It’s been said that a dog is a man’s best friend. When it comes to a New Zealand farmer, this is certainly true. Some New Zealand farmers don’t just have a few acres, they have a few thousand, and trying to get your flock of sheep into the stockyards can bring a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘working for your money’ if the farmer had to do all the leg work. There are around 43 MILLION sheep in New Zealand, which is an average of 12 sheep per person. Wouldn’t want to get them mad now would we? (A popular statement from comedians from overseas). The average flock size on the average farm is around 1400 sheep. The first sheep arrived in New Zealand around 1773, and their population exploded to a whopping 83 million before it began to decline due to other farming options such as dairy and raising beef cattle.
The vast size of New Zealand allows for some big farms, or stations as they are called. This is especially true in the South Island where some rocky mountainous terrain can only be inhabited and used for grazing sheep. The average farm in the South Island of New Zealand is around 536 acres, the bigger stations can range from over 300 hectares to 25,758 Hectares (the famous Walter Peak Station, founded in 1860). The largest station in New Zealand is now owned by the Government and measures 1,800 km². So as you can imagine, you need a ‘best friend’ to help.
New Zealand has formulated its own type of breed to help muster the large number of sheep in from the hills and all nooks and crannies. Instead of the precision and silent approach from the trusty ‘eye’ sheep dog (those black and white sheepdogs often seen in English movies), the shepherds of the stations needed a more robust dog with a loud voice and one that is not afraid to stand its ground. So what’s a farmer to do if that ‘breed’ isn’t readily available? Well, do the Kiwi thing off course and invent (breed) one. Enter the New Zealand Huntaway, officially not a breed as no one in history knows exactly what their pedigree is, what other breeds were used, how much of which breed or can even agree on a ‘standard’ by which to measure the breed. All colors, sizes, breed mixes are available and used, as long as they are loyal, like to bark and can listen it’s a New Zealand Huntaway. Selective breeding from good working dogs have narrowed the ‘breed’ into a instantly recognized dog in New Zealand, but there is no strict ‘breed standard’. New Zealand Huntaways are generally black and tan, sturdy dogs that are very athletic. The dog needs to have great stamina as on some stations they are required to cover almost 100 km per day. When the farmer has a great working dog, it is treated with respect but is expected to do its job. A huntaway’s main trait is the bark, which can be switched on and off by command. This is off course very important, as noise at the wrong time and in the wrong place, can lead to disasters such as a smothering of sheep as they pile on top of each other and suffocate, or a stampede in the direction of the shepherd! And trust me when I say a large flock of sheep running at full speed can be ‘wool blind’ (or just don’t care) and can be a rather frightening experience. Commands are normally verbal but can also be done by whistle. A good shepherd with a number of dogs can train each dog to obey certain commands and have several dogs ‘working’ together doing different things using different commands. To see this in action is an amazing sight, I’m always curious to if they ever muddle up the commands, off course a true shepherd would simply not let on a mistake and to the untrained eye like myself, I wouldn’t know if the sheep were meant to go left or right. It just looks like a perfectly executed operation.
As puppies the Huntaway must display a natural instinct to work by around 6 months of age and often the puppies who don’t show this are euthanaised, hence the stockmen are keeping only good solid working dogs who mainly produce good offspring.
The story goes that farmers started the Huntaway with the Border Collie, then for good measure mixed in some Beardie (sheep dog from Northern Scotland), Old English Sheepdog, the Smithfield (both from England), abit of Labrador, Fox Hound, Retriever and what ever else was around at the time. Contrary to the main coloring, the German Shepherd was not involved.
A good huntaway is as valuable as any other member of the working team of the farm, sometimes even more so. The Huntaway is a New Zealand Farmer’s best friend.
About the author :
Monica Toretto is a writer, painter, photographer and blogger. She lives with her two young sons in Invercargill near Bluff. She has travelled widely in Canada and the US and worked as a veterinary technician before returning to New Zealand. Her work has appeared in several magazines in the UK and New Zealand. She has also authored a book of poetry and photography called ‘Words’.
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