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There was once a farmer who had 50 sheep. He owned a few acres in Central Victoria and lived a quiet, happy life.

One day a sealed envelope arrived in the post. It was made from thick, cream wove paper. Inside was an engraved card in gold lettering. It was personally signed by Sir William Gunn.

Now to understand why the farmer felt stunned by the invitation - which was rather like St. Peter inviting you or I to join him at ringside seats to witness the overthrow of Satan - you need to know who Gunn was.

Sir William was a wealthy pastoralist who ran the Australian Wool Board. Prime Ministers would break off Cabinet meetings and run to answer a call from Sir William. Now the Australian Wool Board was a government regulated body with a budget of many millions of dollars, even back in the 1970's when the embarrassing incident that I am relating occurred.

The Board was originally set up to promote the value of natural against synthetic fibre. Australia, the old saying goes, rides on a sheep's back. The Chairman of the AWB, as you may imagine, was therefore one of the most powerful men in the country.

Gunn was a shrewd, even visionary man. He clearly saw that one of the great problems facing sheep farmers was the often wildly fluctuating price of the fleece.

Once, wool was king. Many eminent leaders in Australia attended costly and exclusive private schools on the basis of wool profits. Stories were told of farmers transporting prize rams across their paddocks in the back seat of the Rolls.

Those golden days however faded. Several years of roller coaster prices could easily wipe out a farmer - particularly as most farms were heavily mortgaged.

Gunn therefore convinced his Board to set a floor price for wool. A farmer facing low market prices could sell his fleece to the AWB. The Board would then stockpile the expensively purchased wool, releasing it onto the market when it recovered. Any profit that was made could then be ploughed back into the scheme. In these days of privatisation when governments sell off as many services as possible to boost their budgets and limit potential risk, the scheme sounds crazy. Indeed, even in the 1970's it demanded great confidence, deep pockets and some hope that poor times would finally turn around. In Gunn's day, it worked well.

Sir William was a physically impressive man. Tall, craggy, solidly built, his jet-black hair was parted in the middle, clear as a sheep track across a paddock. He was as honest and unfashionable as a stump jump plough, and nearly as indestructible.

So here was a hobby farmer, whom I'll call Thomas Jenkin, invited to lunch with Sir William and the Board.

Now Tom was a somewhat unworldly man, but even he realised he was probably only one of many invited to attend the luncheon. Although he contributed a yearly mite toward the great coffers of the AWB, he figured his chance of actually meeting Sir William was as likely as Joe Average hobnobbing with the Queen at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party.

In due course, Tom arrived in the city and walked across the marbled foyer to the Reception Desk, clutching his invitation. Imagine his surprise when a well-dressed man, hearing his name, rushed across and introduced himself as one of the Board's directors.

'Are many farmers coming today?' Tom inquired as the lift whisked them up to the top floor.

'No, sir. You're our guest of honor.'

Jenkin was still puzzling over this when the lift stopped and the doors opened to reveal Sir William. Warmly shaking his hand, Gunn escorted Tom into the boardroom. Introductions to the Board followed. The table was set for lunch with fine linen napery, heavy silver cutlery and crystal glasses.

The meal, which was served by a white-gloved waiter, proceeded with fine wine and magnificent food. Tom was surprised and pleased at how avidly these powerful men sought his opinion and the serious thought they gave his every response. Encouraged, he even tried a few jokes and there was a flattering chuckle of merriment from Sir William.

It was around the serving of dessert that Tom Jenkin made a terrible discovery. Some reference made him aware that the Board clearly thought he was someone else. The name was the same, but somehow the address had been mixed up.

As coffee was poured, Sir William turned to his guest and inquired politely,'Tell me Tom, how big's your current holding?' The two men had proceeded to first name terms some time ago and were merrily Tomming and Billing each other.

'Fifty,' Tom gulped.

There was a stunned silence, then one man whistled softly in admiration.

