China Bound: Looking Forward and Gazing Back.

China Bound Title

“Some events are jinxed. From its very beginning, the trip to climb Song Shan was certainly one of them.”

“China Bound” by Randy Green.


When Randy Green emailed the first chapter of China Bound I was immediately hooked — couldn’t wait to read more in fact. So I danced a jig when the rest popped into my inbox a few weeks later, along with an invitation to review the book on Amazon.com.

Randy’s a long-time reader of TOML — and I’ve always been intrigued as to how come someone with such an ordinary-sounding English name was making comments all the way from China —  so of course, I said “Sure!”

WELL! Good old Amazon wouldn’t let me review anything. Apparently, I have to part with $50 (USD) of my hard-earned cash to gain that privilege. But until I reach that milestone…

“Hey, I own a blog … I’ll just write my own review.”

So now, let me tempt you into Randy Green’s story of living, working and becoming “China Bound.”


A Memoir Worth Reading

Cars, bikes, motorbikes, rickshaws and pedestrians mix on the streets in China.

“Imagine that I am your old friend, back from China for a visit. We are sitting in a quiet coffee house in your hometown, talking about my experiences in China.”

So begins the preface to China Bound, setting the tone for Randy’s book.

It is not a novel or a thriller. There are no plot twists and turns; no villains jumping out of aeroplanes or crashing cars. China Bound is a memoir. A story of genuine people, finding their way through life — as we all do.

This is the tale of how a quiet, small-town teacher from Missouri found himself living in Zhengzhou, a large, bustling city in northern China, teaching English at its ultra-new university campus. Yes, Randy literally packed his life into three suitcases and flew off to the other side of the world.

Culture shock plus! A jumble of new experiences with changes big and small. So many of the little things we take for granted, suddenly no longer in his life.

No car — and such crazy traffic that he wouldn’t dare to drive anyway! A complete absence of knives and forks… hamburgers… English signage…  And one tall blondie in a million Chinese — no wonder people stared.

But on the plus side, a world of new food… culture… history…and above all folks to meet and get to know. Randy dived right in. Turns out that he loved China so much he never left.

Fun Facts

Did you know that China has a tropical island paradise nestling off its southern coast? (It’s a Chinese version of Hawaii, called Hainan, and it’s beautiful.)

Or that eating exclusively with chopsticks is a good way to lose weight?

And that roses grow prolifically in Zhengzhou?

If your knowledge of China — like mine —  is limited to the stereotypes you’ve seen on TV, then reading China Bound will open your eyes and whet your appetite for more.


Randy Green, author of China Bound.
 Randy Green, author of China Bound.

I love reading autobiographies and memoirs.

Your journey, your passions, what makes you tick. I’m endlessly fascinated, not because I’m nosy, but because of those all-important connections that your story makes between us.

I can’t walk in your shoes but if I read your story — and you know mine — then we connect.

The world will be a better place if we all strive that bit harder for compassion and empathy. And that’s where China Bound leads its readers. Into the world of an expat American in China, learning daily and taking us right along with him. 


Let’s Connect

The Book: China Bound.

P.S. I’m not the only one to have loved China Bound. Here’s a snippet of one review: “The way the author writes about his experiences…made me feel like I was right there with him on his journey.”

You can read more reviews and buy the book on Amazon here.

(These links are not ‘affiliate links’ and I won’t make any money if you click on them.)

And you can find Randy’s blog here.

Have you read China Bound? Know of any other great memoirs to read? 

You’d get me dancing again if you left a comment on the blog or let others know about this post.

Other Reviews On TOML

Confessions of a Bookworm – AKA Why I never read in airports.

Amy Baker: Many Stitches In Time

If you ever get the chance to go to an exhibition with the artist behind the work, grab it with both hands. I’ve had that opportunity and loved hearing how the artist had created each painting: where it was, how she felt and the mood she wanted to portray. Once I had the background, I could appreciate the art so much more. It was an even better experience to sit down with Amy Baker the other day to learn about her amazing textile art and discover the incredible detail behind each piece.

Artist Amy Baker sitting with her two children.

