Story: Rural language
Page 4 – Farming difficulties
Scab was a troublesome 19th-century sheep disease, spread by a mite that caused skin irritation. It gave rise to some distinctive terms – such as the verb ‘to scab’ (to inspect sheep for scab). The need to control the disease led to the terms clean certificate (which confirmed a property’s freedom from scab), travelling certificate (required before the farmer could drove a flock), and scab inspector or sheep inspector (officials who inspected flocks for signs of the disease).
Some place names are associated with washing sheep – including Dipton, Washdyke, Washpool, Washpen and Woolwash.
Sheep also developed bentleg or bowie (extreme outward bowing of the front legs), crutching cramp (a muscular disorder) and hairy shaker disease (a disorder of newborn lambs). Bush sickness was a condition where stock wasted away because of a lack of cobalt in the soil. It was also known as the skinnies, a graphic description of the symptoms, and Hope disease, Morton Mains disease and Tauranga disease, after locations in Nelson, Southland, and the Bay of Plenty where it occurred.
Other diseases are named after the area where they were first found or became common. These include Mairoa dopiness (a sheep disease caused by lime deficiency in soil), Southland pneumonia, Waihī disease (a cattle disease caused by phosphate deficiency) and Winton disease (a stock disease due to ragwort poisoning).
The kea, a native mountain parrot, often attacked sheep, pecking at the fat around their kidneys. Its ravages spawned the terms ‘kea’d’ and ‘to kea’, as well as ‘flag’ and ‘flagged’ (a flagged sheep has torn, flapping wool pulled from its back). People were employed to hunt and kill keas, using a shotgun modified for the purpose, known as a kea gun.
Some weed names related to places. Waikato dandruff is a colloquial term for pasture weeds. A plant poisonous to stock, Pimelea prostrata, is known as Strathmore weed after the place in Taranaki where it first became a problem. The origins of other names are more obscure. Mother Cameron’s weed is another name for St John’s wort, also poisonous to some livestock. Tutu, another toxic plant, gave rise to a new verb, to tutu, and the adjective tutu’d, meaning poisoned. Farmers also coined terms for the crushing and eating of fern and other weeds by farm stock – including fern-crushing, hoof-and-tooth treatment, mob-stocking, and stuff-and-starve.
An 1889 poem by George P. Williams titillated readers with its suggestive references to some well-known prickly plants:
Let no Spaniard, ruthless, fierce,
Through her dainty stockings pierce,
Nor the crooked Irishman
Who will prick her if he can. 1
Farmers and travellers were challenged by thorny, pasture-inhibiting plants such as black scrub, tea-tree scrub (mānuka) or wild Irishman (matagouri), and the prickly Spaniard, taramea.
New settlers would have been intrigued by Lady Barker’s comments in her book Station amusements in New Zealand (1873): ‘Especially detrimental to riding habits were wild Irishmen …’, and ‘From time to time we fell into and over Spaniards, and what was left of our clothes and our flesh the wild Irishman devoured.’ 2
Weather has often been a source of hardship for farmers, who talk about it in terms that suggest a wry and stoic outlook. Understatements, such as the big dry, the big wet or the big snow, are used to describe droughts, floods and snowstorms. Sheep can be so wet that ‘frogs jump out of the wool’, land can be so dry that ‘rabbits have to take a cut lunch’, or stock simply have to ‘survive on stones and scenery’.