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Living Off the Sheep's Back

WHEN it's time to move a mob of sheep David Bell goes right to his sheep motivator, "Snap," a nine-year-old kelpie, or Australian sheep dog.

Even from half a mile away, Snap knows he can't just run straight at the sheep. Instead, he arcs around them, running up a steep hillside at the same time. In 30 minutes, Snap has 100 one- year-old sheep in front of Mr. Bell's four-wheel-drive vehicle.

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Mr. Bell says later that working with his 5,200 sheep is so satisfying that it keeps him on his 2,800-acre farm even though the business is barely profitable. "It's dealing with something real," says Bell, who has been growing wool for 35 years.

Bell is not alone in enjoying working with sheep. The Australian Wool Corporation estimates that 70,000 wool growers try to make a living off the sheep's back. When President Bush came to Australia in January, Mrs. Bush visited Glenloch farm, near Canberra, where property manager Matthew O'Neil explained some of the intricacies of the sheep business. Within a short time, Mr. O'Neil had taught her how to "sool" a kelpie (get it to chase sheep), have a successful lambing season, and how to breed sheep.

The sheep Mrs. Bush saw were the dominant strain, Merinos, first brought into the country from Spain via South Africa in 1796. The Merino is ideally suited to Australia's hot and dry climate, and by 1850, 6 million sheep were producing wool for the English spinning mills.

The wool business has always swung in steep cycles. Only two years ago, prices were high, and the sheep flock swelled to 160 million. Today, 120 million sheep produce wool, which is made into apparel, mainly in Asia and Europe.

Aside from the ups and downs of the wool business, wool growers face droughts, floods, and fly plagues. "The competent manager strives to maintain a balance between the ever-changing state of the environment and the needs of his flock," writes James Litchfield in the preface to "The Australian Merino," by Charles Massy.

To get to this state of harmony between animal and land is not easy.

As poet A. B. (Banjo) Paterson once observed, "The truth is that he [the sheep] is a dangerous monomaniac and his one idea is to ruin the man who owns him. With this object in view, he will display a talent for getting into trouble and a genius for dying that are almost incredible."

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Actually, wool-growing today has changed a considerable amount from Patterson's era, the mid to late 1800s. Shepherds deserted their flocks to try to make their fortune in the great gold rushes of the 1850s. "This resulted in one of the greatest advances in sheep management," says Peter Austin, a spokesman for the Australian Wool Corporation.

The lack of shepherds meant that the sheep were free to graze when they wanted. So, the sheep tended to eat early in the morning and late in the day. In the middle of the day when the sun was high and hot, the sheep camped out under a tree. A contented sheep produces good quality wool. And, without a shepherd, the sheep tended to spread out, which helped to prevent the spread of dangerous parasites.

Today, some farmers are trying to grow sheep without using large amounts of chemicals on the land or the animals. "We don't use anything dangerous anymore, and we only put superphosphate [a fertilizer] on every five years," says Jeremy Bell, one of two sons working the land with his father.

Despite these changes, the cycles of raising sheep have not changed much. At the Bells' station, called The Levels, the sheep produce their lambs in September, or spring in the southern hemisphere. In six weeks, the Bells mark their lambs by using a tool which cuts a notch in the sheep's ear. The marking helps identify it if the animal wanders onto another property. At the same time, the lambs' tails are cut off with a hot iron. Removing the tail helps eliminate a place where blowflies can gather.

By November the lambs are weaned off their mothers, whose wool production suffers when producing milk for a lamb. The lambs will be sent through a chemical drench to keep out internal parasites, such as worms.

In February the sheep will be "crutched," that is, the wool in their breach and around their hind legs is removed to prevent it from being fouled by excretia. At the same time, the sheep are checked for blowflies, which can burrow under the skin and kill a sheep in days.

Mating season begins in March when the rams are allowed to mix with the ewes, the female sheep. The Bells try to replenish their stock with their own lambs.

The harvest is collected in August when a team of shearers will spend a week clipping off the wool. The cycle starts again when the ewes start dropping lambs in a few weeks.

Most of the mustering is now done on motorbikes instead of horses. The sheep dogs are taught to ride on the back of the bikes so they can get to the flocks without being tired.

Despite the low wool prices and the hard work, most farmers love the work out under the big Australian sky. As Bell says, "This is really a good life to live."

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