Tourists planning a trip to Australia are in store for a fleecing -- a sheep fleecing, that is. Many sheep property owners over the past several years have been converting their shearers' quarters into guest rooms and remodeling their homesteads so as to accommodate overseas visitors for a firsthand sheep station experience.
Australia has been riding the sheep's back, as the saying goes, since the quality merino sheep was first imported from Spain in 1797. The combination of grazing lands, climate, and lack of predators resulted in the superior development of Australia's No, 1 export, wood, over the decades.
But the sheep's back has started to slump. The Australian grazier (sheep rancher) has been forced to find additional sources of revenue from his property. Droughts, rising labor costs, inflation, and poor market prices have tarnished the golden fleece.
Kerry Shanley was one of Australia's first owners to put up paying guests overnight on his station. Probably more than anyone else, he is responsible for developing and com mercializing the sheep station holiday concept. "The locals didn't think it was a good idea and couldn't imagine how anybody would want to stay on a sheep property," said Mr. Shanley, whose San Michele ranch in southern New South Wales has been open to Tourists for almost a decade.
A fifth generation Shanley, Kerry's Irish ancestors settled in 1830 in Adaminaby, 290 miles south of Sydney. Here, Mr. Shanley's great-great-grandfather built his homestead, named Caddigat, from rock quarried on his 300 acres. The original dwelling still stands, but now surrounded by 30, 000 acres which is divided among seven Shanleys. Collectively, the family has been running nearly 20,000 sheep over the years. But Mr. Shanely's personal lot has dwindled to less than 2,000.
Said the sheepman-turned-hotelier, "we've been experiencing droughts for the past seven or eight years," as he kicked the crusty earth with his boot as evidence. Because of this, Mr. Shanley had to sell or see his flock die of starvation.
Surprisingly though, Mr. Shanley's decision to develop a commercial tourist trade with his property was not precipitated by the risks of raising sheep. "We would have opened our property to tourists regardless of economic conditions," he explained. He and hsi English wife, Marie, felt it was "something that should be done because nobody else was doing it." Others have jumped on the bandwagon, but have done so because of the recession, according to Mr. Shanley.
Last year, 20,000 visitors came to San Michele, the biggest number of guests the Shanleys have ever had. "The property runs the same as it always has, whether there are guests or not," stressed Mr. Shanley. "I just don't have the same amount of time to spend with the property workers because of the promotional and tourist side of the business now. But there's always something to do on the land. If my station hand, Mike Sutton, isn't chasing sheep or rabbits, then he's mending fences or tending to the horses."
Mr. Shanley thinks that his spread is probably the only sheep property able to accommodate a large group overnight. "Most properties cater to either just a handful, say three or four people, and a maximum of 20. "but our business caters mostly to school and tour groups. We can put up 50 persons," he said.
Day rates, year round, are $23 single, $30 twin, and family units from $55. This includes unlimited horseback riding, swimming pool, tennis, game room, three meals (set times), morning and afternoon refreshments, transfer from Cooma airport or train depot, a 45-minute drive. (Write directly, San Michele, Adaminaby, New South Wales, Australia 2360, or book through Ansett Airlines of Australia which features 5-, 7-, and 10-day package holidays including sheep country property.)
"The best time to come is during August, September, and October," Mr. Shanley recommends. During these months, the sheep are shorn. First they are mustered into separate holding paddocks according to age, then brought into the shearing shed and clipped within two to five minutes. The average fleece yields about 12 pounds of wool. The wool is classed, baled than stenciled, ready for shipment. Three weeks following the shearing, the sheep are dipped into a disinfectant bath. In October, the ewes drop their lambs.
Regardless of the time of year, however, Mr. Shanley always has something for the visitor to see. "I keep sheep around for shearing demonstrations or will take people to other properties to see what's going on, or go to the auction market," he said.
Most people stay on his property just overnight. Though others remain for five days. San Michele is ideally situated near the Snowy Mountains, Koscuisko National Park, and trout fishing rivers, offering the visitor a diverse vacation.
Mr. Shanley says there are perhaps 200 other stations which are open to tourists. one such working commercial property is Grevisfield, 25 miles from Melbourne. Unlike Shanleys', Grevisfield does not take overnight guests, but rather operates day tours. Hosts David and June Raeburn- Brown, with their daughter Robin, conduct entertaining, educational demonstrations of shearing and dogs mustering, and a general tour of the property. Entrance and tour fee is $5 a person, includes refreshments. With a barbequed lunch or twilight dinner, add
Grevisfield generally handles large groups (150 adults or 200 schoolchildren) , but also offers deluxe tours from two to eight persons at $25 each, which includes full tour, three- course luncheon in the homestead, plus morning and afternoon refreshments. (Write Grevisfield Pty. Ltd., P.O. Box 9, Sunbury, Victoria, 3429, Australia).
More and more sheep stations are turning to the tourists.Mr. Shanley predicts that the wool industry will become less and less profitable in five year's time, and speculates that half of the number of graziers now will be out of business. But for the Shanleys and the Raeburn-Browns, their fleeces are still golden.
For more information on sheep station holidays and listings, write Australian Tourist Commission, 1270 Avenue of the Americas, New york NY 10020, (212) 489- 7550, or suite 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010, (213) 380-6060, telex 674940.