Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sheep Thoughts

Thats really interesting

 I drove down the Waiau Valley recently and noticed the good numbers of sheep of all hues and breeds, except maybe merinos, despite an obvious move towards dairying.  It’s not good merino country but they may have done well when the high tops were grazed.  There used to be sheep up Mt Cleughearn and Mt Luxmore above the treeline, on top of the Longwoods and well up the Takitimus.  I understand chamois are moving into some of those areas now.

Perusing Google Streetview recently I found a sheep with its face blurred.  I would have thought that wasn’t necessary but maybe sheep are more sensitive than we suppose.  They always strike me as being unsettled.  Cows amble along and take life much as it comes but sheep are always looking for leadership which is why they look confused most of the time.  In nature they are very much a herd animal with a hierarchy, but any leadership qualities were bred out of them hundreds of years ago. You don’t want a troublemaker.  Mothers pass on a story to their lambs that one day a great sheep will come out of the east to lead the flock to a place where the clover is sweet and the grass is long and there are no dogs and no men, and the name of that sheep is Baaarry.  Sheep are always calling out for him in times of stress but he never comes.  

I’ve usually had two sheep, the carrying capacity of about a third of an acre which is reasonably fertile.  They’ve been old ewes who have passed through the various rankings – lamb, hogget, mutton and dog-tucker – to something a lion can blunt his fangs on.  At this stage it’s like eating mutton-flavoured string and until someone invents a way of cooking them other than fifteen minutes in the microwave, only the finest quality jaws prevail.  At least the meat is free.  One of them produced a lamb much to everyone’s surprise, but we would have been more surprised had she produced anything other than a lamb.  The latest pair are young wethers.  I’ve never met more feisty sheep.  I’m used to tipping over old ewes who seem to go into a trance as you trim the hooves, crutch them or scissor off the fleece but the new boys will have none of that.  They can clear the fence into the vegetable garden with a foot to spare but at least they don’t bite.  

It takes me 45 minutes to shear a sheep which is not a record but it means an hour and half for the entire flock, which probably is.  I’ve always called the ewes Florence except for a recent one called Stinker.  You could smell her coming.  Weeding the potatoes you become aware of the pong and glance around.  There she is, head through the fence staring at me and wondering if I am Baaarry. The new ones are called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  If it hadn’t been for a ram there would have been no Jacob at all and only a short existence for Isaac.  Ok, there’s only two of them but it’s not illegal to give them three names and it goes a small way to compensate for the lack of names generally.   Only .005% of sheepdom has a name at all.

I investigated a disturbance in the paddock one evening and found two drunk people who had befriended the Florences.  They were feeding them sheepnuts and beer.  Apparently they did that quite often.  I guess they believed the philosophy that there are no strange sheep, just friends you haven’t met yet. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015


I saw a gannet off the south coast just recently.  He was out to sea from McCracken’s Rest and easy to distinguish from gulls and mollymawks, even at a distance, by the brilliant white gloss of the wings.  I couldn’t pick up the black wingtips and certainly not the yellow head, but the way gannets fly makes them unmistakeable.
Gannets breed in small numbers on Little Solander Island, Possibly Big Solander and also on The Nuggets.  They probably nested along the south coast too, to the west of the Wairaurahiri mouth.  They are sparse down here which is their southern extreme in the world.  In Bay of Plenty and in the Hauraki Gulf they are abundant.
The gannet has a wingspan of 1.8m but like the mollymawks it weighs almost nothing.  Large air spaces in the body, hollow bones and surprisingly little muscle make the birds light and manoeuvrable.  We find the odd one dead on the beach.  Several of them have been wearing bands.  The young ones are speckled brown but the adults are white with that yellow feathering on the head, and black feet with a green stripe down each toe.  They feed by plunging from a decent height into a school of fish and snaffling one several metres down.  It’s great watching them.  The flocks of shearwaters feeding close to the sea have to keep a weather eye out for what’s happening upstairs.  Every now and again a feathered flechette plunges past and the odd unhappy shearwater has been skewered.  