Amy’s Art

Reading the little card beside a piece of art in a gallery — or even the longer notes in an exhibition guidebook —  comes a poor second to actually talking to the artist.

Those brief, condensed written words can’t even begin to give you a sense of the intensity, passion and hours upon hours of work that went into creating it.

And, believe me, those are apt words to describe the emotion that Amy Baker puts into her work.

The Political Portrait Series

Amy’s probably best known for embroidering satirical, many-layered portraits of well known political figures.

It’s almost impossible to capture the richness of these portraits in a photograph. On screen the picture is flat; in real life, there’s a sheen and texture that almost jumps out of the frame.

And when you learn about the work, the thought and the process of creating each unique portrait — well it took my breath away. There are hours and hours, layers upon layers of stitches in each piece. I’m staggered by the complexity and detail.

It Takes So Much More Than Inspiration

Amy’s first step is hours and hours of research.

Her subjects create controversy and their opinions and actions evoke passionate responses from the public. Before she can express that in her art, Amy needs to feel connected with the person behind it.

Gradually, as she digs deep, a picture forms in Amy’s head. Shapes, materials, textures, colours — there is so much to consider.

Gareth Morgan

Ah, Gareth!

His call for tough controls on feral and domestic cats unleashed a storm of controversy. Cat lovers pounced and Gareth’s essential message about the dangers cats pose to our native wildlife blew away in the wind. Amy’s a cat lover herself, but she’s not blind to Gareth’s point. So she began, as she always does, with some research.

“Who is Gareth Morgan?”  she wondered. Where did the outspoken economist come from, and what formed his ideas?

Amy speaks with fondness about Gareth now. Her research uncovered his hugely philanthropic bent, his trading roots — perhaps an influencing factor in his son Sam’s creation of Trade Me — and his staunch willingness to take on unpopular crusades when he believes in a cause.

So she created her portrait; a playful take on the issue —  “Gareth Morgan On Cats.” It’s a lifelike picture of Gareth embroidered onto felted cat fur.

Gareth Morgan On Cats, political embroidery by Amy Baker
Gareth Morgan On Cats by Amy Baker

In another layer of symbolism, Amy surrounded her portrait with a handmade frame, created from an old window and recycled timber. Her quirky nod to Gareth’s self-made wealth; begun by flipping secondhand goods.


Winston Peters

Just as an author will talk about a character going in directions he hadn’t planned for, so it was with Winston’s embroidered portrait. Amy says that somewhat frustratingly, it took on a life of its own.


“Winston just wouldn’t behave and do the things I wanted him to do while I was stitching him,”

I’m guessing that’s what gives the likeness its richness and depth. Winston has never been known to behave as others would like.

The more Amy researched Winston Peters, the more of an enigma he became. His stance on immigration in New Zealand is well known. It’s ironic to consider that every single Kiwi comes from immigrant background. Some have been here longer than others, but all our ancestors came to New Zealand from over the sea.

Even Winston, with his Maori and Scottish roots, isn’t exempt from that inescapable truth. And yet he’s adamant about that tough decree on people from other lands who now want to live in New Zealand.

So Amy set out to make a satirical comment on Winston’s immigrant status and policies. Every piece of his portrait comes from “immigrant stock.” And in typically frustrating Winston-fashion, it took Amy six long weeks to source all the materials for the work.

Close up of Winston Peter's face in the embroidery piece "Had Enough?"
Close up look at the face of Winston Peters in “Had Enough?  ” by Amy Baker

Stitched on dark blue Thai silk, Winston’s portrait has a variety of threads from many origins. Of course, there are wool and flax fibres to represent his Scottish and Maori ancestry.

A brush full of dog hair gave Amy exactly the right shade for the grizzled grey in Winston’s hair and added another light-hearted joke: after all Mr Peters, with his vast political experience is a bit of an “old dog.”

Donald Trump

Love him or hate him, the current American president tends to polarise people’s opinions.

When Amy was sifting through competition lists and the theme “Outrageous Orange” caught her eye, Mr Trump leapt straight to mind. While she was still thinking about his, he made one outrageous remark which was the final straw.

