This week, I’m chatting with a real globe trotter. Maddy is a New Zealand based Aussie, currently working her way around the UK, and she gives a great insight in to the differences in farming here and Down Under.

James: What’s your farming background?

Madeleine: Grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Aus! No one in my family have anything to do with farming, but I was mad about horses so wanted to find a job when I finished school where I’d be paid to ride them for a living. So, I went up to Northern Australia and did 2 years working in a contract mustering gang, the biggest station we were on was 2.6 million acres so it had 2 teams of 13 odd people. All mustered on horseback and choppers and a couple of bikes.

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I worked with a couple kiwis who’s family owned a farm in the bottom of the South Island of NZ, so went down there, found a full time job shepherding for a bloody good family who taught me a lot as I’d never worked with sheep up until then. They run a Hereford stud as well as a Texel and Romney stud and a few Perindales. Worked for them for nearly 3 years and now travelling and working in the UK!

J: Christ! Your first farming job was covering 2.6 million acres? Didn’t it ever occur to start small and work your way up?

M: Um, no not really to be honest! I guess I didn’t know what to expect so just got thrown in the deep end and loved it! It isn’t the size of the paddock or big stock numbers that are a problem because you’ve got such a big team working together to get shit done, it’s the heat up there that gets ya! Big days walking mobs to the yard were tough in 45 + degrees but you acclimatise eventually!

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J: How did you go from wanting to ride horses for a living to moving in to livestock farming?

M: I guess it just kind of naturally formed for me into something I really enjoyed doing; working the cattle on your horse. Once developed some stock sense and also a bit of common sense I knew I found something I wanted to turn into a career! But at that point it was just learning the basics, I didn’t even think of farming as people’s livelihood and business’ back then, and this was only in 2012 so looking back I was pretty bloody naive! And then I got to New Zealand and was introduced to shepherding and dog work, never looked back! My ideal job when I get back home to NZ will be bringing those two worlds together and having my team of dogs and mustering flocks on horseback! That’s the dream anyway.

J: What was the biggest difference farming on the other side of the ditch, and how did you take to shepherding? Sheep aren’t always a bundle of joy to work with!

M: Australia and NZ were worlds apart in terms of farming, and a lot of other things. Where I was working up in North-West Queensland was tough and at the time the area was going through an awful drought as they didn’t have a wet season the year prior. You saw some pretty hard things; cattle being drafted going down in the yards because of the heat and stress, there was a bushfire that burnt 90% of the 50000 acre paddock most of the weaned replacement heifers would be turned out on. I got heat stroke a couple of times. But working up there I learnt a hell of a lot and it toughened me up physically and mentally.

New Zealand was like coming to heaven on earth! I remember flying over the Remarkables into Queenstown with my mouth open thinking ‘holy shit! I’m never leaving here!’ I did casual work for the summer weaning my way around farms in Southland in the South Island, it was awesome! I then got some seasonal work with a conveyor contractor, we’d go to a load of different farms all over the show with a sheep conveyor and do whatever needed doing to them. The best place was at Mt Nicholas Station across the lake from Queenstown; 2 days capsuling 9000 Marino wethers and pissing up afterwards with the station crew by the lake with million dollar views.

To be honest I could live without the sheep some days, my passions in the working dogs and training them to hopefully get them to their potential. I’m only just beginning but people near where I lived in NZ have won national trials with their hunterways and heading dogs and are very willing to teach young novices like myself which is awesome. Being in Wales at the moment, indoor lambing has shown me a whole other side to sheep and shepherding. I’m used to being outdoors and mustering larger fields so it’s all new and a good learning curve.

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J: It must be great to learn from some of the best in NZ. Did you find it difficult to work dogs at first or was it just something you found you had a natural ability at and what is it that you enjoy most about working with dogs?

