Spotlight on droving way of life

The Munro family of Otematata still drove their sheep over the Lindis Pass to fresh grazing areas...
The Munro family of Otematata still drove their sheep over the Lindis Pass to fresh grazing areas several times a year. Photo by Lyndon Ferry.

ON THE HOOF<br>The untold story of drovers in New Zealand<br><b>Ruth Entwistle Low</b><br><i>Penguin</i>
ON THE HOOF<br>The untold story of drovers in New Zealand<br><b>Ruth Entwistle Low</b><br><i>Penguin</i>
When it comes to chronicling New Zealand's agricultural history, much has been written about the role of shepherds and stockmen.

But little has been documented about the role of the drovers, those stoic individuals who, with their horses and dogs, shifted stock ''on the hoof'' from farmgate to saleyards, abattoirs, railheads, freezing works or other farms, and in the early days of European settlement, from ships to properties throughout the country.

Distinct from musterers, drovers became increasingly important to New Zealand's pastoral industry as the network of freezing works and saleyards developed and farming patterns emerged.

The growth of trucking eventually led to the demise of droving and many of the characters involved in the trade are long gone.

Timaru-based author Ruth Entwistle Low has sought to explain the droving way of life while also honouring those largely unsung heroes. She interviewed nearly 60 old-time drovers, their families and others in the industry.

Drovers could be on the road with a mob for a day or several months.

With those miles came knowledge and skill from observation and experience. As drovers perfected their craft, they had a better chance of avoiding disaster. And disasters did happen, like the time when a mob of cattle was being driven to Arrowtown around Lake Wakatipu in the 1890s.

Arriving at Rat Point, there was a right-angled bend in the track and the bush cattle, ''not being educated in trigonometry beyond the virtue of straight lines'', went over the track into Lake Wakatipu, a descent of about 300m. Only a few were cut and bruised in their aerial journey, and the whole lot were swimming about the lake quite contentedly until safely landed, the Otago Witness reported.

In Crusts, Laurence Kennaway's account of pioneering the Canterbury back country, he recounted how a friend and a shepherd spent three days trying to get 300 sheep across the Rangitata River. At their wits' end, the duo carried them in pairs on horseback, fording the river until the horses were cramped and stiff with cold.

The legendary Davey Gunn raised cattle in the Hollyford Valley then drove them to the Lorneville saleyards. His horses could get him safely home, even in the dark and extreme terrain. He would lie along the horse's back, not even touching the bridle, and, when the horse stopped, he knew he had arrived at the next hut.

Another drover, droving stock through the Lewis Pass to Addington saleyards, could rely on his horse making his way back home through the pass while he and his dogs travelled home by bus. The horse waited patiently at each of the cattle-stops along the route until someone let him through.

The North Island was slower to establish its strong farming roots, but once it was settled, stock numbers quickly overtook those of the South Island.

That, coupled with the higher proportion of sheep to cattle in the South Island, meant the end to droving came sooner in the South, closing a colourful chapter in the story of New Zealand's pastoral history.

- Sally Rae is ODT agribusiness reporter.

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