddock. At the mere sight of the vehicles the lambs began trotting away and gathering into a group.
Once they were all rounded up, we began the attempt at driving them through the gate. Though there were a couple bouts of arm waving and yelling, the three of us gave up quite easily once the sheep bolted in the opposite direction of where we intended to herd them. The first bunch of lambs only ran around the paddock twice before we urged them to squirt out the gate. The next hurdle was encouraging them to pass by the hay shed along the trail. Eventually they moved by it and surprisingly proceeded the remainder of the route to the yard quite smoothly. They turned and walked gently up the small section of sealed road and turned right on que into the driveway.
The lambs and the sheep herders were panting once all the gates were closed behind them. I thought it felt wonderful to be hot from the sun. Then we gathered for another “herder huddle” to hear the plan for gathering the second bunch. These little guys were farther from the shed and gave us more of an adventure than the first bunch. This flock split and ran on initial round-up, then gathered nicely right in front of the gate, but then bolted away. We circled around and brought them in again and a second time they went running. On the third try we watched them skedaddle through the gate and along the trail, which fortunately was fenced on both sides. Again, we encountered what the lambs apparently viewed as an obstacle, the hay shed. The entire herd stopped and turned to face Paul and I and the quad bike. After a momentary stare down, we slowly crept up on them nudging with our voices, in words that obviously only made sense to us. They gradually, and cautiously moved past the structure. David was ahead keeping watch on the road to guide them in the desired direction and we didn’t encounter too much difficulty getting them to turn into the driveway. Now, based on the previous experience we moved ahead with confidence that we’d walk them right on into the yard. Often when a herder moves forward with this confidence, he or she does not close the gates once the herd has gone through, just as happened in this particular case. They were a few steps away from entering the final enclosure when Barley, who has some incredible sheep herding instincts (she just has yet to learn when certain skills and movements are most beneficial to the process) sprints to the front of the group and they all turn and run back down the driveway through the gate that I did not close.
David, quick to react, beats them to the second gate at the road and gets it closed before directing the fluffy herd back in the direction of the pen. Now Paul and I are keeping watch at the second driveway to deter them from turning and to encourage them to again move into the yard. Just before they get past our post the group stops, turns and Paul and I are again face to face with the skittish sea of white faces. Frozen for a tense moment, we hesitate before motioning in an attempt to steer them through the next gate. A few turn, and nervously mill around. Then one steps in my direction. I shout; he stops. I move toward him, wave my arms and he bolts right past me followed by another and another. Then they come at me faster. To my utter surprise they begin leaping by left and right. It’s like they are in a slam dunk contest running for the mini tramp and bouncing right for me. For some reason I was not afraid, but I felt rather foolish yelling and flapping my arms yet downright amused at the sight of lambs literally flying by me, over me and around me. Before the last one flew by, my hollering had dissolved into hysterical laughter. They were so fiercely adorable I could not even remember the last time I’d laughed that hard. Part of me was actually glad they’d refused to follow my directions because it would have been so boring. Through his frustration at not getting the animals to comply with our plan, David admitted that he did not find the bouncing bundles of wool quite as “cute” as I did. He did assure me though I would have a chance to get their antics on video before we were done. We would have to repeat this “run back” scenario yet another time before we finally watched their little fluffy bums scurry into the pen. David explained the next step. He would sort out the lambs he wanted to keep to increase his herd from the one’s he would sell. I asked how, because in my limited experience of working with cattle, we had to arrange the gates a certain way and work as a team to shoo the keepers into one pen and the others to a different pen. David says simply, “Aw, we’ll just run a few into the race here and I’ll toss the ones I want to sell over the fence.” I had to laugh again, as I just wasn’t used to lambs which are much smaller animals than cattle. It never occurred to me that he could simply lift them over the fence. Needless to say this process did not take too long. This was the part where Barley could really show off her skills. I managed to capture a lamb in mid air in a picture and I did indeed get some lambs leaping on video. See it here – leaping lambs video.
