One thing becomes clear as soon as you travel away from the small territory that you inhabited as a small child and young adult… things familiar to you and expressions you use naturally from your experience in life can mean something amazingly different to other people in and from other places.
I’ll always remember the day I thought as a kid, upon hearing the words on TV: ”travel England’s beautiful country lanes” …’Ugh since when are lanes beautiful? and who on earth would want to travel them?”
In my little world the questions were perfectly logical, we had lanes on the farm I grew up on and our neighbours did too… but ours were sheep lanes, and the only other “lanes” I knew of at that age were also for stock use… “cow lanes”.
So what’s a sheep or cow lane? Well first be aware of the average size of a New Zealand farm, they are often huge compared to what looks first like tiny fragmented hobby farms in Europe. Molesworth, New Zealand’s biggest station at 1800 square kilometers (1118.46 square miles) used to run 90 000 sheep but switched to running 10 000 cattle for sustainability reasons after the rabbit population decimated a lot of the land required it be be resown after a rabbit extermination project.
(Forget any cute images of fluffy bunnies here, this was a rabbit infestation of plague proportions and whole hillsides would look like they were moving, there were so many rabbits on them).
So even if exclude the mega stations like Molesworth, and you have a “small” farm it’s clear that New Zealand paddocks come super-sized when compared to their European counterparts, in the South Island a paddock can easily be the size of an entire hillside. The climate is such that sheep and cattle don’t need to over-winter in inside accommodation, in the Southern Alps it’s simple, sheep graze at higher altitude in the summer months and are moved down the mountains to lower altitudes in winter.
After the winter, the muster brings them in, their heavy fleeces are shorn and they are taken back up the mountains. Of course docking and dipping are also regularly done so there are times when sheep have to be bought to a central location like the sheep station’s shearing sheds and yards.
I tried to find the average stock number for Dutch farms, I did my search in Dutch and didn’t find the information I wanted for the Netherlands but did find a site that said that the average number of stock on a farm in Belgium is 108.
The very average sized sheep station I started life on had about 35 000 sheep so shifting them all can be a slightly bigger logistical task.
Imagine the farm road (usually in a valley) with wide “strip “of a paddock running parallel to it. This “strip” paddock is chopped off into a series of very long rectangles by gates and every now an again there are more gates on the long edges that lead into the huge hillside paddocks above. Like the road it follows, this strip paddock can be kilometres long … but it’s got a very useful purpose.
When you are bringing tens of thousands of sheep down hill during the muster, you bring the sheep from the top of the mountains to the bottom and then funnel them into the strip at the bottom and then close off the access to the hill. You just need to open as many gates in the “lane” as necessary to hold them all. Now you have an awful lot of sheep in a manageable enclosed area (but not on the road) and by opening gates in front of them, and closing them behind, you can shift them all of them en mass to the shearing sheds or yards for docking with just the help of a few sheepdogs and minimum manpower. Most people I know refer to this strip paddock as “the lane” or somethimes also as “the long paddock”.
Dairy herds are far smaller in numbers of course, but the milkers need to come to the milking sheds twice a day for milking and so smaller versions of the lanes are used for exactly the same purpose. Milking cows just differ in that when they get heavy with milk they will usually just walk themselves to the sheds and then back again afterwards to the green pastures for their next feed. On these photos I got out the car window, the well trodden red dirt lane is a clear sign of a dairy farm… a far cry from England’s version of ”lanes” as I quickly discovered.
My city children and Dutch husband were completely ignorant of what my version of a lane was too.. Kiwi Daughter summed it up: “So it’s like a super highway for animals then? ” … well, Formula One maybe not, but … yes, I suppose it is!