Stories - Lost Sheep

The following is one of my true, short stories.

‘We are 270 lost sheep. Where will we ever find a home ?'

Just as all looks lost...the media come to the rescue! How would we ever survive without the media?

August 2002

It's happened many times before, but in the past no one from the media noticed. Then, one day, in all innocence, I said something.

Six months ago I planned to sell the sheep in ‘Dave's' paddock after they were shorn in August, 2002. The market at that time suggested I should expect to get maybe $10 each for them. I phoned my agent on Friday 16th August, who said, due to the drought, at best, he might find a buyer at $2 to $ 5 each. This was in keeping with my more recent expectations. He phoned me late on Monday 19th August to say, at that day's Tamworth sale, my product was unsaleable. I said, "They will have to be shot and buried in a hole in the ground if that be the case". He suggested I send them for sale unshorn and I might get $15. Really? $15 for an animal carrying all this much wool. The wool alone on them was worth double that, I guessed.

Mike Pritchard from ABC Radio, Muswellbrook, phoned me next morning at 6.35 am Tuesday 20th August, just as he does every weekday morning. I normally do my weather programme with him at this time. But I asked if I might also mention on air that I had 270 poor, unsaleable six year old sheep, off shears, to give away. Mike readily agreed. I mentioned my phone numbers on air.

We left to Muster these same sheep immediately after that, bringing them into the shed to be shorn next morning. While doing so my mobile phone rang and within minutes I had found a home for the sheep. I was well pleased. I hated the thought of mass slaughter of them, as we had done in the early nineties.

Next morning the team of shearers arrived and commenced work at 7.30 am. I briefly looked at the wool coming off these old sheep and my impression was, they were cutting around thirty dollars each, as I had previously guessed.

Half an hour later we were in the Range paddock, mustering, when my mobile phone rang again...and again...and again! It was the media, from various walks of life. They had just heard of the ‘lost sheep'. They wanted a story!


Each time the phone rang I had to stop the mustering process to talk. We were falling behind timetable with these interruptions. Shearing is a busy time. One tries to make the best of every hour in the day. Thankfully - this time at least - due to the drought, the weather was fine which eased some of the normal concerns.

I lost track of the number of calls I had in that hour or so. My conscience was bothering me. From my earlier upbringing by a very strict father, neglecting such an important job as shearing mustering, to talk to someone on the phone was about as wrong as it can get. The sheep come first. The problem was another part of me saw an opportunity here. I never miss a chance to push the difficulties of the bush to the public but more especially to the politicians.

Words were already in mind that I could say.

Then the ‘grand daddy' of all phoned...or should I say, ‘Auntie'? ABC TV Sydney. It was Paul Lockyer. We had hit the ‘big time'!

Now my brain was really going. What an opportunity! He wanted to fly up here in a helicopter as soon as he could get one organized. None of these people who phoned had any real appreciation of the difficult spot I was in, trying to do these interviews on the busiest day of the year for me...but I do love a challenge!

It was becoming painfully obvious, the media were after a ‘bad news story' usual! They had covered the current drought from every angle but now I presented a new one. Here was a poor farmer having to give away his sheep in desperation to survive.

I pleaded with these people, each in turn, that this was not a ‘bad news story', but rather it was a ‘good news' one. I explained it like this. These sheep had been bred on the property, hence costing me nothing. They were now being shorn and I was about to receive further income from them, on a rising wool market. Best I could guess they would have each grossed $120 income in their lives and netted about $80. Therefore, not only did they owe me nothing but I had done well from them financially, relative to these difficult times. In fact I was indebted to THEM. I had a debt, to find them a good home. And I was damn sure I was going to do my best to do so.

Further to this being a ‘good news‘ story, I did not have to mass slaughter them, which is a dreadful task. And lastly, I may have done someone else a good turn in giving them away, if they can carry these sheep until things improve and maybe make a profit for their trouble.

Bad news? Really? What planet do these people live on?

