Westerlies

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
El Nino rears its head from time to time and on the East coast it usually causes drought.

Submitted: December 08, 2019

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Submitted: December 08, 2019

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Northwest winds have been hammering us for the past week or so, but so far, the damage hasn’t been as bad as it has been in the past. We’re on the East coast and our weather comes mostly from the West. There’s a high mountain range in between, which causes the phenomenon of our warm Northwest winds (foehn). Rain-laden air is forced up and over the mountains and in the process rain is dumped on the West coast and they have severe flooding at the moment. Once the air has lost its cooling moisture, it comes down the other side of the mountain and as it does so, it warms. All of this is our normal weather pattern, but every few years El Nino rears its head to make the situation more severe. We’re in El Nino at present.

The first time I remember experiencing El Nino, I didn’t recognise it. Small trees had been planted on a tussocky hillsides and the tussock had flopped over them, so we were sent in to release them. We used long-handled slashers to locate the trees and to cut the tussock back in a one metre diameter circle around each tree, giving it room to grow. These days the job is done with chemicals. There were six of us working together, we had no protective clothing or equipment. The glare from the tussock is almost as bad as snow. The weather was consistently hot and the wind was consistently strong! Most of the time we wore shorts and were bare-chested, I don’t sunburn easily, but the skin on my nose and cheeks became leathery and flaked off in large chunks. We did this work in those conditions for three months – no wonder I have sun-spots over my arms and legs now!

We knew there was an El Nino coming, so I instructed my planting crew to plant the trees deep. On Radiata pine tree seedlings, there are two small branches at the bottom of the stem, I wanted them to be buried. We didn’t usually like those branches to be buried because when they grew, they were a nightmare to prune off, which meant it cost more to do the job. Well, in late spring, the winds arrived and completely desiccated the young trees! All of them turned ginger, except for some down in the shady gulleys. Some were even cut off at ground level by the wind. Once the rains came, those buried branches began to emerge and by autumn, we had a growing crop of trees – mind you some had two trees emerging from the one hole, but it was better than replanting come winter!

If El Nino strikes in the spring, the grass growth that the mothers of new-born livestock need to produce milk, doesn’t appear, so farmers need to make supplementary arrangements, or quit some of their stock. During the seventies, it was plain to me that we were in for a severe and prolonged drought, which meant that I would have to buy in more feed than the sheep were worth. I had been carefully breeding a good line of ewes, so didn’t want quit them if I could help it. There was an area up in a shady part of the forest that I though could sustain them for a couple of months, so I installed and electric fence around the area. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t mind the hard work. To keep the sheep going meantime, I cut poplar branches or even trees I’d planted for the very purpose. I understood the possibility of hunters taking a bead on my sheep and they did – quite regularly. And it’s no use shooting skinny or runty sheep, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal something worthwhile, so my well-bred ewes were the first to go. There was no hope of catching the culprits, so I accepted my loss. Who knows if honesty really pays or if there’s such a thing karma, certainly sharing my sheep didn’t do me or my family any good! But, a lesson well-learned.

Three other times I have had to quit stock because of El Nino, but I used my own logic. If you have to quit stock, you are selling on a depressed market and when you do have grass and want to buy in stock, the market is always buoyant. So the obvious thing to do is make sure the freezer’s full before quitting any stock. I wouldn’t do that easily though, there was a railway line nearby and there was grass, poor quality grass like cooch, but I’d cut it with a large knife and fill fertilizer bags to feed my sheep. So I’d prolong the agony, but knew sooner or later that the sheep had to go, and I’d have start all over again.

Four times in close to sixty years isn’t too bad, and working with nature always has its ups and downs. There are plenty of good years when the grass grows and livestock thrive. I was never in it to become rich, but on the other hand, I didn’t want the operation to cost me either. When I started, wool was a good price, it was even worth going along picking wool off fencelines or plucking dead sheep, but now the price doesn’t cover the cost of shearing. One would think in this day and age, that a natural fibre would be in demand as against synthetic products that are largely oil based but anyway…

When I was starting out, one old, crusty, cocky told me, advised me that no matter how bad it gets, in the end, nature always provides. And you know, I think he was right.

 

 


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