I took a tourist group from a cruise ship to see the Hawkes Bay colony.  We are at Cape Kidnappers.  We are two metres from the closest of the many pairs of gannets nesting on the clifftop.  There are chicks of all ages.  It’s a moment of revelation for one passenger.  “Oh, they’re birds.”  Admittedly we may not have used the word ‘bird’ in the briefing but subtle clues like wingspan, migration, plumage and chicks should have suggested that we were not going to visit a worm farm.  Here come the questions...
“Where do they nest?” We are staring at a thousand gannet nests and it’s painful resisting a sarcastic answer.  “What’s the fence for?” I’m asked, so I say that it is a reserve.   “For Indians?” she asks.  “No, for gannets.”  “What are gannets?”  “These birds are gannets.”  Someone else wants to know if they come back to the same chick all the time.  “Yes madam, boring as it may seem that is the nature of parenthood – same house, same kids every day.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Southland's largest land snail

Clockwise from top left: a very large species from Northwest Nelson, my late deceased Pupurangi, a Garden snail for scale, Travers’ snail from the Tararuas and the Guide badge featuring Travers.

Southland’s largest native land snail is the rare Fiordland landsnail Powelliphanta spedeni which gets to 3.2 centimetres, barely larger than the introduced garden snail.  Some native slugs exceed 6cm beating the snail into first place for the record as the largest native land mollusc in Southland.  They are protected from collectors, both by residing in the national park and being on the threatened species register.  This doesn’t stop them being predated by rats, pigs and possums and their future in the wild is uncertain.  They survive in captivity in the right habitat but need specialised conditions to breed.

I visited a school recently to talk about the Social Studies Fair which is being held in Invercargill in late June.  One of the boys said his project was on the Pupurangi or Kauri snail Powelliphanta busbyi.  I told him he was talking to the only person in the world who had kept one as a pet, this being of course before they were protected.  They are one of our largest landsnails reaching about 8cm across but that doesn’t stop them being the most boring pet in the world.  No amount of training would persuade the thing to jump through a flaming hoop.

 I lived in Auckland for five years while at secondary school and explored a lot of the Waitakere Ranges in that time.  We occasionally came across the snail shells – it was then called Paryphanta.  The expert on them was AWB Powell, the malacologist or conchologist if you like, at Auckland Museum.  I met him a few times and took him shells to identify.  He was particularly keen on landsnails, the largest of which were the two groups, Paryphanta and the Flax snails – Placostylus.  AWB was born on the day of the relief of Mafeking in the Boer War so not surprisingly the B in his initials is Baden, after Baden Powell, the hero of the siege.  It was the ideas developed during the siege and earlier in the campaign that Powell later turned into a small book Aids to Scouting, of which I have a copy.  In the front it says ‘The corrected proofs of this book accompanied the last despatches that got through the Boer lines’.  The book was a hit with English boys and soon afterwards was rewritten as Scouting for Boys, and thus the Boy Scout movement began.

Empty shells from near Green Lake

Back to the shells.  Powell was a copious collector and it has been unkindly suggested that he collected some of the rare forms and subspecies of Placostylus to extinction.  In a revision of the Paryphanta snails they were renamed Powelliphanta in his honour.  There are about 20 species and about 50 subspecies, vermivorous critters – that means they eat worms.  The large number of subspecies is the result of the separation of populations in Westland by rivers, slips and glaciers.  Isolated populations form distinct features after many thousands of years and become subspecies.  Powelliphantas get to 9cm across, the largest being the Superb snail.  I have seen them only occasionally – a few in northern Westland, in the Waitakeres and I’ve seen Travers’ snail  Powelliphanta traversi on the Pahiatua Track which goes through bush near Palmerston North.  Travers the snail was the icon of the Guide Jamboree held at Levin, a rare example of a mollusc being elevated to sainthood.  Hang on – what about the Bluff Oyster Festival?