Plus, Paul and I got to test our ability to count sheep. We could use more practice for sure. Our sheep herding adventure gave us much to talk about over dinner. Here is my poem summarizing the afternoon.
We shout, then doubt as they run about
There they go round the fence again.
Finally through, after a wait at the gate
They’re quick, they scurry and hurry
Then stop till an unseen jolt makes them bolt
There’s no keeping them from leaping
One sees a way out, then all take that route
I’m a fool in a swirl of wool
No time for fright, lambs in flight are quite a sight
We’re hot, trying not to get our thoughts in a knot
Us and them, huffin’ and puffin’, we try once again
Finally, time for a cup, once they’re all shut up
It was one of the most memorable days we’ve spent in New Zealand. With the lambs sorted, David scheduled an appointment with the livestock buyer the following day to come take a look at the ones he wanted to sell.
Greeted with another stunning sunrise we went through our morning routine in the shed surrounded by crisp autumn air. With not much else but the meeting with the buyer on the “farm” schedule for us, I thought it would be the perfect day to fulfill my promise to make a crumble for dessert at least once. David had some fresh peaches that needed to be used which were perfect for the filling. The wind began to blow just after Paul finished work. We went out to bring the lambs into the pen so they would be ready when the buyer arrived. Once they were penned, Barley assumed her position and watched over them while we ate lunch.
We sat with David in his place for lunch as the wind gusted stronger and stronger until suddenly there was a loud crash. It had blown two heavy shutter doors off of his window openings. The forecast revealed that we’d likely see high winds through the next day. Soon the livestock buyer arrived. This, another new experience for Paul and I, was fascinating to watch. The buyer had us chase a few lambs into the race and he stepped in, looked at them, picked one up, set it down, and said something to David. He picked up another one and set it down. Then they both walked over toward us.
David explained that he was getting an estimate on the average weight of the animals and that typically the buyers are accurate to within at least a half of kilogram by simply observing the flock and lifting a couple. The buyer said these would be perfect for a client of his looking to purchase a few lambs. As if the “weighing” wasn’t impressive enough, he then said he’d get a count. He stepped into the pen, opened the gate and herded them out, practically all at once. Then he turned and announced how many there were. Paul and I were in disbelief. So much so that we actually questioned him, “are you sure?” His reply, with a grin but not a hint of arrogance, “Absolutely positive. I’ve been doing this for thirty years.” I was dumbstruck, I still didn’t know how it was even possible that he’d counted them accurately that quickly. Paul and I tried again after he left, opening the gate just a little so only a few could escape at a time. I even videoed the whole thing and I’m embarrassed to say I still could not get an accurate count. The wind continued howling. David left to go help his neighbor again leaving Paul and I in charge of the farm. Luckily, the only remaining task was checking for eggs. I felt confident I’d get an accurate count (there’d only been one in the past two days). The hardest part was actually walking across the paddock without getting blown over. Again, we retrieved a single egg, fought the wind back to our shed and nestled inside for the remainder of the afternoon listening to the ferocious gusts rip across the hillside.
David returned in time for dinner, just before the rain started. Sheets of water lashed the tin siding of the shed and relentless gales raged outside, but these were merely subtle background noise as we wined and dined and conversed in rustic fashion complete with a tasty peach crumble. The next day, Friday, David’s nephew was coming to crutch the lambs. I’d imagine, most reading this are unfamiliar with this term as I was, hence I will do my best to explain it as I understood it from this brief experience on a sheep farm. Crutching is the term referring to the process of shearing the dirty wool from around the tail and hind legs of a sheep. There are a number of reasons why farmers crutch their lambs. One is aesthetics, the little lambs look better without poo stuck to their bum, and they are more presentable for market. Another reason is for disease prevention. Sheep can get “flyblown” which refers to a condition where flies burrow into their wool and lay eggs on their skin which can result in rapid deterioration in the health of an animal and ultimately prove fatal. The flies are more likely to become established in the dirty wool, where there is residual poo, therefore, in removing the preferred habitat for the flies, they will be less likely to cause infection. This may not sound fun to everyone, but I was excited to see the process, and watch a real live sheep shearer in action up close. We did have the chance to see one in a “show” the very first time we visited NZ, but that was several years ago and we were watching him on a stage. No doubt this time would be different. David’s nephew and his nephew walked up the driveway the next morning ready to work. David, again, made every effort to coordinate the events to accommodate Paul’s work schedule. He and the boys repaired and re-attached the shutters and went about some other chores until Paul could take a break. Then we helped David herd the lambs into the shearing shed. They were certainly not eager to walk through the door into darkness. I wasn’t so sure myself so I could hardly blame them for not wanting to. Still, I couldn’t help but hop right into the swirl of wool and help David nudge them inside.
