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Title: The Shepherds' Dance: With the Lamb Markers of the Paroo
Author: Edward S. Sorenson
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1306091h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  November 2013
Most recent update: November 2013

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The Shepherds' Dance:
With the Lamb-Markers of the Paroo

A Picturesque Phase of Bush Life

by Edward S. Sorenson

Published in The Catholic Press - Sydney, NSW
Thursday, May 14, 1914

Life on a big sheep run is rather monotonous, but it has two welcome breaks in the year that are among the most picturesque features of the bush. Shearing time is one, which is the annual show to residents in a locality like the Paroo; the other is the time of lamb-marking, which does not last so long, but presents much that is equally interesting to visitors.

Not so many men are required for this as for shearing, but as neighbouring runs operate about the same time instead of following one another, it offers employment to hundreds of men for a short period. So the unemployed of all ages from 15 to 75 make for the homesteads when the time of starting draws near, just as they converge from all quarters, when sheep work is over, towards Mildura and thereabouts for the fruit harvest.

A Mixed Lot.

As there is very little hard work about it, boys and old men figure largely in the complement of hands put on for the occasion. It is one of the acceptable billets that remain for the old shepherd, who laments the fencing of runs and consequent passing of the shepherding days. A few flocks are still shepherded at times in that region, on what is known as the open country, which nobody pays rent for, but everybody around uses when there is good feed there and a scarcity on their own pasturages; but these employ no more than about one per cent of the former members who tended flocks on salt-bush hills and wind-swept plains.

Men come from the gold diggings around Mount Browne, from the opal fields at White Cliffs, from the battlers' havens on the Darling banks, and the shores of Bulloo Lake, and from the three or four convenient stock routes that are followed by most travellers looking for work. For miners who have had a run of bad luck, it offers an agreeable change and a pound or two for the grocer. For the boys it means pocket money and new clothes. Local boys soon become widely known; and if they are known for ability and smartness they soon acquire a monopoly on the runs in their district.

All hands are engaged before the day fixed for starting out to work. On the particular run that I had the pleasure of a round with the operators, the first yard was 12 miles from the homestead. The roll was called early in the morning, and the cook, who was provided with a waggonette and pair, received the rations, camp-ware and tents for the trip, from the store. These and about a score of swags made a big load.

The Twelve-Mile Camp.

A start was made after breakfast; the musterers, who comprised about half the number, rode ahead, driving a few spare horses with them. The rest of the contingent followed on foot behind the waggonette. As several of them were old men, the cook good-naturedly regulated his pace to suit them. That means he spent all day on the road out.

They halted for lunch at a half-way tank, where a couple of hours were spent in the shade of a clump of trees. About an hour before sundown the depot was reached. The camp was pitched in a patch of scrub, a spot that was simply swarming with mosquitoes. A big fire was made with gidgee and mulga logs, the tinware and tucker were laid on bags on the ground, and the men sat around them at their evening meal. After tea pipes were lit, and the group sat by the fire yarning and slapping at mosquitoes till bedtime. Blankets and rugs were spread about on the ground, some of the campers first gathering bunches of green leaves or an armful of grass to make the bed more comfortable. An odd one had a square piece of mosquito netting, which he rigged over his head on stakes. The rest made smoking fires close beside them. The mosquitoes did not wholly disappear with the morning light; in the scrub the pest recognised no regular hours. That special haunt was chosen for the camp because it was nearer to water, and afforded shelter from the dust-storms, which were likely to blow up at any time, and make things unpleasant. The yards, built of logs, stubs and brush, stood just on the outside of the scrubs.

Horses were brought in about sunrise. By that time the men had finished breakfast, and within half an hour they had ridden away to muster the first paddock, which was about five miles square, mostly hills and hollows, the sort of sheep country that takes a lot of time to get over. And while the musterers collected the woollies, and brought them slowly in, the other men busied them selves repairing the yards, and building log and brush wings out from the main gates. Yards constructed of that sort of material are always needing repairs; the assistants find an hour or two's work in them after each draft has been put through.

The Shepherds' Dance.