I haven’t seen “Where’s The Pussy, Mr President?” in real life — it was on display in Arrowtown when I visited — but I think Amy’s use of cat fur as Donald’s hair is a touch of genius.

Amy Baker's embroidered portrait of Donald Trump, with cat-fur hair.
“Where’s The Pussy, Mr President?” by Amy Baker is deliberately framed in landscape style to reference Mr Trump’s love of being on television.

People have occasionally suggested that she should add a bit of caricature to her work, but Amy has one word for that. No!

In her book, making fun of someone’s looks is tantamount to bullying. “I won’t make comments on a person’s looks,” she says. “But I can use what they’ve said and done — those are things that they chose to put out into the world.”

Shows and Awards

Amy has entered all three of her political pieces into art shows around New Zealand, which is how people are beginning to know her name and work.

Winston’s portrait “Had Enough?” was runner-up at the Aspiring Art Prize awards in January 2018. Then in March, Amy was honoured to discover that all three of her entries were accepted into the Changing Threads Contemporary Fibre Art Awards in Nelson; a fairly rare achievement, she was stunned to learn.

The “Woman Inside My Head”

Recently, Amy started down a new path with a picture that came entirely from her own imagination.

“Punk Girl” formed in Amy’s mind one day. Imaginary she may be but Amy still needed to know her story before she could stitch the picture. So Amy began some research into the fascinating world of Punk to discover more about this fascinating character.

It’s work that could fuel another series of portraits. Amy wants to explore the theme of how one face can change when it’s surrounded by different colours, hairstyles and clothes.

I can’t wait to see Punk Girl’s next incarnation.

The green-haired portrait of Punk Girl who sprang into Amy Baker's mind one day.
I wonder what Punk Girl will look like when she changes her hair and clothes? 

When Does Craft Become Art?

This is a much-debated question, and there’s probably not a simple answer.  

Amy has embroidered for years now. She was hooked by a kit found in Grandma’s drawer when she was just six years old. It was the first of many and those kits taught her about stitching, drafting, colours and following a pattern.

But there’s only so much you can do with a kit. When she moved to Kingston Amy was thrilled to join the Queenstown Embroiders Guild and learn more about creating her own work. Eventually, she grew bold enough to enter an original work into a competition. It didn’t win a place, but it did give her the thirst to do more.

Amy’s thought a lot about the art/craft question and thinks her craft became art when she began stitching a message into her work. Because now there’s more than a pretty picture and intricate stitching; Amy’s work also makes a political comment on a person, position, place and time.

What Next For Amy Baker?

It’s 125 years since 25,521 women signed and presented the Suffrage Petition to New Zealand’s parliament so now Amy’s got Kate Sheppard in her mind.

This is a portrait still in its infancy, but even as she researches and learns all about Kate, there’s already a special connection between Kate and her great, great, stepgranddaughter, Amy Baker.

And in between those intensely-worked political pieces, there are more playful and therapeutic works in progress.

One of these playful pieces turned into a delightful 3-D embroidery of a New Zealand forest floor — now sporting the addition of an inquisitive bird. (We added that separately-worked little fellow on a whim during our afternoon together and rather liked the look.)

Embroidered 3D bird perched above a complex stitched forest floor art work.
Intricate stitching and layers of forest colours went into  “NZ Forest Floor” by Amy Baker.

The little piece — mounted on its wooden stump — has been so well received that Amy is now booked to tutor a class at the Wanaka Embroidery School in March 2019, showing how to make a similar creation. It’s an honour, but also hard work designing the lesson, putting the basic materials kits together and sending out information.

These are exciting times for Amy. She feels a little overwhelmed by the attention her work is beginning to receive after such a short time in this new artistic space.

But what fun it will be to see what Amy Baker comes up with next!

For a small town, Kingston people have an incredible number of artists living in their midst.

On Time of my Life, you can already enjoy reading about Kingston’s Michelle Goggans and her whimsical watercolours, and I hope that I’ll be privileged bring you more of Kingston’s talented residents in the coming months.


Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

Many small businesses have a special story to tell. They are built on passion, commitment and a long-held dream. Each has a flavour, history and ethos that is all their own. Some are steeped in history, others are brand-new and excitingly different. Altitude Brewing, who last year took all of our green hops to flavour the delicious “Me and Jimmy McNamee” beer, is one such business with a story to tell.

The other day I popped into their new building on the Frankton Marina, to visit partners Eliott Menzies and Eddie Gapper, and hear the tales behind…

Altitude Brewing.

Altitude Brewing's Motto: Every great adventure ends with a beer!

So what do a Queenstown local lad and an English former-advertising- executive have in common?

Well, they both love beer, of course!

But they also love adventure, the great outdoors, and the thrills and spills of owning their own business. Combine them all and you get a great little brewery called Altitude Brewing.

The Brewer

“I’ve been a beer maker pretty much all my life.”

When Eliott Menzies left Queenstown at the tender age of 17 to seek adventure in far-flung lands, he knew no more about beer than the average “under-the-legal-age-limit” teenage boy.

But after a traditional Kiwi 6-month-stint in London, Eliott — now 18 and legally allowed to sample a brew — decided he’d had enough of cities and travelled north to Scotland. Looking for adventure (and perhaps hearkening back to his Queenstown mountain upbringing) he headed for the Highlands, where he landed a job at a mountain pub.

And that’s where Eliott met BEER.

Not your normal, big brewery, continuous brew type beer, but craft beer — ales, lagers, hops; beer to fall in love with. And that’s just what Eliott did. He fell in love with the whole process of beer from the brewing to the drinking, and everything else in between.

It wasn’t long, in fact, before Eliott decided he wanted to know more than just how to drink beer, and so began the journey which ultimately led to Altitude Brewing.

Fortunately, half an hour down the Scottish road was a small brewery. Eliott simply invited himself in one day and began to help out. Of course, it wasn’t a paid position; he was strictly a volunteer, but it was just what he needed. A free introduction to the brewing world.

Eliott Menzies in the Altitude Brewing Brewery
Eliott Menzies, creating a brew.

Coming Home

Back in New Zealand, Eliott decided to spend 5 years in Wellington, studying architecture at Victoria University.  Although he never did become an architect, it certainly wasn’t wasted time.

Aside from his formal studies, Eliott continued his beer education by becoming a dedicated home brewer. Student flats always have a convenient cupboard — ideal for a homebrew setup —  somewhere in the house.

He didn’t follow other people’s ideas.

In fact, it wasn’t long before Eliott branched out and began experimenting with his own unique flavour combinations. And after a while, those recipes became the basis for the various lagers and ales that Altitude Brewing crafts today.

Introducing Eddie

Eddie Gapper drinking a glass of Altitude Brewing beer.
Eddie Gapper, checking out the perfect brew.

Eddie Gapper came to Altitude Brewing via an entirely different route.

Growing up in England, Eddie already knew what life was like in the Northern Hemisphere. His journey to beer heaven began with a job at an advertising agency. But while that was a lucrative path to follow, it wasn’t exactly living the dream. At least not the dream in Eddie’s head.

So he and his wife followed their love of adventure and the great outdoors and headed off on their own O.E. Travelling in the opposite direction to Eliott’s northern adventures, Eddie escaped south, via Canada and eventually landed in Queenstown.

At first, Eddie’s idea was to start a business in the adventure industry. Queenstown is, after all, the Adventure Capital of New Zealand. But the market is fairly saturated with adventure activities. After a good look around, Eddie decided that it didn’t really need one more.

What Queenstown did need was a business that was interested in the locals. A place tourists could enjoy, but which was ultimately focused on being a good citizen in its own backyard. So Eddie began looking for just such a business.  

It took a while. But one day Eddie had a beer with Eliott, and the Altitude Brewing team was born.

Complementary Strengths

It’s not often that a single person has all the skills and strengths necessary to run a business. And even if you are that rare breed, the time and energy it takes to do everything eventually results in burnout.

Eliott loves brewing and beer — he’s not keen on managing and marketing. Eddie didn’t know much about brewing, but marketing and management — those are right up his alley.

