Sheep And Wool In Australia
( Originally Published 1904 )
THE annual sheep show is going on in Sydney. The city is full of squatters, as sheep farmers are called, and we can see sheep from all parts of the continent and from Tasmania and New Zealand as well. Sheep so thrive in this latitude that Australasia, made up of Australia and its neighboring islands, is one of the best sheep-rearing places upon earth. The two great sheep-rearing centers of the world are situated at about the same distance south of the Equator. Look on your map and you will see where they are. On one side of the globe is Australasia and on the other Argentina in South America. Argentina has a climate much like that of Australia, and it vies with it in fine sheep and wool.
Sheep farming is carried on in almost every settled part of the continent. Some of the stations, as such farms are called, are so large that it would take us several days to ride around one on horseback, and a single field often contains eight hundred acres, or more than five ordinary American farms.
One hundred sheep is quite a large flock in parts of our country. In New South Wales there are several men who each own one hundred thousand sheep, and one who has more than one million, or enough, supposing each sheep to weigh one hundred pounds, to give a slice of mutton to every man, woman, and child in our country and leave plenty over for a stew for our whole nation next day.
Australasia has had at times one hundred million sheep, man of distinguished ancestry, noted for his fine breeding, and has been so kindly handled that he is perfectly safe. Were it not for his horns, his nose, and his feet, we might think him merely a bundle of wool. His fleece lies upon him in rolls and folds, the skin apparently wrinkling to make it hold more. It is so long and thick on his head that we see only the tips of his ears ; his eyes are far back of those holes in the wool. The fleece hangs down from the under parts of the body, covering the legs clear to the hoofs. We poke our fingers into the wool. We can not reach the skin without pressing the knuckles far in. How greasy it feels ! It is dirty and gray outside, but when we pull it apart it is the color of cream. This sheep has more than forty pounds of wool on him, and his owner would not sell him for three thousand dollars.
The common sheep of Australia, however, have only a very few pounds of wool, often not more than five or six. They can be bought for about the same prices that such sheep bring in our country. We can easily see what a difference it makes if each sheep yields much wool or little. Take, for instance, that squatter over there who has fifty thousand sheep. If each of his flock can be made to yield one pound more at a shearing, he will have fifty thousand pounds more wool to sell every year; so you see how important it is to have good sheep, and why the people pay so much for them.
Leaving the sheep show, we visit one of the warehouses of Sydney, where the wool is brought in from the country to be shipped off to Europe. It is on the edge of the harbor and of easy access to the ships. We go from floor to floor of the vast building, making our way in and out through the wool, which is stored here by the thousands of bales. Each bale is about as high as our heads. It is wrapped in yellow bagging and weighs about three hundred and ninety pounds.
Some of the bales have been opened, and the white wool seems to be pouring out upon the floor. Each bale is marked with the name of the station from which it comes. In some places men are tearing the bales apart and sorting the wool, and in others buyers are examining the piles in order to make bids upon them. Each buyer takes up the wool in his hands and pulls it apart. We do likewise and then throw the stuff back on the pile. How dirty it is! Our hands shine as though coated with vaseline, and our cuffs are soiled with the grease. The sheep are not always washed before shearing, but the wool is frequently scoured before shipping.
We ask one of the buyers, a man dressed in overalls and a long linen coat buttoned tight up the front, what the wool brings. He replies that the price varies according to the grade, quality, and state of the market. He shows us that it makes a difference also from what part of the sheep the wool comes, some bales being composed only of the shearings of the legs and tails, while others come from the sides and under parts of the body. Fine wool brings twice as much as coarse wool, and it takes an expert to know just what is best.
After the wool is sold, it is exported to Europe in steamships and sailing vessels. The sailing vessels go around the Cape of Good Hope, while the steamers usually pass through the Suez Canal. The shortest distance from Australia to the European markets is about eleven thousand miles, and the freight rate for carrying wool there is sometimes as low as one fourth of a cent per pound. It takes less than four pounds of wool to make a suit of clothes for a man, so that for one cent the ships carry enough ,wool for a suit from Australia to London. This is one of the wonders of commerce.
