The lambs in winter
All the focus recently has been on drought, but winter can bring the cruelest months for people on the land.
Bill Allen is closing the gate as I arrive. He’d driven out to collect the mail. Tall and strong but bowed and stiffened by the years, the old farmer shuffles over to shake my hand. “You’re the university lad are you?” he asks. I’m here from the city, on a break from crowds, concrete and cars.
We stand on the bridge over Salt Creek and Bill, now 87, proudly explains how his son David built it to replace the rickety wooden one. The thick concrete slabs and steel girders dwarf the skinny creek below.
Boorook is a family-run property in Woorndoo, near Mortlake in Western Victoria. The Allens arrived in 1906. Their grand old farmhouse reclines on the low hill above the paddocks and gullies.
Puddles line the dirt road. Bill tells me there was half an inch of rain overnight. They desperately needed rain to break the drought, he says, but it came at the worst time. The shearing is on and shearers won’t work with wet sheep; the damp wool gives them dermatitis. If it rains again, they’ll have to call off the rest of the week’s work. All that can be shorn today are sheep that were undercover last night.
Bill leads me to the woolshed and introduces me to David, who runs the farm. David is tall and solid, with thick, strong hands. His navy woollen jumper is flecked with newly shorn fluff. The shearers are working, their machines buzzing and whirring. They are hunched over, backs supported by braces on springs from the roof, bare arms moving in long and short blows over sheep pinned between their knees. After each sheep is done, the shearer pushes it through the gate to join his tally, eases his back up straight and drags the next one from the pen.
A few years ago the Allens collected interviews and compiled family trees for Boorook’s centenary celebrations. They made a book that tells of tennis tournaments, days spent rabbit hunting and eight children taking lessons at home, of two world wars and one employee who rode into town to get the mail each day. The Allens employed many workers in decades gone by, but now there is just one, Gary. He is leaving soon and will be difficult to replace. Farm labourers are hard to come by while mining money is oozing out of the West.
The woolshed, with rusting corrugated iron roof and walls, is even older than the farmhouse. David thinks it was built around 1860. Inside, the walls are adorned with fading airline posters. The floorboards and rails are worn smooth and sticky with wool fat. Little has changed here over the years; shearing technology has been much the same since the introduction of machine shears in the late 19th century.
I watch as two female rouseabouts stride back and forth along the row of five shearers, their hard brooms clacking on the floorboards, pushing the loose wool into small piles. The rousies stoop to gather the full fleeces from the shearers’ feet then throw them evenly over the wrought iron bench, as if spreading a blanket over a bed.
Outside, the sky darkens.
Not long after smoko they run out of dry sheep. A mob of waterlogged ewes, with long thick fleeces, was next to be shorn but now they slosh through a wet paddock. There’s no way to hasten the drying; they need sun, wind and time in the paddock. The shearers must wait with no work.
Wild weather is forecast overnight, so we herd the thousand newly shorn, bleach-white lambs back into the shed. David and I drive in the ute, his son Nick rides the motorbike and their sheepdog, Bella, scurries in wide arcs. David whistles instructions, “Wayback Bella, wayback. Wayback Bella wayback.”
Winter shearing intrigues me. We put our woollies on, I think to myself as we follow behind the dog, and take theirs off. But David says they rarely lose sheep to the weather. “We lost more when we sheared during summer. Summer frosts catch them when they aren’t prepared for the cold.” A battalion of sheep runs up the hill as another mob comes charging down and it reminds me of an epic movie battle scene. “It’s like a moving snowstorm,” David says.
Just before dawn I wake to the sound of wind and rain against the windows. The bureau forecasts that the rain will blow over in the afternoon, so David and Nick decide to let the sheep out of the shed and move them to a distant paddock, where there is good grass to eat. It is a difficult decision: the sheep will suffer from the cold, but they need food in their bellies. There is no room for feeding in the shed.
We herd them in the heavy rain and I am glad to chug along in the fogged-up ute while David and Nick are drenched on their motorbikes. The lambs are only ten months old. They have been hand-fed through the drought and look small and feeble without their wool.
The rain doesn’t blow over. By afternoon the hills are streaming with water. Drains are overflowing, dams are filling and the creek is rushing under the big bridge. Two months ago the farm was hard and dry. The dams were almost empty. We take a tea break in the old farmhouse; the rain dominates conversation. Dorothy, David’s mother, brings us cheese on toast and fruitcake. Bill says it’s been ten years since they had rain like this.
The Allens have seen the weather change over the decades. Their forebears stripped the land for grazing, but now they are taking action to look after the farm and the local environment. David has planted thousands of new trees and fenced off Salt Creek to keep the cattle out and save wildlife and water flows. He has built more dams and begun construction of a wetland bird sanctuary on the farm. More trees mean more shade for the animals, and more dams mean more water.
After the tea break, Nick and I dig out a drain to let water flow into the dam near the mailbox. We are driving back when he gets a call from David. Earlier that morning, worried about the cold, David and Gary had guided the sheep into a cluster of trees by a dam for protection. They had left a trail of barley to encourage them to eat. Nick puts down his phone. “There are dead sheep everywhere,” Nick says, looking straight ahead.
We drive out and over the crest of the hill and see the lines of sodden grain still yellow against the muddy grass. Then dozens of lambs lying dead. They’d been too cold to eat the food they needed.
The farmers, stern-faced, confer in low tones. I stand by awkwardly in my borrowed gumboots, not knowing what to do. Stunned, Nick says he’s never seen anything like it. The living sheep shiver; some huddle around the ute, desperately seeking the warmth of the engine. Still it rains. The night is forecast to be cold and wet again and the surviving lambs – too many and too far away – are too weak to make the journey back to shelter. We must leave them behind.
That evening, the family is quiet around the dinner table, knowing the worst is yet to come. David sighs and stares at his food, ruing the decision to move the sheep out of the woolshed.
In the morning we find the shocks of dead white among the green trees, many more than expected. Others are in the dam, blobs of pale flotsam from the storm: hand-fed, drought-surviving lambs, wasted in the rain.
With his tractor, David digs two large pits close by and then begins scooping drowned lambs out of the water. Gary gathers the stray dead, dragging them two at a time by rope from his motorbike. Nick and I work among the trees.
At first, I place the lambs gently on the back of the ute, avoiding their glassy, grey eyes. Cold water squelches down my sleeves from their stiff legs. Then through weight of numbers I grow tougher and begin to drag and throw them roughly on the pile. Yellow bile drips from their open mouths and the tangle of bodies wobbles like jelly as the ute rolls away.
We work together in silence. I look away at the mud while Nick slits the throats of the ones soon to die. Then we push them all into the pit-graves. The count reaches three hundred, almost a third of the lambs shorn two days ago. It is still drizzling and the forecast shows more rain on the way.
I leave the next morning. Bill and Dorothy see me off with extra food, concerned I’d seen only the worst of Boorook. This downpour runs into dams, catchments and reservoirs. Back in the city I track the water levels rising, on the corner of my newspaper. I know that David is planting his wetland, watching the weather, wondering what it will bring next.
A year on, I call again. David Allen still shudders at the memory of the lambs’ deaths. “It was a miserable bloody day,” he says. “I made a bad decision to let them out of the shed,” he says. Since then, the Allens have planted 2500 trees on their property and have ordered 700 more. The lambs and the land will be better protected. “People always laugh at farmers talking about the weather, but we do it for a good reason,” he says. “It’s often a life and death situation.”
Healthy spring lambing brought his mob’s numbers back up, and the summer was mild. Two shearings have passed as normal, with no hitches. There has been little rain.
Photography by Michael Green