Talk is sheep



David Whitley prays for the silence about the lambs, but begins to understand where the Kiwi sheep obsession comes from


For some years now, New Zealanders have tried to dispel the notion that they have a penchant for sheep that extends beyond a nice roast lamb dinner. Unfortunately, it seems as though they forgot to tell the tour guides. Put a Kiwi behind the wheel of a bus and the obsession takes over. Throughout my two weeks in New Zealand, I’d barely be able to sit down and buckle up the seatbelt before the tales of New Zealand’s glorious wool industry would begin. The hardy merinos bred in the high country farms produce the finest wool in the world, they say. Low prices are making farmers convert to cattle and dairy, they continue. Special breeds of sheep have been created in New Zealand to suit the conditions, they harp on.


The pinnacle of this ewe-phoria came on the trip up from Queenstown to Mount Cook. On passing the little farming settlement of Bendigo, we are told the story of Shrek, “New Zealand’s most famous sheep”.

Whilst this might sound like a line from Flight of the Conchords, it’s true: New Zealand does have a most famous sheep. Shrek managed to avoid being captured and shorn for six years, and by the time he was, he was a big woolly monster. He looked so silly that he became a celebrity. He was taken to parliament to meet New Zealand’s Prime Minister, and was eventually taken to the top of an iceberg floating off the South Island’s coast to be sheared on live television.



Frankly, with tales such as this, any lame gags about sheep-shagging slip into redundancy. And once you’ve realised that it isn’t going to go away, you may as well run with it. There are a few places across the country where you can watch shearers in action. One is the Agrodome in Rotorua, which hosts an absurdly popular Sheep Show three times a day. It takes place in an unnervingly large auditorium, and the 19 types of sheep bred in New Zealand are trotted up onto a podium. From there, it descends into a slapstick frenzy of dogs chasing ducks across the stage, rams being told to strut their stuff and wool being thrown into the audience.

It’s entertaining in an utterly shameless way, and there’s more of the same in a slightly less slick manner down in Queenstown. 
The Walter Peak High Country Farm is still a working station, although it exists primarily to entertain people getting off cruise boats. Here, a true Southern Bloke – Lindsay Westaway – goes through the whole sheep rigmarole, peppered with the odd tall story. It’s all very cheesy (that’d be a Roquefort or feta for any dairy pun fans out there) but you begin to understand why the humble sheep is so highly regarded in New Zealand. Wool and lamb exports are an integral part of the country’s history – a key factor in the change from being a backward pioneer colony into a wealthy first world nation.

And the boys that handle the woolly wonders are certainly skilled. Lindsay demonstrates how to herd the sheep with his trusty dog, Storm, and then proceeds to set about shearing one without the faintest hint of a shaving nick. 
He takes a few minutes, but that’s not a patch on the rock stars of the shearing world. Believe it or not, there are actually international shearing competitions and the world record holder managed to get through a mammoth 721 ewes in nine hours. And when you start considering the practicalities of that, then realise that it’s actually jolly impressive, you’re well on your way to becoming a qualified Kiwi tour bus driver...