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M: I consider myself so lucky to have ended up working and living where I do in NZ, the people there are so patient and friendly with novices like myself. They don’t hold back and give you all the tips and advice to help your dogs reach there potential. I started off with a border collie and he was completely useless, I though ‘this is the go! Fluffy dogs get the job done’, couldn’t have been more wrong. He was completely uninterested in sheep but would happily chase a ball all day long. I started working for the Paterson family in Waikaka and they got me set up with a NZ heading bitch. She was already mostly trained so the dog taught me, not the other way around. I definitely don’t have a natural ability to train dogs, but it’s like anything the more you go to trials and see how the pros do it, and (try) to train your dogs every day the better you will get I guess!

I then got a couple hunterways and fell in love; big, loud and full of bouncy energy! Training them is probably what I enjoy most, they’ve got huge personality and are a joy to spend your day with.

J: Working at Waikaka must have been amazing! I’m very jealous I must admit.

M: Working for the Patersons at Waikaka was brilliant, you couldn’t meet kinder people. They had no worries taking on someone who’d never worked with sheep before and taught me everything, from how to crutch a lamb to teaching me how to power harrow and disc up paddocks. I met all of my friends and contacts from the UK through them, as they’re always putting up foreigners like myself who are wanting lambing experience or whatever else. They are so bloody kind and willing to help and teach people their way of farming. They also put up with me for 2 years so I’m forever grateful for that! Life would’ve been very different and I probably wouldn’t be travelling right now learning and gaining heaps of life experiences if it wasn’t for working for them!

J: What do you like most about working with Huntaways?

M: Yeah hunterways are the life of the party! I find collies and heading dogs to be much more serious and down to business, whereas the hunterway just takes life as it comes and if they get to chase sheep and make noise well then thats awesome! I’ve noticed they’re becoming increasingly more popular over here which is great to see! I’ve talked to a couple cockies around here and they’re worried they’d cause unnecessary stress to the stock. But if they’re trained properly I reckon they’re invaluable! Mind you one of my hunterways at home who had too much personality for me to handle may have caused a bit of excess stress to myself and the stock. But the same goes for any dog that isn’t trained properly I suppose!

I guess I just enjoy the breeds temperament the most! Their big, boisterous, happy buggers. But they know how to work, they’ll spend all day in the yards and all night if you’d want them too!

J: Plenty of UK farmers head to NZ to see how things are done but it’s a lot less common for NZers to come the other way. What made you want to experience farming in this neck of the woods?

M: I met a lot of British contacts through where I worked in NZ, and they all welcomed me to come and visit their family farms or just pop in and say G’day! I’m 23 and hadn’t done much travelling so I’d be an idiot not too! I kept putting it off as I have a partner back at home and I didn’t want to sell my dogs, but I don’t and won’t ever regret leaving. I’ve gotten to see and work in parts of every country in Britain, Ireland and a bit of Sweden! I also really wanted to see my heritage, after all us Aussies are all convicts as we’re constantly reminded!

J: What jobs have you done and where? Any favourite places so far?

M: When I first arrived in the UK in August I stayed up in Kinross near Perth with a good friend I met working for the Paterson family. Herself and her father run roughly 1800 ewes on flat to rolling country, very similar to home. She went off to America for a few weeks so I stayed and helped out with weaning. They had a lot of Scottish black faced crosses, I didn’t enjoy being in the race with them and their horns! But it was cool to see how they ran things.

After that I travelled down to Yorkshire and visited another couple of mates, their family own and run a big potato and rapeseed cropping farm so that was awesome to see the huge contrast in country coming down the train from Scotland to England. Then I headed off to Ireland for a couple of weeks and met up with 2 more friends, one owns a wee holding an hour west of Dublin and the other was a kiwi hitched to an Irishman that lives up in Northern Ireland. They were all very kind and let me stay in their homes so I got to travel around Ireland and see some amazing things like Dublin city and the Cliffs of Moher, that was incredible.

