From Wool to Wine: Working on Adinfern Estate
MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA- Adinfern Estate’s tagline of “From Wool to Wine” is a double entendre of sorts. Merv started out as a sheep shearer back in the 1960’s, and worked his family’s land for years and years until the market for wool went bust in the 1990’s. He faced a tough decision: a) stay, and lose everything b) sell, at a catastrophic loss, or c) completely reinvent their business to work on something more profitable. He took a risk and went with “c”, and now finds himself the owner of a moderately successful vineyard. However, Merv still keeps a few flocks of sheep numbering upwards of 400 lambs and ewes. And 4 rams. (The rams get busy.)
The sheep are kept in a number of paddocks around the vineyard, rotating every few weeks after they’ve eaten the grass in one vineyard and need to move on to the next. This is where we (the vineyard hands) come in; as auxiliary shepherds. I’ve done this a few times now, and it’s actually pretty fun…6 or so people spread out widely across the paddock, and slowly march towards the sheep. One or two begin to look up, and these skittish little creatures bolt at the first realization that you are moving towards them. Once a single sheep starts running, they all take off in the same direction. Voila. The sheep are being herded. The difficulty comes when you need to direct them into a two-meter wide gate to into the next field, and a young lamb will stop for no apparent reason, look up at you, and debate whether or not to take off in the complete opposite direction (endangering the entire operation, since it may very well be followed by an additional hundred or so sheep)…at that point you need to stop and with a wide stance, and stare it down, feeling like a middle linebacker squaring off with a miniature, shit-covered Adrian Peterson…
When these baby lambs are about a month or two old, they need to have their tales cut off. This sounds cruel and inhumane, but it’s actually for their own good. The tails are cesspools of filth and disease, and their lifespans are increased considerably by this sanitary ablution…and a few weeks ago I was selected to be a part of Merv’s crew that helped to cut the tails off of the newborn lambs. While it sounds crazy, I was actually pretty proud to be asked to help, since everyone else is a grizzled ‘ole farmboy, and most of you can attest to the fact that that’s pretty far from a moniker anyone might bestow upon your correspondent.
We started out herding the sheep in the aforementioned manner, except that instead of going into another paddock, they are swept into a small, gated enclosure for drafting. Drafting is the process of sending them out of the enclosure one by one in order to separate the lambs from the ewes. Ewes back into the paddock, lambs into a much smaller gated enclosure. This is no small task, as the sheep will not sit still for anything, do not dare to move when you need them to, and decide to either all run through the exit at once, or none at all. After an excruciatingly long time, the lambs are finally separated from the ewes, and the tailing can begin.
My task was to work with Cody rustling the lambs, one by one, from the enclosure and placing them in the tailing device. This means catching 100 baby lambs (coo all you like girls, but it’s not a pretty process) and placing them in a large metallic contraption that rotates them around to the different stations. We’ll refer to this contraption as the Lazy Susan. After fumbling with more than a few little buggers, I finally got my system down: come up behind a lamb and reach my left hand around its neck and gently pull up as the right slides down the backside of it’s front legs. As soon as you can feel the front legs are close enough together to hold with one hand, you grab them and hold on tight, sweeping the lamb upwards in a semi-circle so that it’s up on it’s back. It’s then surprisingly easy to grab hold of the back legs with your opposite hand. The majority of them decide to just chill out in this pose, but some of the larger ones require an extra helper since they can get heavy and quite fussy.
The next step is to carry these little pups over to the Lazy Susan, laying them on their back in a little seat and strapping their hind legs through two hooks that ensure they aren’t going anywhere, with their business privy to all the world. The Lazy Susan is rotated, and the lamb now goes to Ray, who brands them on the ear and gives them an injection to vaccinate against whatever foot, hand, or mouth disease lambs may be susceptible to. If there is a pause in the action, the males get to enjoy their last few moments with whatever equipment we might use to identify them as, well, male. On goes the Lazy Susan to Merv, where the male equipment is secured with a small metallic ring that will cut off the circulation and cause it to fall off within a few days. Now picture a blowtorch (a laymen’s blowtorch, if you will) powered by a propane gas tank. Surround that blowtorch with a small cleaver-like knife that cuts right through the heart of the flame, and you will have some idea of what the tail-cutting device looks like. This device is then, ahem, applied, to the tail of the lamb, which comes right off in a stunningly queasy fluid motion. I’d surmise that there is a small vein running right through the tail, since it seemed as if every cut produced a small squirting fountain of blood (accompanied by a frantic “BAHHH”) that would arch up over the Lazy Susan and find it’s way to an LZ all too close to my person. The little bros are then unhooked from the rotating device and put on the ground, where they scamper off and jump with their awkward little legs high in the air off into the proverbial sunset.
If this sounds like a pretty brutal process, it is. We did 250 lambs in one morning, split approximately 50/50 between Cody and I, meaning I caught approximately 125 lambs. Each is covered in dirty filth of a questionable excremental extract and weighs a good 20-50 pounds. Think of when you go to the gym and do kettlebell swings, clean and presses, or any other exercise designed to give you a full body workout. Now perform that same workout on a small little creature who doesn’t quite care to be caught, in an environment where you can’t take a break (especially when you are trying to prove your mettle as someone who doesn’t mind getting dirty), and it makes for one relieved Matty when it is Cody’s turn to pick up a lamb and he can take a moment’s rest. While I certainly won’t be engaging in any sheep-related pursuits the near future aside from a vague ambition to once again own a merino-wool sweater, this day certainly gave me a real appreciation for what goes into…well, let’s be honest, food production, since they are all being raised for slaughter and subsequent consumption. I’m not a vegetarian, and this experience didn’t convince me to become one, but it’s certainly instilled within me a greater sense of mindfulness and appreciation for where certain commodities come from, and an invigorated outlook for a “waste not, want not” mentality.