Masters of the muster


PHOTO ESSAY:JAMIE BALL joins the annual New Zealand muster, where merino sheep farmers round up their herds in the mountains using teams of dogs, years of hard-won guile, and a huge pair of lungs

THERE ARE ONLY two breeds of sheep in the world,” Jim Murray of Glenmore Station at Lake Tekapo once told me. “Merinos, and all others.” And each autumn for the past 150 years in the South Island high country of New Zealand, robust, leathery musterers – along with the occasional, incongruous Irishman – have gathered to muster from the mountains the only sheep breed that matters.

In late spring, thousands of hardy merino wethers (castrated male sheep) are released on to “summer country” on high-country stations to freely graze on terrain farmers would rarely let a ewe tread, yet alone a lamb follow. Above the treeline, the sheep forage for native flora foraged among the tussock and fellfield, which is vital to develop their fine-fibred merino wool. The test for the musterers is in the timing: they need to keep the herd on summer country for as long as the growing season allows, while still mustering them down to the safety of the home blocks before the first blizzards hit.

Six million hectares of New Zealand are classified as high-country, 2.5 million of which are farmed between around 400 stations. Runs, as they’re colloquially known, are typically perpetual pastoral leases of between 10,000 and 120,000 acres. But immense areas don’t mean massive flocks: there is one sheep to every eight to 10 acres or more in this area, making mustering such country more a gruelling game of hide-and-seek than the epic western round-ups of John Ford.

Up to eight musterers pitch in for the week, each armed with his own pack of four to seven dogs, balanced out between huntaways and heading dogs. These will be worked interactively, much like forwards and backs, or as the topography allows. Huntaways are larger, hound-like creatures, hunting away stock through sound. Barking loud and long, they are indispensable in rough, broken country in getting isolated sheep and pairs “mobbed up” and moving. Heading dogs are smaller, highly astute collie dogs with strong eyes that work by sight. They hardly ever bark, but instead dart along the flanks of a formed mob to head them.

In his 1947 book Wayleggo, writer and ex-musterer Peter Newton sets out the musterer’s stall – it has altered little since. “The musterer’s job is to muster the sheep off such country into the respective homesteads. It is country ranging up to 8,000ft [2,438m] in height; harsh, barren country of bare shingle tops, shingle faces and sheer rock, and the sheep, handled only two or three times a year, are as wild as deer and provide a task for man and dog which the layman would think impossible. Each man will have a beat of anything up to 10 miles [16km] in length and one mile wide. Such country can only be covered on foot, and with the numerous contours, a man may cover up to 20 miles [32km] in the course of his day’s work. He may have a two- or three-hour walk up a creek, and then a climb on to a high top before his beat commences. As each man reaches the level of his beat, he will wait until finally the top man has gained his objective, then the space rings with frenzied barking as each man signifies to the man below him that all is ready for the start.”

With mustering, positioning – or the sweating trudge to attain it – is the guts of the tussle. The remainder is less noise than timing, for mistimed barks and shouts can circle around basins and ricochet off bluffs, coming back on the mob as if suddenly in front, which scatters them.

Driving sheep off a high mountain is much like driving a ball into the back of the net through teamwork. The sheep will default to zigzagging uphill and into the wind, falling back upon their primal instincts. Pass, cross and reposition and the ball keeps moving towards the net, for it is quicker for musterers on the upper beats to walk a large mob down a ridgeline than for lower beats to try to drive a smaller one directly down a slope. Always let sheep think they’re winning and you’ll win, too.

Fences are largely a fallacy at such altitudes as all boundaries are natural. The stations were mapped out from river to ridgeline in the 1850s and such borders don’t need fixing. The close of each day is “mustered off” by driving the mob into territory it is unlikely to revisit anytime soon – the lip of a basin higher up, or the braided channel of a riverbed down below – before turning for the hut and the dream of dry feet, warm clothes, whiskey, feed and sleep. Amen.

Jamie Ball is an Irish writer and photographer living in Christchurch, New Zealand.