From there we took small groups up the steep ramp to the top floor until they were all clattering their little hooves on the wood in the smaller pens behind the shearing station. Meanwhile, shearer Simon had changed into his singlet (I learned this term later for the special clothes that shearers wear) and shearing slippers. With that, the crutching was underway. The second guy, Cameron, was in the small pen with saloon style doors selecting one lamb at a time and sliding them through the doors then passing the animal to Simon. Simon situated the lamb between his knees, pulled the cord to flick on the shearing blades and with a few quick smooth movements buzzed the wool from the little lambs bum, flicked off the switch for the clippers and nudged the animal onto a slide to the ground floor where it was free to scamper outside. Smoothly and easily the two guys working together clipped through several lambs in a matter of minutes while Paul and I watched and bombarded David with questions.
Eager to make the most of this opportunity, I asked if I could gather a lamb and slide it out to Simon. Everyone agreed with a smile. I stepped into the pen full of fluffy frightened lambs. I attempted unsuccessfully to calm them with my own timid voice. I selected one and tried to do as I’d observed Cameron doing, but instead of a simple grasp, lift and flip, it felt more like a grasp, hug, tug, tangle, slip, hop, drop, spin, grunt, tug, turn, slide, wiggle, struggle, pant, and finally an awkward jerky shuffle backwards through the swinging doors to pass the heavier than expected warm and wooly creature to Simon. It took more energy than I’d imagined. Then, out of breath, I stepped back to watch Simon work and let Cameron resume the job that he made look almost effortless. After a few more, and after helping shuffle more lambs into the gathering area, I asked if I could have a go with the shearers. What I meant when I asked was simply to hold the shearers and maybe clip a snippet of wool while Simon held the lamb. What he thought was that I’d crutch one myself. Um, well, I didn’t realize this until he stepped away from his station and handed me the shearers as I asked about a hundred questions in rapid succession while Cameron slid the next animal up to my feet. None of the ones I’d watch Simon handle seemed to wiggle around, but this one did. It looked like they just sat at his feet and he worked. As soon as I tried to get a hold on the one between my knees, he began wriggling around trying to get back on his feet. With both David and Simon’s help I finally was able to squeeze my legs around the lively bundle of wool. Simon switched on the clippers and pointed to where I should move them. First, the clippers weighed about three times more than I expected and when the tool came alive with a jolt of electricity I tightened my grip to keep it from slithering from my hand. Unable to maneuver the buzzing energy smoothly I timidly placed the razor sharp edge into the wool and merely clipped off a short outer layer. Shocked at how thick the fleece was and afraid of cutting the little guy, it took me two or three jerky passes at each stroke to clip it all the way down. Periodically, the animal would jerk to get free to which I instinctually tried to grab on with my hands, momentarily forgetting that the tool in my right could be dangerous not only to the animal but also to me and Simon who’d warily thrust his hand in to point out where I should clip. After what seemed like ten minutes, my forearm was sending messages of fatigue to my brain and I could feel the strain in my shoulder and back in trying to extend my reach. All the while my legs straining to keep hold of the lamb. I felt as though I’d just had another mini workout. There is nothing like attempting a task yourself to make you vividly aware of all that is involved which you cannot see just by watching a professional. I watched with even more amazement as Simon carried on, making it look so easy. It was most certainly another unforgettable day and I am so grateful that David and Simon allowed me the opportunity to get a taste of shearing. David also selected a lamb that could be completely shorn so we could see a bit more than just crutching. Simon seemed to enjoy practicing his skills with an audience and did not hesitate to answer any of our questions. The icing on the cake was a special bonding moment when all three of the guys joined us in a hacky sack circle until we achieved a “full hack” (where everyone touches the hacky sack at least once before it falls to the ground). It would not be until later that day that we realized what this little session inspired. David gave the boys a ride back home in the afternoon and again left us in charge to watch over the place from the chairs out in front of the shed.