 

Sweden was my favourite place I’ve been to so far. I have a really good friend, born and bred there, who I met in Australia when I was jillarooing up north. She was backpacking and we met up at a rodeo and clicked. I went in October which is open season for moose hunting. Her family own a couple of small acres of woods, so they go every year with a group of around 35 to 50 other land owners and hunt. It’s a seriously old and traditional way of hunting. I hunt at home in NZ, it’s a big part of the culture there. I love that it gives you the ability to provide for yourself and you don’t have to depend on anyone else to get quality meat for your home and family.

In an ideal world I’d love to be a contract shepherdess and then be a guide in the hunting season!

Back in Sweden, between the 50 odd landowners, only a small amount of moose are allocated to be allowed to shoot. And it’s illegal to waste any of the animal, everything gets divided between the hunters fairly. It was an incredible experience, especially as it was the first country I’d been to where English wasn’t the first language. I got to be part of an incredible tradition I felt very proud and lucky to be included in it.

I then got to go and work for Peter Eccles in Scotland down at Midlothian for a couple of months, that was awesome. He’s the farm manager and has a super modern and enthusiastic way of looking at farming. Pete and his wife were super nice and I felt very much at home and learned a lot. He’s started implementing some kiwi style electric fencing grazing systems which I gave my 2 cents on but he knows what his doing! It was a great couple of months and I’d love to go back one day.

And now I’m in Wales, which is coming in second with Sweden as my favourite place so far!

J: Flattery will get you everywhere. Sweden sounds incredible. I’ll have to add it to my ever increasing list of places to travel to! What are the biggest differences in farming practices you’ve noticed since arriving in the U.K.?

M: Definitely do, I couldn’t get over it, 1 hour on a plane and you’re in completely different world.

The intensity! Especially working in wales where I am now, 400 odd acres of productive land and 2800 ewes is gonna be intense! But it’s run immaculately and I’ve learnt a lot in the short time I’ve been here. This is my first lambing indoors and it ain’t my cup of tea. I’m more of a ‘let them lamb outside and what will be will be’ kind of girl, obviously that’s not practical or financially sustainable here! But coming from Australia to NZ I thought the same thing, that NZ was really intense and you handled the same stock a lot more; but I eventually learned it’s all relative to size.

Ive also found that because we’ve got the stock numbers back home, it’s not the end of the world if you have a few lamb losses from bad weather etc, obviously it’s less than bloody ideal, but it’s not the be all end all of your year. That’s the biggest difference I’ve found between NZ and Britain, all your energy goes into tubing or adopting every wee lamb so it survives to become a decent ewe or tup. Back home we’ve got the luxury of being a little more careless. I know that sounds terrible but personally I think it’s true. Obviously every farmer wants healthy livestock and happy, plentiful offspring. But in NZ we can kill the old cull ewes or crap store lambs for dog food because they’re worth more like that then being sent to the works, we aren’t charged to take carcasses away and we get money for our dead newborn lambs for skins!

Obviously this is just from my experiences so far and not universal for everyone, I hope to see a lot more and experience more farmers techniques and methods. But New Zealand is where I first experienced and learned about sheep farming and personally it suits me a lot better. Obviously I’m biased!

J: Where’s next?

M: Canada! Flying to Calgary on April 10th to start my next job on a Quarter horse stud breaking in yearlings near the Rockies which I can’t wait for, then myself and my partner are going to the Yukon to work for a hunting outfitters learning how to wrangle and guide!

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J: I was going to ask what 2017 had in store next, but that answers that. So perhaps, what does the future hold for Madeleine O’Connell might be a better question?

M: Who knows! I’m keen to go to uni when I get back to NZ and do a degree in agribusiness, I don’t want to be doing physical work all my life and am keen to get up the ranks on the farming sector! Id love to be a farm manager one day or head stockman, I guess that’s the goal for most shepherds. Managing a high country station on the South Island of NZ would be the ultimate! With a big team of dogs and a couple horses, that’s what I’ll be aiming for, for now. My mind changes pretty regularly to be fair so I really can’t be certain where I’ll be in the future! Definitely somewhere with my dogs, cattle and sheep!

You can follow Maddie’s travels on Twitter, find her @MadeleineOCon14 

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