Let us go out in the country for a look at the sheep in the fields. One of the principal squatters has asked us to visit his station, and we gladly accept the invitation. We leave in the evening and ride all night on the cars. When we awake we are passing through great pasture fields, some containing large droves of cattle and others thousands of sheep. Now and then we go by fields of wheat, rye, barley, or oats, or through forests of eucalyptus and other Australian trees; but nearly everywhere there are sheep, sheep, sheep! We see single flocks which contain as many as two thousand animals, and at one place ride several miles by a drove of sheep on its way from one station to another.
There are but few farm buildings, and no great barns such as we have in our north central states. The weather is so mild that the grass is good all the year round and the sheep need no other food. They require no shelter, living out in the fields from one year's end to the other. The houses we see are chiefly one-story structures, painted yellow and roofed with galvanized iron. Some of them have iron chimneys, and nearly all have iron tanks on their porches to catch the rain water as it comes from the roofs. Australia is a dry country, and in many places every drop of water that can be so caught is saved.
At last we reach the end of our railroad journey, where we find riding horses which take us across the country to our squatter friend's home. It is a big building with many smaller ones about it. Some of them are offices, stores, blacksmith and carpenter shops, and the others are the homes of the men.
It takes a large number of employees to run such a station, and the home settlement is almost a village. The house of the squatter is a one-story building, roofed with iron, with many rooms opening out upon porches, with a large parlor and all the surroundings and furniture of a comfortable home. There is a cricket ground at one side of it and grounds for croquet and golf.
There are also great stables with horses for pleasure and work. The station is miles in extent, and almost every man on it has a horse. The sheep are kept in fenced fields and hence do not need shepherds, as our great flocks on the Rocky Mountain plateaus do ; but it is necessary to have boundary riders, men who go about the fields every few days to see that the fences are up and that the sheep are all right and that they have plenty of water.
We spend some time at the station, going about with the squatter and the men, learning much about sheep and wool raising. We see them shear sheep at a neighboring farm forty miles off. A large gang of men does the work, cutting off the wool so fast that one man shears one hundred or more sheep in a day. The men are paid about five cents for each sheep, and their earnings depend on the number they shear.
When the sheep come into the hands of the shearers they look fat and gray, but when shorn they seem to have shrunk and their coats are snow-white.
At another place we see men shearing sheep by machinery worked by steam or electricity. The cutting is done by little knives moving back and forth like the knives of a mowing machine. The knives are in a frame which is pressed against the wool, cutting it more easily and smoothly than by hand. The power is communicated by a tube like that which the dentist uses for drilling out teeth.
While the shearing is going on, men take the wool ands sort it. They pack it in bales and load it on wagons, which are hauled by long teams of horses or oxen to the cars. In Western and South Australia camels are often used to carry the wool, two bales of wool forming a load for one camel.
We are delighted with our life at the station. We thought it would be tame so far off in the country, but with riding and driving and games, every moment is filled. The squatter's boys think nothing of going off ten miles to play cricket, and his girls often ride twice as far to a party or to spend the night with a neighbor. They have their teachers at home, and their life seems very easy.
We must remember, however, that this is one of the richest of the sheep farmers and that his lands are among the best in Australia. The smaller farmers often have as hard times as our small farmers at home. All suffer when the weather is dry, some parts of the continent being subject to frequent droughts, during which the sheep die by thousands for lack of water and food. The droughts clear the land of everything green. The pastures become as bare as a road, and the sheep stagger about, nosing in the dust for the seeds of grasses and trees.
Their owners often have to sit and watch them die, knowing they can get nothing to feed them. The poor squatters sometimes go crazy because the rain fails to come.
In some districts the evils of the droughts are avoided by artesian wells which are being made by the government in many parts of the continent, where, although the surface of the land is almost a desert, vast reservoirs of water are found far below. Some wells are several thou-sand feet deep, a single one often flowing a million and some more than a million gallons of water a day. The water is often hot when it comes forth, but it soon cools. It is a little salty, but the sheep drink it and thrive on it.
Another great enemy of the sheep is the rabbit, which is found in vast numbers in many parts of Australia. These little animals eat the grass required for the sheep. Men are kept to do nothing else but hunt and trap rabbits, a single man sometimes killing four hundred in a day. Many sheep farms have fences of wire netting about them to keep out these pests, and some of the states have built hundreds of miles of rabbit-proof fences along their borders.