Visiting the Waitakeres one day after heavy rain I found a Powelliphanta busbyi in a roadside ditch, near Huia if I remember.  I took it home and kept is alive for about a year living in a wire-netting topped wooden box in our fernery.  I put in worms but never saw it eating them.  Eventually, when there had been no sign of activity for a few weeks, I discovered the shell to be empty.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

South Coast walking

Gemstone beach

I’ve done almost every inch of the Southland coast from Port Craig to the Catlins – Waiparau Head, in fact – which marks the Otago/Southland boundary at the end of Long Beach. Some of it is easy and some difficult. There are some magnificent bits of coastal scenery accessible only by a hike or a scramble. I’ve got to catch up on the bit between Cosy Nook and Wakapatu sometime. I’d appreciate a bit of local knowledge there and if anyone is organising a coastal walk I’d like to tag along.

 The Fieldclub does a fair length of coast each year and we’d be keen to get around that bit. It gives us the chance to look for bird nesting colonies, seal rookeries, unusual plants and strange bits of debris that the sea pushes ashore. We are fortunate in that the coast is legally accessible with a strip a chain wide (66 feet or 20 metres) above high tide. In most places this has been surveyed to provide landowners with a fixed boundary but the intent of the strip is to give walking access all around the coast. It can be a bit tricky where the coast is cliffy or where there are electric or deer fences right down close to the shore.

 The land is crossed irregularly by unformed roads. These are usually farmed as part of the adjoining farmland but they are public roads and accessible. I usually let farmers know if I am going to follow a paper road and they may suggest an alternative route if there is lambing, electric fences or some other obstacle. The paper road can be formed into a driveable road at the expense of a developer who wishes to put in a subdivision but it remains a public road. Councils can put a paper road up for sale to an adjoining property owner if there is no possibility of it ever being formed but councils are reluctant to do this as sometimes the road will be required in the future for alternative access to the coast or for a development of some sort or as the route for a walking track. Occasionally there is a grumpy farmer but it’s not his land, and his cows are probably right down to the high tide mark anyway, grazing on public land.

 Google Earth shows property boundaries and it’s a useful tool for planning an excursion. You’d be surprised how many paper roads and marginal strips there are. It’s not so easy to find out the owners’ names and numbers though, so you often have to make calls to people with a bit of local knowledge. What sort of cars would be suitable for a paper road? – an Austin A4, a stationery wagon and a Cardillac I suppose.

Omaui coast

 On the subject of stationery… I escorted a group of Texas students on a South Island tour. They were keen and enquiring. “What do you think is your best quality?” one of them asked. That’s a very American thing to ask. I’ve never been asked that before. That’s the sort of thing you get kids to talk about. I don’t need that at my age. I’m reasonably contented and well adjusted. I don’t need compliments. I told her about George. We had a group of kids for some extension work. They were aged about 7 – 9. One of them was George. A quiet lad, not conspicuous in any field and a bit behind reading.

 Sometimes you need to find a way to boost kids’ self esteem. We sat in a circle and they talked about their good points. Their peers supported them and made useful comments – I think she uses good expression, she’s a good friend, good at tidying up. That sort of thing. George was a bit stuck. He didn’t have obvious talents and he was a bit hard to categorise. “He’s a good stapler,” said one of his friends. George’s eyebrows went up a little and he sat up straighter. He’d never realised. “It’s true,” someone else said, “the best stapler in the school.” George got a certificate for his bedroom at assembly and he wore a gold star. “Best stapler in the school,” it said. He gained respect.

 The other kids had never realised before that they had such a rare skill amongst them. They watched him to see his superior performance on the stapler. Perhaps it was his stance, legs slightly apart, biting the bottom lip and squinting. Chunk, chunk. He was given the class stapling jobs, other teachers got him in for tricky stuff. The school secretary had him in from time to time as well to work the big office stapler and he used the staple gun – no one else was allowed. He fixed them too, he had his own long nosed pliers for unjamming them, oil, and the care of boxes of staples of every size. George was made. “It’s his staple diet,” was the joke.

 I don’t know what happened to him. Perhaps he grew up to become a great stationer or an engineer, maybe he married an heiress to a stationery fortune, but it shows what happens when you find the right button and push it.

 I’m looking for contributions to my book on rabbits and possums. It’s coming out in November. I need to get photos and anecdotes. Lloyd Esler 2130404