When the mob drew close to the yard the men on foot met the musterers, and helped to get the sheep into the enclosure. Then commenced the shepherds' dance, to the accompaniment of an earsplitting din. While some swung bags and bushes, others beat a tattoo on an old kerosene tin with a stick, or rattled pebbles in a jam tin, anything that would make a surprising noise when it broke out suddenly against the ears of a half-drowsing mass of sheep. No animal drops so quickly into a drowsy mood, and so soon becomes oblivious to its immediate surroundings when its persecutor temporarily retires from its vicinity, as a weary sheep. When five hundred of them drop their heads and set to dreaming right in the gateway, and the liveliest ones on the outside, unable to go forward, are continually breaking back for freedom, the dancers execute their most weird and wonderful performance, leaping, jumping, running, and capering about generally like a lot of aboriginal hunters at a battue. They shout and "shoo," and yell and yodel until they are hoarse, and wave their various banners and play on their fearful instruments of sound until their arms ache.

Half a dozen dogs add to the pandemonium, those that make most noise being the most valued at such times. A couple are sent across the backs of the shrinking sheep to the corners, where a few sharp yelps loosens the packed mass of wool; a man creeps along inside the yard, and hauls in a few of the stubborn creatures; then the mob streams in under a smothering cloud of dust.

The Same Wild Corroboree.

That is only the entrance gate. There are four or five more, opening into smaller and smaller yards, until the race is reached; and the same wild corroboree is repeated at every one of them. The small yards empty quickly, and have to be kept filled from the big receiving yard. The men are now distributed behind the various gates, so that there will be no break in the operations from start to finish. The boss takes charge of the drafting gates, a couple of men or boys stand outside the race, with long sticks in their hands, prodding the sheep up when they stop running, and another works continuously in the small feeding-yard behind. When the yards containing the drafted sheep are full, a halt is made while the lambs are marked. This does not take long, and at its completion the men rush to their places again, and as some of them have packed the small yards in the meantime, the flow of woollies through the race recommences straight away.

Markers in Fancy Dress.

At the Twelve-Mile Camp there were six markers, three with clips (for marking the ears), and three with knives. All were dressed in overalls, which in two instances took the form of old white shirts, worn loosely; the rest were chaff bags, with armholes slip in the corners.

Half a dozen men were in the yard catching the lambs, which were dumped in a sitting position on two long, smooth rails, the catchers holding a fore and hind leg in each hand. Some of these were also in fancy dress, to save their ordinary clothes from getting blooded from the nicked ears. The markers were ranged outside the rail. The final operation on each lamb was the docking of the tail. Immediately following the slash of the knife, blood squirted over the operator, reddening his face, neck and dress. On this fresh blood the ever-floating dust from the yards settled thickly, so that by the time the drafting was done, it was hard to tell Bill from Jim.

Several ladies in two buggies visited the yards while this work was going on. Some of them threatened to go into hysterics. In one buggy was the landlady from the hotel, who had brought a bottle of whisky with her, a very acceptable tonic just then. While serving it out in pannikins, she, observed, with tears in her eyes, that these men were the most comical-looking customers she had encountered in the backblocks.

A Picturesque Picnic Group.

They had lunch with us that day, forming, with the fancy-dress contingent, whose work was not yet finished, the stockmen, the old shepherds and their dogs, a picturesque picnic group. We had more visitors on other days, for the camp was only about 15 miles from the township. There were a few small settlers about, too. Though lamb-marking was not a novel spectacle to them, they also came to have a look at the work.

Each day's draft was completed with the counting of the lambs' tails. Most of the sheep were returned to their own paddock in the evening or next morning. A mob that had been drafted out to be shifted elsewhere were shepherded by the men on foot until the next draft was brought in. When the work was finished at that yard, the camp was shifted to the next, which was nine miles away. As before, the majority walked, most of them carrying waterbags, and occupying the greater part of the day on the road. There were three yards in all, the round occupying a fortnight. Constant, dusty work, but lively and interesting throughout. Throats suffer most from dust and shouting. The old shepherd spares his own lungs, and makes his dog do the barking. Youths who are new to it revel in the work, and are consequently knocked up when the old shepherd has still got a lively kick in him. To the experienced it is a round of howling picnics, that makes hard fare very palatable, and, hard beds very comfortable.




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