Wool is an amazing fibre, a fibre that has shown its worth and versatility since time immemorial, when ancient people first realised the qualities of the outer laying on the various skins of animals they hunted and slaughtered for food. As the eons progressed, the attributes of the pelt of a particular species became more evident, and the eventual domesticating and harvesting of the fleece from nomadic, ovine herbivores, started the journey to what we know today as the modern wool industry.
It is some years since Australia truly “rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back”, but the importance of wool in our short, modern history cannot be down played and many recognise that there is more than a hint of lanolin in our national DNA. From folk songs that “stuff a jumbuck into a tucker bag”, to golden bales that were auctioned for “a pound (lb) a pound ( )”, to the current day breeding of genetically superior sheep producing an outstanding fibre, wool still claims its unique quality and doggedly sells itself as an unrivalled apparel commodity. Carrying this product label into the next decade, without discarding the associated legends, is a challenge, as issues regarding animal welfare, sustainability and economic reality effect its image and relevance.
So this blog post is my way of introducing a range of topics for discussion regarding the wool industry …. far too many to deal with in one sitting, but ones which I can speak about with some authority and experience. Hopefully I can answer a few questions, throw some light on misunderstood procedures and practices, and add a touch of reality and humour while sharing part of my lifetime journey in this endeavour. A good starting point takes me right back to childhood and growing up on a mixed farm, as the privations of the second world war eased and the boom times of the Korean War heralded a new era in wool production in Australia. Don’t worry, my essay is not going to wander off into the economic hinterland of those years, it will instead introduce you to farm life and how, as a madly enthusiastic tomboy, I participated in everything “sheep” from an early age. And of course, what could be more symbolic of my early interest in wool, than the acquiring and rearing of poddy lambs. The love of any country kid’s life, animals with a cuteness factor of 11/10, the reason why life’s harsh lessons about death and loss are learned young, a source of pocket money each shearing time, and the curse of all, men and dogs, when it comes to moving, yarding or handling.
Enter (Stage Right) …… the poddy lamb!
My first poddies were actually managed by my grandmother, and my delight as a toddler was often tempered by the shock of being knocked over in their hungry rush to get to the bottle of watered down cow’s milk, several times a day. Apparently I was undeterred and “accurate” family records show my skill levels developed apace with my woolly charges, and by the time I started school, I was hooked, and my love of sheep has been a part of my very being ever since. But where does that term “poddy” originate, how do we get a “poddy”, what is involved in caring for a “poddy”? You can of course go straight to Google and see that a “poddy” or “potty” animal is the artificially fed offspring of a domestic or farm animal – foals, piglets, kids, lambs calves, puppies – it is anything that needs a mammary gland and attachments for sustenance and will readily take to a bottle and teat to survive. The ensuing “poddy or potty” belly that usually results from this alternate feeding, became the descriptor and nickname for any youngster “reared by hand”. Abandoned, healthy new-borns make ideal poddies.
Focussing on sheep and wool (I have reared other species), allows me to bring up the vexed issue of collecting abandoned lambs, and somehow I think I might be flagging our first animal welfare topic. There are two schools of thought on how farmers manage the final stages in the re-production cycle of their flocks, and I base these comments on Australian conditions, not the intensive farming practices in much of the northern hemisphere. Firstly, does a farmer actively participate in the birthing process or let nature take its course? You will certainly end up with poddy lambs if you go out through the paddocks each morning to check and/or feed your ewes during those few weeks when they are lambing. You might find a lonely, unfed lamb alongside a ewe that has died giving birth, a twin lamb that has been rejected, a lamb that has been mismothered or abandoned as an inexperienced or hungry ewe moves off too quickly for her newborn to follow. Secondly, does the farmer rely on nature to supervise the whole process and allow life and death to dictate the survival of the fittest and the inevitable but sometimes harsh, improvement of the flock?
Over the years, I saw Dad do both. Saw him stay at home in the morning, confident that the ewes were in great condition, there was plenty of feed in the paddock, they were in the most sheltered area and there weren’t many foxes or crows about. I also saw him up before dawn, going off in the ute when prices were down, when wool wasn’t worth much, when drought was tightening its grip. He was going off to despatch struggling ewes, humanely dispose of weak or injured lambs, collect all the dead to deter predators and often he would bring home “a little fella, on his last legs”….. a poddy. I don’t know that he had a soft spot for these rejects, he was a practical farmer, but he had an eye for a survivor, and their time in our care usually reached a successful conclusion after a couple of months, when they were weaned back into the main flock. We weren’t allowed to get too attached, there were to be no favourites and no special paddock for them once they outgrew their nursery in the orchard. The mythical title and position of the “bell wether” didn’t exist on our farm. Instead, the more frequent term “blasted poddy”, was directed at any adult sheep that remembered its privileged upbringing and presumed to gain advantage at mustering or shearing time, by rekindling the connection.
Fast forward some sixty years and you will currently find me helping care for three merino lambs, survivors of some cruel winter-weather, which tore through our district over the weekend. They are the undoubted delight of my granddaughters who respond immediately and willingly, to both genuine or attention-seeking calls from their woolly, house guests. For me, it brings back memories and I get definite satisfaction and joy in seeing another generation being swept away by the beguiling personalities of a “couple of poddies”.