There was another angle - apart from my favourite political one - I was seeing a possible opportunity here to push. The upcoming Norvill Art Prize. I agreed with all these people to give them a story provided they allowed me my chance to have my say about the shortcomings of the politicians and their policies relating to farming and to allow me promote in what ever way they saw fit the Norvill Art Prize. They agreed.

I am not completely naive. I knew they would only do so if it suited them, promise or no promise. But, even if only one did it would be better than nothing. So this is how I weighed up the situation. Mustering commitments, versus, getting a message across.

I spoke live by mobile phone for some of these interviews, as I mustered. Others, including ABC TV, were to arrive by helicopter later in the day. I was not a stranger to having helicopters arriving in my back yard to film on occasions in the past, but this was the most amazing one!

The sheep were just so weak from lack of feed that mustering was a slow ordeal.

Now, as I write this, many months have past. I try to recall that day back in August - a day that in some ways I would rather forget. Interspersed with calls from the media there was an occasional call from someone wanting the sheep.

We were back at the yards before the middle of the day. By now there had been about three calls from people wanting the sheep and about thirty phone calls from the media, wanting a story ABOUT the sheep! For those wanting the sheep I was forced to apologize that they were already committed and had been long before they, themselves, had heard about them. I also explained that they had been victim of a media ‘feeding frenzy'. I really worry about the influence these people in media have over a largely unsuspecting public.

As well as ABC TV there was also a team from the Prime TV network arriving. As luck would have it they both arrived at the same time. More bedlam! Thankfully the Prime team arrived by car. Had they also chosen helicopter, with so much air traffic, there would have had to be ‘air traffic control' set up!

The Prime interviewer was pathetic. I have never been interviewed by anyone in TV who had so little idea how to ask interesting, sensibly organized questions on a subject.

ABC TV landed the helicopter in the paddock across the creek from the shed, after using the mobile phone to ask my guidance in between power lines. All this excitement kept the shearers entertained! Both TV crews filmed inside the shed where the men worked, as well.

ABC slunk around in the yards amongst the sheep, which by now were shorn, getting the best possible footage of the poorest animals. They were successful. They made the worst looking animal the star attraction on the news that night, in all its pathetic state, with the usual, unavoidable shear cuts highlighted.

Basically, my point of view politically, that I tried to put across was that we desperately need less interference, control, new laws and complicated bureaucratic nonsense in the running of our farms. We also need sensible, workable ways that we can put money aside in better times to help us survive the hard ones. With a decent system we would not need handouts. No schemes we have had so far are worth entering into. I have yet to hear an accountant recommend I use one of the schemes so far in place.

Another point I tried to make in support of this being a ‘good news story' relates to a philosophy I call, ‘letting the horse go'. Often the best way to achieve something is by going the complete opposite direction. Instead of digging my toes in, like we usually do when things get tough, by holding on to the sheep and making life harder for myself in trying to keep them alive, I let them go. The reward in letting them go is enormous.

No one grasped this.

Very little made it to air in any form to promote the Norvill Art Prize.

More radio followed, and newspapers through the afternoon. One photographer had me all but standing on my head, with ‘water reflection' background. He seemed to want the sheep to ‘leap' over the dam wall. I couldn't get through to him that they were not capable of such in their state.

We tried to muster more sheep.

If the weather had been a threat there is no way I would have gotten away with it, because most of the work was done late that day, after even the shearers had packed up and gone home.

The ‘lost sheep' had been let out to try to get a feed and drink in a stock lane around the hill from the shed. We went to muster them back in to shed for shelter overnight, at about 9 pm, using the headlight of the Toyota to see where we were going. When we located them one lay dead on the ground, blood and mess everywhere. It was painfully clear a wild dog had attacked it in the last hour or so. It was still warm. The poor thing was torn apart, end from end. There had not been a dog attack here that I am aware of in years.
Next day the sheep were trucked out. Only a few of the poorest were not put on board.

I have not since heard how they got on but their new home was to be in the Singleton district, in a paddock that had been locked up a while.
This story sparked a lot of comment from people. Even now, years later, people still mention it. Perhaps it is another case of, ‘being remembered for all the wrong reasons'?