Together they made the perfect team to take Altitude Brewing to the next level.

Contract Brewing And Beyond

Eliot’s first plan for Altitude Brewing was as a contract brewer.

Each beer was made to Eliott’s recipes but he contracted a Christchurch brewery to do the actual brewing. Altitude Brewing then sold the resultant beer in Queenstown pubs and selected other South Island venues. This was the path the company was following when Eddie joined the team.

But Eliott and Eddie’s strength is their flexibility and willingness to investigate new ideas. Not long after Eddie became Managing Director, they realised that the contract brewing model wasn’t really the way to go. It was time they brewed on home turf.

At first, this seemed like an impossible dream. We all know the price of land in Queenstown is horrendous — and availability is just as bad. But somehow, things came together and in 2017 they managed to secure a dream spot at Frankton Marina.

Fast forward less than a year and, finally, Altitude Brewing has come home to Queenstown.

Eddie and friend clinking Altitude Brewing beer bottles.
Eddie brought an Altitude Brew for the Fulton Hogan IT team to sample
on their recent team-building expedition in the South.

Local And Proud

We have tourist bars aplenty around here. Altitude Brewing, however, is one of those rare places that does focus on the locals.

That’s not to say that visitors can’t find a good brew there; of course they can — and they’re very welcome. But first and foremost, Altitude Brewing is there for local people.

I love their flagon initiative. Fun as it is to go out, sometimes you’d rather just have a quiet beer at home. Altitude Brewing makes that possible — and reduces litter and waste at the same time — by encouraging their take-out customers to bring their own flagon.

Yes, you read that right. You can take along a container, fill it up with tap beer and head on home for your cold one. Brilliant.

Then there’s Altitude’s “One per cent for the Wakatipu” scheme which donates to local environmental and outdoor causes: think bike clubs…wildlife…youth trusts…

The Altitude Ethos

If you had to distil Eliott and Eddie’s Altitude Brewing attitude into just three words they’d be Adventure, Environment and Local.

I love their energy and their enthusiasm for new ideas. They’re all about local connections and keeping the story going.

After all…

“Every great adventure ends with a beer.”

The bright red Altitude Brewing brewery at Frankton Marina.
The new Altitude Brewing premises at Frankton Marina.

Connect with Altitude Brewing on Facebook.

Lambing Time: A Family Affair

A ewe nuzzles her tiny black lamb at lambing time

All Hands On Deck

Running a farm is an all-encompassing affair. It’s your livelihood and your life. So when you start having kids, lambing time becomes a family affair.

Our children were immersed in the farming lifestyle from their earliest days, and never more so than in Spring. During this busy season, our motto has always been “all hands on deck.”

When the kids were small, tiny lambs were their main delight. Because of the intensive way we lambed back then, there were always spare lambs in the pen waiting for new mothers. They were fed four times a day, and the kids quickly learned all the tricks of the trade, from mixing up multiple batches of milk to persuading a reluctant lamb to drink.

3-year-old Debbie bottle feeding lambs at lambing time.

A Lamb To Remember

Inevitably some became pets. Every year, a new set of pets to love and play with. Our memories of the healthy ones are blurred now but one lamb we’ll never forget.

Floppy. He was not the prettiest, with wobbly back legs that never worked particularly well, but oh what a personality that lamb had. Other lambs came running for the milk and rushed off to play as soon as the bottle was empty. But Floppy loved a cuddle and because he belonged to Debbie, who loved animals to distraction, he got hundreds of them. I would often find them cuddled up together in the paddock or in the hay barn, both perfectly happy.

Floppy’s spirit was indomitable, but his body gradually let him down. Eventually, those wobbly back legs gave out, and he stopped walking. Even then he didn’t give up, dragging himself around on his front legs and bottom, and always happy for a bottle and another cuddle. It was a sad day for us all when at last he gave up the fight.

Debbie cuddling her special pet lamb, Floppy.
Debbie with Floppy who only lived 3 months, but taught us a lot about making the best of what life gives you.

