Tag Archives: sheep

Why Wairarapa?

We came here from Wellington in January 2010. Wellington is a lovely city, with lots to do, a beautiful harbour, and perhaps the best coffee in the world. Why on earth would we or anyone else move an hour and a half away to live on the other side of a very big hill? There’s no article this month – instead, I’ll try to answer that question.

We had to find somewhere. Somewhere much smaller and flatter than our little farm on Wellington’s outskirts, somewhere manageable for people with artificial hips and the other inconveniences of age. This kind of place didn’t work for us any more –

Photo: B. McFadgen

So we looked for a smaller house in Wellington, that didn’t have a vast hillside to look after and wasn’t up lots of steps or or down lots of steps. Sounds easy? Not in Wellington.

When my parents first arrived in Wellington from Canada in 1934, my mother wrote to her family describing this place on the other side of the world. She made a little sketch of Oriental Bay, tracing a rather long walk that they took. You will need to click to enlarge it, and another click will embiggen it further.

They were staying in the St Ives guesthouse (on the right) and you can see them, Stan and Fran, setting out up a steep zigzag (“puff puff puff…”) through close-packed houses. After a rest at the top they walked along a high path and remarked on “cliff dwellers everywhere”. Then it was down another steep zigzag (“brakes on”) noticing how houses were typically reached by a steep path. Walking back along Oriental Parade beside the beach they had to run when it started to rain, and they must have been quite wet when they got back to St Ives.

Oriental Bay is still a lovely part of Wellington, though now expensive, with a popular beach. It has changed a bit since 1934 – the trams (street cars) are now buses, and there are some modern houses and apartment buildings. But it’s no accident that the recurring description is “steep”.

Photo: Business Events Wellington

This recent photograph must must have been taken from somewhere near the top of my parents’ walk, though in very different weather. The sandy beach is Oriental Bay, and you are looking across to the central business district. The commercial buildings have grown and spread, of course, but the surrounding hills are still inhabited by “cliff dwellers”.

Cliff dwelling is no longer for us. After weeks of househunting in Wellington, finding nothing we liked that looked suitable for our old age, we asked each other “What about Wairarapa?” We liked the area, and we knew quite a lot of people there from our involvement with the Black & Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association. I knew it had a large, lively guild of spinners, and expected (correctly) that it would be a treasure trove of interesting spinning wheels.

So here we are. We love it. Plains, wide and flat, stretch from the rugged South Coast northward between mountains. This was taken looking east from the foothills of the Tararua Range – the Pacific Ocean is on the far side of the hills in the distance.

It’s been an important agricultural area from the 1840s. European settlers drove sheep around the coast from Wellington to set up their farms. Merinos came first, but were prone to footrot in the flat countryside and soon Romneys took over. By 1851 there were 20,000 sheep and 2000 cattle in the region.

Drive or cycle for just a few minutes out of any of the five main townships (Masterton, Carterton, Greytown, Martinboough and Featherston) and you will see sheep, cattle, probably some horses, possibly alpaca or deer (yes, deer are farmed here). Another few minutes and you may find yourself in a place of real beauty.

We have not regretted our move. Not for one moment.

A light-hearted look at sheep terminology

Here’s something a little frivolous, from back in 2003. It was published in the magazine of the Black and Coloured Sheep Breeders Association of New Zealand, an organisation whose members were of enormous help to us in our sheep breeding efforts. We knew nothing when we started!

I highly recommend their website to anyone interested in obtaining and using quality handcraft wool.

A special museum

First I must reassure you that I and mine, and the museum I’m about to describe, are all unharmed by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck New Zealand in the early hours of the 11th of November.

Many people and places weren’t so lucky – you will have seen pictures of the devastation in and around Kaikoura, and perhaps also of the buildings in Wellington’s centre that haven’t held up as well as they should have (though to be fair, most of Wellington is fine). Earthquakes are a fact of life that we have to cope with, if we want to live in this beautiful land beside the junction of two tectonic plates. I may talk more about that some other time.

Right now, I want to tell you about a very special place in Masterton – The Wool Shed, New Zealand’s National Museum of Sheep and Shearing. (Some of what follows was first published as part of a longer article in Yarnmaker 25 (Winter 2015). I have added more photos. as well as several videos taken by John MacGibbon.)

Wool Shed exterior

A few years ago, two old woolsheds were rescued after more than a century of use on Wairarapa farms, and trucked into town. You can watch their often hair-raising journeys thrugh winding country roads:

Then a team of local volunteers joined them together and lovingly restored (but by no means “modernised”) them. Farming families and descendants from around the Wairarapa and further afield contributed memorabilia, knowledge, and often their time.

Shearing board

Here the story of sheep and wool in New Zealand is told, from the beginning: Captain James Cook put two sheep ashore in 1779, but they ate a poisonous plant and died. In the 1800s more sheep arrived, mostly Merinos, and soon large-scale farming was spreading. In the 20th century Romneys and other stronger-woolled breeds began to predominate, their wool and meat being among our main exports. Numbers are down now, but there are still six sheep for every citizen.

On view are examples of shearing and sheep-farming equipment (some items have changed surprisingly little over the years) and mementos of the wool industry old and new.

Shearing gear

There’s even an original bushmen’s hut that was built in the late 1800s for the use of bush fellers and fencers clearing land for sheep farming – step inside and feel yourself a real pioneer.

Bushmen's hut

There’s plenty about wool and its uses, and a new display about the history of spinning that I’m particuarly proud of having helped with.

Photo credit: John MacGibbon

Photo credit: John MacGibbon

Wool shed volunteers entertain and instruct visitors with real-life shearing during summer weekends or if a group has booked ahead.

Shearing demo

When you visit you may also find the Wairarapa Spinners and Weavers Guild: we meet every Wednesday and the first Saturday of each month except January. There are about 90 of us, spinners, weavers, knitters and felters. Weaving happens upstairs where members keep several looms (including one set up for visitors to “have a go”). Downstairs we ply our other crafts, and we love to chat with visitors.

So to anyone with an interest in sheep or wool – do visit if you get the chance. We’d love to see you!


The Golden Fleece – what was it, really?


An impression of the Argo by Constantine Volonakis, 1837-1907

Here is something completely different. It dates from my days breeding natural-coloured sheep, and becoming very interested in the genetics of their colour. Inevitably, given my background in classics, I started to wonder about Jason’s voyage in the Argo to carry off the “golden fleece”. What was that all about?

Eventually I presented this paper at the Fifth World Congress on Coloured Sheep held in Australia. It’s a while ago now (1999) and there must have been more recent research that I haven’t caught up with. One aspect I didn’t consider properly is the value of a golden fleece as a symbol of kingship which is inherent in both the legends discussed. Jason had actually been promised the throne of Iolkos, to which he was the rightful heir, if he brought back the fleece. (The promise was broken and it didn’t end well…)

But we still must ask, why a golden fleece and not something else golden?

Anyway, I hope you will find it interesting. Because it’s rather  long, I’ll put the footnotes and bibliography on a separate page. And I’ve added a few colour photos to the original black-and-white text.