'Fifty thousand sheep,' he said reverentially.

'Well no,' Tom blushed. 'Actually fifty sheep.'

There was another, much longer and deeper silence as the Board stared at Tom with horrified surprise, realizing what had happened.

Sir William finally broke the silence. Smiling grimly, he leaned forward to address his guest, 'I see. And what are their names?'

I don't know if that story is true, but Tom Jenkin was a big owner, compared to myself. At the peak, we ran eight sheep on our six acres. Those eight sheep however were enough for me to realize I never wanted more.

Living until I was 40 in suburbia, I had a false notion about sheep. Seeing them peacefully grazing in paddocks, I imagined they were silent, trouble-free, ecologically sensitive lawnmowers. Wrong. Mowers don't break fences, ringbark trees, decimate prize roses, refuse to eat long grass, require crutching or shearing.

When we moved to our little farm, it was Spring and the grass was high. This is a classic trap for relocating city dwellers. You see the lush growth and assume the land can carry far more stock than it should. Several months later, the grass has withered away. You buy in lucerne hay, which is very expensive; thinking the occasional bale will tide the sheep over until the grass comes back. Before long, you can't step outside your door before your sheep are loudly bleating for tucker. Overstock your land and your animals not only starve, but also will tear out every blade of grass, turning your land into a dustbowl, which may take years to recover.

A sensible average for Australia is one sheep per acre. It is, after all, the driest continent on Earth.

Fortunately, Sonia and I went into sheep farming very carefully. We began with two sheep - Ishmael and Dolores. Ishy was a wether (castrated male), while Dolores was his adoring sister. Laurie, Lambie, Scotty and Naughty followed. And then there was Muriel.

I named her Muriel because she resembled a 1920's flapper with her vacant blue eyes and ears that hung down like bangs.

She was the most prone to fly strike (trust me, you don't want an explanation of the term) yet the most difficult to catch. If you don't have a sheepdog, you end up running around large paddocks to try to herd sheep into a corral where you can crash tackle them. Noone's truly lived until they try to hold down a strong, struggling sheep. You finish up sitting on them while your partner cuts away the urine drenched, maggoty and daggy wool before applying flystrike powder.

Most sheep fortunately will settle down or breathe in distress while you hold them down. Muriel however never stopped struggling.

Once Sonia led the sheep from one paddock to another. Most quietly followed Ishmael, but Muriel broke free. She rushed down the drive and I sprinted after her. Fortunately, the front gate was shut. I thought I had cornered Muriel but she charged me, knocking me flat. Then she trampled over me, one of her hooves narrowly missing my right eye. I rose angry and determined. Again, I chased her down the driveway. This time, I lunged forward, grabbing a fistful of wool. Then, to get a better grip on the mad animal, I threw my left arm in a headlock around her neck. She reared back, her hind legs tapping out a rhythm.

At that moment, a car passed on the street. There was a whoop of laughter and I heard a small boy crying, 'Look Mummy, there's a man dancing with sheep!'

Muriel and all the other sheep grew old on our farm. Normally, you send sheep to market as lambs or 'two tooths' - two-year old mutton. Our sheep lost all their teeth and toward the end were sucking grass off the paddock.

Seven years ago, Dolores died. She was very lonely after Ishmael died 10 months before. Anyone, who believes sheep haven't keen memories or don't feel emotion like loss or grief, has never owned one.

Life is now much simpler, our livestock now being three cats and a goat.

Now our goat, Suki. But that's another story.

Stephen Collicoat

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The following comments are for "Dances With Sheep"
by Stephen Collicoat

Who'da thunk it?
What an interesting story. I had no idea who these people were (Gunn et al), and I know nothing about raising sheep, but I was fascinated by your little story/article. Your writing as an inviting, easygoing manner that just drew me right in from sentence one.

I'd like to read more of your work.

( Posted by: Viper9 [Member] On: February 11, 2005 )

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