Today we’re on the way to Woolcombe Station and in livestock country big time. I’ve researched the current sheep population at almost thirty million, at a rate of about five sheep for every person in New Zealand. Sheep and lamb numbers continue to drop due to loss of the land needed to produce meat and wool. Raising vineyards for wine grapes has become popular, and many farmers have turned to dairy farms, not to mention the urban development to house an increase in the country’s overall population. In the past twenty years, New Zealand has gained two million residents. What began as seventy million sheep in 1982 has rapidly been on the decline.
The animal kingdom still dominates this nation. From the moment we hop in our SUV and hit the main route toward Woolcombe Station, the hillsides’ deep crevices spill into miles upon miles of rocky pastures less suitable for humans but more to grazing animals like sheep and crossbred cattle. I don’t recognize any single cattle breed except perhaps black Angus. Cows of mixed colors and shapes, some with horns, most without, support a hearty gene pool of four-legged critters, with ancestors that made ship voyages as far back as the 1800s. In addition to the one hundred thousand indigenous Māori population, first New Zealand settlers were convicts from penal colonies in Australia, or they traveled over three months on the ocean, seeking seals and whales for fur, fat, and lamp oil.
Out my window, red-roofed homesteads nestle at the base of taller peaks, surrounded by large, natural Totara shade trees, owner-operator granaries, woolsheds, and cooking stations. Bunkhouses for workers and shearers are rough and unpainted, broken down from age—a throwback from the war years when the world began to hum back to life in the 1970s after Vietnam. Those wars include Aussies and Kiwis fighting alongside the United States against aggressors pushing communism on a gullible public.
“This is going to sound like a stupid question, but what exactly is a sheep station?” Bill asks. “We have farmers raising sheep in our country, but I’ve never heard anyone call them stations. What am I missing?”
I smile. “Kate says there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and she’s right. A sheep station is their terminology for sheep farms in Australia and New Zealand. We’re going to see how farmers and ranchers make a living in rough, mountainous country. Their livelihoods depend totally on their sheep and cattle management.”
“With sheep, there’s more labor involved because of the shearing. Most breeds grow fleece that have to be shorn at least once a year. A few breeds in the US no longer grow fleece because the farmer wants to concentrate on a meat market. They’re called hair sheep. Small amounts of wool grow but shed off on their own, leaving hair on the hides. In the US, we don’t wear as much wool clothing as we did in the 1700s and 1800s. Our founders raised sheep because woolens were in demand for warmth and military uniforms. The price for wool was high back then because it was needed in society.”
“If there’s wool in the cloth, I run the other way. It’s too scratchy for me,” Bill says.
“Mills have an answer to that. It’s called worsted wool. It’s stronger, finer, and smoother than regular wool that’s rough and scratchy. Men’s and women’s suits are usually made with worsted wool because it has a softer feel. Your short lesson on wool for today.” I laugh softly. “New Zealand sheep stations take the all-of-the-above approach. Stations employ sheep shearers and rouseabouts, sell the wool, and raise lambs for meat. Much of that is exported around the world.” I change the subject. “Are you okay with going to the police station first? If you think it’s better that we go in together, I can put off the station visit until this afternoon.”
I have a guilty conscience about sending Bill Drake to the wolves once he takes me to the station.
“It’s best that I test the water with the police. See Ethan and meet his family.”