The wind had subsided at least for a while, the sun was bright and it was lovely to simply sit. Not long after David left, ideas began popping up in my head for our “artistic contribution” to the Shed. It’s not what you’d expect to find in a shed, even in a shed where someone resides, but both David’s shed and the apartment shed were filled with beautiful and unique art, from wooden sculptures to paintings and wall hangings, contributed by guests. From the looks of it there had been some extraordinarily talented people stay here. The creative energy oozed from the walls of the place. There was a box next to the door in the shed filled with all different colors of paint inviting visitors to get creative. I grabbed a small piece of wood from under the shed and a pencil to begin sketching out a scene to paint. As I reflected on the moments we’d experienced so far on the farm three subjects stood out, poetry, sheep and hacky sack. I scribbled three stick figures on the board and began playing with ideas for a finished project. When David saw the drawings, the simple artistic endeavor took on a whole new life, spiraling from a simple painted block of wood to three dimensional figurines. We launched a team effort to complete a project of unknown proportions. Step one was to “hunt gorse.” Gorse is a woody shrub that grows rather prolifically throughout New Zealand and though can be beneficial in re-establishing forests after logging, it can also be quite a nuisance for farmers trying to maintain land for grazing livestock or growing crops. David described what a labor intensive and constant battle it was on his organic farm. It seemed this fiber would be the perfect material from which to build something. We gathered several pieces in a variety of sizes and brought them back to the workshop. With David operating the radial arm saw and Paul and I working in the preparation and assembly departments, the prototype was soon manifest.
We evaluated, decided on a few minor changes and production of the “hacky sack guys” began. Those hours spent alongside David creating, rank very high in my list of favorites. Little did I know what three little stick figures scrawled on raw wood would inspire. David is still sending us pictures of new “guys” or pieces he’s crafted since we left. From a “golfer” to a fruit bowl to a little truck with wheels. He also crafted a “handstand girl” as a parting gift for me. We may well have participated in the birth of a business.
One day remained in our stay. We spent a little time that morning working on the stick figures then took a break for lunch. The wind returned with a vengeance, knocked the power out and blew away our plans to enjoy roasting marshmallows over a fire. No electricity meant no saw to cut pieces of wood for our creation so I focused on a few of the other details. I stitched up the hacky sacks and got to work writing a poem to go on the display platform.
The power was restored within a few hours. Dinner was again brimming with stories and conversation. At one point I mentioned something about being more of a paper crafter than a sculptor and that I made greeting cards. David replied with “Oh, I have something to show you. Remind me tomorrow.” The next morning we all helped add a few more details to the project. It was almost complete, David promised he’d get the “Barley and Pup” figurines added soon, which he did within a few days of our departure. We were giddy with excitement over what we’d ended up with. Then David handed me a box saying I want you to pick one. Inside, to my astonishment, was a whole collection of handmade greeting cards. Of all the places in the world I could never have guessed I’d have seen that in a shed on a sheep farm. He explained that a previous visitor had purchased several supplies and they made the cards together during her stay. He said, “If only I’d known sooner. I’d have gotten all that stuff out for you to use.” Well, he had one card in mind that he thought would be perfect for me but was anxious to see if that was the one I’d pick. It was, of course. On the front there was a cute little wooly sheep and the greeting said “You know…things are wooly good.”