Opening The Gates

As the kids got older they graduated to task number two: gate opener. Our sheep were set stocked, which means that each little mob was shut in its own paddock. There were so many paddocks, each with its own set of problems, that having someone to open and close the gates was a great time and energy saver.

It wasn’t always one of our children of course. My parents loved to come up and help out at lambing time, and so did visiting cousins and friends. It was such a thrill — and an education — for them to go round the sheep with Terry.

Gate opening may sound like an easy job, but on our farm, believe me, it wasn’t! Every gate seemed to have a different sort of latch or chain. Some were simple to unlatch but tricky to do up again. Others were the opposite. Some gates swung beautifully on their hinges; a few had to be lifted and heaved bit by bit until there was just enough room for the truck to squeeze through. Most gates were metal — a few were the old (actually, ancient) wooden variety and we were more than a little scared of breaking them as they creaked open.

— And Other Essential Tasks

In those days we identified all the twin lambs by spraying them — each set with their own colourful mark. If a twin wandered away we could find the mother by looking for the other similarly marked twin.

In their, pre-children days, the men would simply use dots or lines on the lamb’s heads, necks, backs etc. But once the kids and I came on the scene we got far more creative. Terry didn’t care what we did — so long as he could easily see the mark.

Again, this was a job that anyone who was agile enough to jump out of the truck, scoop up twin lambs, deftly spray a mark on exactly the same part of each lamb, and dash back to the truck without disturbing the ewes or being followed by the lambs (who suddenly decided you were their best friend) could do. It was another way we could help Terry save a little bit of energy for the big things that the kids couldn’t do yet.

Fast forward to 2018, and we don’t mark the twins any more. In the keep-it-natural-whenever-possible way we approach lambing now, we’ve found it really isn’t necessary, We save a lot of time, and spray and funnily enough, 99% of the lambs and mothers seem to find each other again anyway.

Nowadays we reserve the spray markings for sheep and lambs who’ve been mothered on. We put the same mark on both the ewe and her adopted lamb, just in case they get separated.

2 sheep and lambs brightly marked with flag symbols for the 2015 Rugby World Cup which happened during lambing time.
The 2015 lambing: Steph decided on a “Rugby World Cup theme” and marked all the mothered up lambs with flags. They were all particularly bright and easy to identify that year.

A Day In The Life At Lambing Time

Wake up time is not by the clock, but rather, with the birds. By sun-up we’re filling the flask with hot water — for mixing milk powder, not coffee — and gearing up for the morning lambing beat. Even on a fine morning, that means jerseys, coats, hats and long socks under our trousers.

If you’re me, you might even be wearing woolly leg warmers and a rug. The men, of course, are far tougher and wouldn’t be caught dead with either of those. But, as I said before, it’s pretty chilly in the Polaris and I like to take all possible precautions against the cold.

So off we chug in the Polaris. It’s small and light, and the sheep don’t take much notice of it as we trundle around the paddock, unlike the larger farm truck, which they tend to view with some alarm.

Inevitably there will be one or two dead lambs to pick up, but what we’re really looking for is signs of a ewe or lamb in trouble. Most ewes will give birth naturally and without too much drama. Then they’ll turn round, find — somewhat to their surprise — this tiny, wet creature, and begin to lick it clean. After a while, the lamb will find its way to the udder, have a good drink of warm, life-giving colostrum and never look back. We don’t have to worry about those lambs.

Looking For Problems

Not all the ewes have it quite so easy. Lambs coming backwards; twins in a tangle; a lamb that’s grown too big and is just plain stuck — these are what we’re watching for and they’re not always easy to spot. Ewes that are out in the open, eating, looking happy — those girls are fine for now. But we check anything that’s off by itself beside a fence, or under a tree, looking a bit forlorn.

You would think that a ewe in trouble would be grateful when the lambing shepherd arrives to help. You would be wrong! As soon as she realises that you’re interested in her, she’s up and away. No matter how miserable she feels, she’s likely to bolt as soon as you try to catch her.

Some dogs are great at helping to catch a sheep. Our son has several that make his life much easier in that regard.

We don’t!

