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Published: 23 July 2022

By Andy Ross

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The Sixty Million Muster

To my admirable friend, the sheep; forever the coat on my back, the food on my table, the founder of my prosperity and now, the patron of my art.

A popular class at Agricultural and Pastoral Society Shows is the Children's Section. A photograph from the book.

So begins a book that tells the story of the sheep of New Zealand Aotearoa. Written by Temple Sutherland, a Scotsman, who set out to become a sheep farmer in this country on the other side of the world, the book starts with his introduction to farming in Scotland and takes the reader along on his pilgrimage of the industry in New Zealand and Britain. It is a fascinating tale, told with liberal sprinklings of anecdote and a keen eye for detail, and with the story travelling between the Southern Hemisphere and Northern, it provides a unique viewpoint on the farming industry of the mid 20th Century.

The final chapter in the book, The Golden Fleece, relates the links New Zealand and other wool producing countries had with the UK through the sales of wool. By the time this book was published vicuna, Merino, alpaca, Bactrian and Cashmere wools were being sold and brought to Aberdeenshire to be made into cloth by J J Crombie, a company that ceased trading at the start of the pandemic but is now under new ownership. New Zealand wool was added to finer wools at the factory to add body and fullness to this production. Jim Reaper, "Crombie's man, from Aberdeen", is noted as saying to th author that he preferred the South Island wools because they were more robust. The anecdote reminds me of the Shetland saying "Bad weather makes good wool"; a reference to the bad conditions on the hill making the Shetland sheep's wool finer in response. I wonder if it is the same thing and if the South Island wool is still more robust than its cousins North. 

There is plenty of useful information in books like this for anyone who wants to learn more about the woollen industries of the country in its heyday. For exampe, the founding of Mosgiel's Arthur J Burns & Co mill is described as producing enough yarn to "reach right back to Rabbie Burns's Mossgiel farm in Ayrshire and then throw several loops round the British Isles for good measure!" Although the mill no longer operates it was hugely successful for the local economy when it was working. Little snippets like this are helping build up a picture of what used to be in New Zealand and what could be again. With the total of sheep in the country numbering around 26 milion, declining from 70 million in the 1980s, this reminiscence is a reminder of how important sheep farming was to Aotearoa New Zealand.