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The Good Life: Open Gate-gate

Any fool knows the first rule of farming. Remembering it, is the trick. By Michele Hewitson.

I have spent the last three years pretending to be a sheep farmer. I am pretty good at pretending to be things. I did, after all, spend 30-odd years pretending to be a journalist, despite having no qualifications. Ergo, I am a farmer.

Just the other day I was priding myself on the fact that, despite having spent all of my adult life as a city slicker, I have never once in three years committed the cardinal, city-slicker sin of having left a paddock gate open.

Later that other day, Greg looked out the kitchen window and said: “what are the sheep doing in the orchard?” They are often in the orchard, but they were not, on this day, supposed to be in the orchard. They were supposed to be in the apple tree paddock, where I had moved them earlier in the day. I am very good at moving sheep, and we like to help Miles, the actual sheep farmer, by moving them. The first thing you learn about moving sheep is to shut the gates as you go. I hadn’t shut the gate.

Fortunately, you can get sheep to follow you anywhere — as long as you have sheep nuts. I always have sheep nuts. This is why I am so amazingly good at moving sheep. So I was able to get the flock back into the correct paddock without having to own up to Miles that I had left a gate open. I still haven’t owned up, but he will no doubt find out, somehow. Oh. Hello, Miles!


I have probably now publicly disqualified myself from any chance of getting one of the thousand jobs available on dairy farms for the newly unemployed, like me. I don’t, in any case, know anything about cows, except that I am frightened of them. Some of them have horns. (I think. Maybe only bulls have horns. They must be related, somehow.) Anyway, Miles’ milking sheep surely count as dairying experience, so I could put in an application to work on his farm, which is also partly our farm.

After all, farming is easy; any fool can do it. All you have to be able to do are the following:

First, fencing. I could no more do fencing than I could concoct a vaccine for Covid-19 in my kitchen blender. There is dagging (no thanks). Also, drenching, worming. Also, no thanks.

You have to give antibiotic injections (I have done this; it was horrible for me and even more horrible for the poor, ineptly jabbed at sheep.) You also have to be able to put your hands up a ewes’ bum and pull out a stuck lamb, or, heartbreakingly, a dead lamb.

You have to put a sick sheep out of its misery by either shooting it, or cutting its throat. You have to be able to skin a dead lamb and put its fleece on an orphaned lamb so as to trick the mama of said dead lamb into accepting it as hers.

You have to be able to catch an enormous ram and cut its toenails. Big rams do not much enjoy having their toenails cut, and they let you know it by butting the hell out of you.

You have to be able to send last season’s cuddly, but now excess, ram lambs to the works — even if you have hand-reared them.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of the things sheep farmers do. There is, also, the science of pasture management, which is the love of your land. The love of your animals — which involves the love of your land — means providing and nurturing shelter trees.

Good farmers care for their land, and for their animals. I can phone Miles at 5am and say that there is a sheep down, or that a sheep has escaped through a dodgy fence, and he will be here. Farmers never get to turn their cellphones off. They are, like all essential workers, always on call.

Yes, farming is easy.