I’m not particularly good at imitating a sheepdog, but I do my best to head the ewe in Terry’s direction, and if we’re lucky we’ll catch it the first time. Or maybe on the second attempt. By the third attempt, I’m keeping very quiet and trying not to be noticed. If (heaven forbid) we have to make a fourth attempt… well, let’s just say that on those stressful occasions I learned some new words in the first few years that I did the lambing beat.

Round the sheep…deal with any problems… open and close the gate… into the next paddock… repeat, again and again. On a fine day with few problems, it’s magic. On a wet, cold, snowy or windy day it’s horrible. The best we can hope for at lambing time is a fine, warm spring with no problems. The worst we can get is the opposite.

Back They Come

Our children may be grown up now, but every year at least one of them comes home to help out at lambing time.

I like to think that farming keeps them grounded and, like riding a bike, those skills learned as children and teens never really leave you. The girls may be city-based now but they can all still help to catch a sheep or lamb a ewe. They haven’t forgotten how to grab a runaway lamb and unblock its gummed-up tail.

We love it when they come back and truly appreciate their help. We’re getting older now, my farmer and I, but, happily the latest generation is alive and well and getting ready to do his part.

1 year old Harvey is bottle feeding a lamb with his mother and auntie at lambing time.
Harvey is getting ready to join the team at lambing time.

Lambing Time looks a little different on the farm these days. Find out more in Part 1 of this series: Lambing 101

Life On The Farm: Lambing 101

4 lambs at lambing time, all looking at the camera.

Spring

It’s September, which in Garston means spring, one of the busiest seasons in the farming year.

The trees are covered in blossom; daffodils abound; there is a ton of ground preparation to do before Terry can sow the new crops. But foremost in our minds right now are our pregnant sheep.

Mamma mia, here we go again: it’s lambing time on the farm.

Many Variations At Lambing Time

There are probably as many variations in farm lambing practices as there are farms in New Zealand. We all have our own ways of looking after the sheep in spring.

Partly it depends on the type of sheep you’re farming. Some, like Merinos, are bred to be easy-care. High country farmers put their merino ewes out on the hills and don’t go near them when they’re lambing. You’ll do more harm than good, trying to interfere there.

It also depends on the sort of lambing percentages you’re aiming for, and how intensively you farm.

Many farmers, especially those nearer sea level, where the land is warmer and winters less severe, aim for lambing percentages of 140% or more. Their sheep are bred for multiple births; twins and — even better —  triplets are common and encouraged on these sorts of farms. There’s a ton of work in this method, with lambing shepherds constantly going around the sheep. Orphan lambs — and some of those triplet lambs — will be brought into sheds and bottle-fed; others will be mothered on to ewes whose lambs have died.

On our farm, we’re somewhere in between these two extremes.

Jenny, bottle feeding orphan lambs during lambing time on the farm.
We keep rescued lambs in a cosy pen, and mother them onto new mums as soon as possible, but we don’t feed and  raise lots of orphan lambs the way intensive sheep farms do. 

Weather Matters

There is nothing nicer than lambing on a warm spring day. The sun is shining, the grass is growing, lambs are playing and there is comparatively little for us to do. There’s even time to chat as we drive slowly around each paddock looking out for signs of trouble.

Unfortunately, Spring rarely gives us 6 weeks of lovely weather. Instead, that changeable season is likely to throw everything at us: sun, wind, rain, snow, frost — you name it, we’ll get it in spades during lambing.

Spring is the time for the nor’west wind. It sweeps down the valley, gaining strength as the day goes on. A good nor’wester in Garston can rival a windy Wellington corner any day. Sometimes the wind is so strong you can literally lean onto it; truck doors slam on unwary fingers, and anything unsecured (boxes… bins… washing baskets…) can end up halfway down the paddock if you don’t catch it in time.

At least the nor’wester is a warm wind. However, it’s often the precursor to a Southerly change and that’s the weather we don’t want. Unlike the northern hemisphere, the south wind here can be bitterly cold, and brings with it rain and sometimes snow.

Going round the sheep in the wet and cold is horrible, especially in Terry’s preferred vehicle, the Polaris. which is not enclosed, and has no form of heating. I can’t complain too much because it does have a roof, so at least we don’t get wet in it. Lambing on a quad bike in the rain, as some farmers do, must be worse.

Terry, warmly dressed for driving the drafty farm Polaris.
The trusty Polaris.  A little more weatherproof than a quad bike, but still rather drafty on a cold day.

Stacking The Odds For Lambing Success

Caring for the ewes

It seems pretty harsh to expect new lambs to survive in awful weather but if you lamb outside, with a minimum of intervention that’s what they have to do. So we stack the odds in the lamb’s favour as much as we can. Often that starts in winter.

Terry works hard to feed the ewes plenty of good food during the winter because a well-fed ewe will be able to pass on more nutrition to the lamb and grow it to a good size before it’s born.

Just before lambing starts we bring in the conveyor contractor to give the ewes mineral supplements and vaccinations. The lamb will get the benefit of these when it drinks colostrum in the first few days after it is born.

Most of our paddocks have some sort of shelter which the ewes can seek out in bad weather. Tree-lanes, bushes, flax and even old wood piles all provide shelter from wind and weather when necessary. The idea is to give shelter as naturally as possible.

Ewe and lambs sheltering under a tree at lambing time.
A ewe and her twins under the trees which provide shelter from both rain and sun.

Pre-lamb shearing

A number of years ago we began pre-lamb shearing. It sounds mean to take the ewes’ woolly coats away in winter, but the sheep quickly adapt and the advantages at lambing time are huge.

Woolly, pregnant ewes are prone to lying down and getting cast, which means they end up stuck on their broad, woolly backs, unable to get up again. If a ewe gets cast after you’ve been through her paddock, she could end up lying there suffering for hours. She might even die.

Sheep can even become cast after giving birth. It is awful to find a cast ewe with a lamb nearby, dead because the mother wasn’t able to get up and lick the mucus away from its nose. Alternatively, a lamb may have a clear nose and get up and wander away from the cast ewe. Because it hasn’t been licked and suckled, the mother-baby bond doesn’t form and they can be difficult to pair up again.

Shorn ewes are far less likely to get cast. They are also less likely to lie down on their little lambs by mistake, and because they, too, feel the cold they are more likely to seek shelter for their lambs in bad weather.

Breeding For Survival

So those are some ways that we manage our sheep for successful and easy-care lambing. But over the past few years, we’ve been actively breeding for success as well.

Our sheep are the old-fashioned Romneys, which many New Zealanders would picture when they think “sheep.” They’re a good, all-rounder — good for meat and wool production — but traditionally they’ve needed a lot of looking after at lambing time.

Ideally, we only want to breed from ewes who have had a trouble-free birth and are good mothers. If we have to help a ewe to give birth, or to feed her lambs because her teats are at an awkward angle, or — worst of all — she takes one look of disgust at her newborn lamb and hightails it off into the distance, we give the ewe a black ear tag so that she is culled (removed from the breeding flock) before the next lambing season.

The Brown Fat Factor

We have also introduced new blood into the flock, with Snowline Rams from Cheddar Valley Station. These sheep are bred to produce hardy lambs with plenty of brown fat under their skin at birth.

Brown fat, also known as “brown adipose tissue”, is what keeps the lamb warm and gives it energy during its first few days of life. It’s especially important in that crucial time between birth and the lamb’s first feed and having plenty of it can make a big difference to a lamb born into cold weather.

Summing It All Up

So those are some of the reasons why we lamb as we do, and why you’ll see the Polaris or the farm truck driving slowly around our paddocks morning and evening during Spring.

Ewe and lambs in front of the lucerne paddock, which is growing one of next winter's feed crop.
The green lucerne paddock is growing next winter’s balage crop. Meanwhile, old straw makes a cosy bed for a well-fed lamb.

We actively work over a long period of time to give our sheep a natural environment and a safe lambing experience. But what is it really like to be out on the lambing beat?

That’s a topic for another day. Look out, in a week or two,  for “Lambing Part 2: A Family Affair.”

Photos courtesy of Jenny and Steph McNamee.