A yarn with Nan Bray of White Gum Wool

From an oceanographer in the United States to a Sheep Grazier in the Midlands of Tasmania, how did this happen?


The thing I’ve often said when asked this question is each single decision—and there were many—taking me from oceanography to where I am now, made sense at the time. But sometimes I’m even surprised! It probably goes back to a longstanding desire on my part to farm.


My parents both grew up on the land during the Great Depression, and I grew up with the stories – stories of working dogs, with cattle more than sheep, and I just had this secret desire to somehow be involved in farming. Both of my parents had been very poor and as such they felt farming wasn’t a good way to make a living, and I was instructed to find a career and a profession, so I did, but I still held onto the feeling of wanting to do something related to the land. I did go into environmental science for a while and then ended up in oceanography, but I would go back to my uncle’s ranch when I could and just tried to stay connected with farming and the land.


When I finally finished my degree in oceanography and moved to San Diego, I decided it was time I could have a working dog, so I bought a Shetland sheepdog, a little one from a pet store, and it turns out he did have some instinct to work sheep, which was quite surprising. I found someone in San Diego who had some sheep who could help me learn and then I discovered border collies, who kept me going for several years as my connection to the land.


In 1995 I came to Tasmania to visit some oceanographic colleagues. I was not long divorced, and I was at a bit of a crossroads. I just fell in love with Tasmania, and made the decision to move here. I worked for CSIRO for six years, during which time I made the decision to jump ship and be brave and start my own wool-growing operation.


You’ve been brave enough to take on some alternative farming methods, in a very traditional farming area – can you tell us how you came to farming in an alternative way?


One of the things I tell young people when they talk to me about what they want to do in terms of their careers is nothing you do through your life is ever wasted. If you do it well and you do it with some passion and creativity, you will find when you shift to something else you will take some things of value from what you’ve done. Certainly, my science background helped me a lot to be willing to experiment, so I think part of what comes across as ‘raw courage’ was a combination of my scientific background, combined with the 70 years of experience my stockman Davey has.


When I sat down with stockman Davey and asked him if he thought ‘yay or nay’ on ideas I had, he would mostly just say, “Well, let’s try it”, with the thought it may not work, but it probably won’t tank either. So I had a bit of a framework around me – my own willingness to experiment and then Davey’s experience to back it up. The very first thing I chose not to do with Davey’s full, enthusiastic agreement, was not to mules. Mulesing started as a way to help Merinos not have so much vulnerability to fly strike – there are a couple of wrinkles, right on the breech, that can trap moisture.


Dr. Mules, who invented the process, started by doing a tiny incision on those, so when they healed, there was no wrinkle. But it was really very minimal and proved to help quite a lot in respect to breech-strike. The way mulesing is now done is much more invasive, removing skin over a large area of the breech.  When I found out what was involved, I thought “I can’t imagine doing it”. I was given a lot of advice about why I had to, so I went to Davey, early on in our working relationship, and asked if I had to mules.  He said “No”, so I said “Okay, what do I do instead?”.  His answer was “We manage it”. We apply a fly deterrent solution as needed during summer, and we really keep an eye on things. We were doing this when everyone was mulesing in this part of the world, so the fact we were able manage it well, gave me another level of confidence.


From there I concentrated on starting to understand the way sheep need to get their nutrition. There’s a group of researchers in the US, led by Professor Fred Provenza, who was a wonderful mentor for me. The concept is in order to balance their diet, all mammals need diversity in their forage, even humans! So, if you are eating only spinach you won’t be getting the all the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fibre, fat) you need, nor will you get critical secondary compounds, like alkaloids, terpenoids, tannins, those sorts of things.


These secondary compounds are the pharmaceuticals of the world, which is why pharmaceutical companies go and look for novel compounds in plants, all over the globe. They are looking for compounds those plants have made in their own systems which are also useful in pharmaceuticals, and which the companies may then synthesise. These compounds are things animals are able to use to medicate themselves, and they learn how – they find them in the environment and learn the effect they have.


Your system will figure out how much of any given secondary compound it wants, and it will let you know in no uncertain terms when you reach the point of over-consumption.  If you’re sensible about it, and the livestock are, you stop eating the plant in question and you move to a different plant, allowing the first plant not to be overgrazed and the second plant to have some grazing pressure.


If you take this concept into a system with a lot of plant diversity, what you get is the possibility the animals can medicate themselves and can balance their diets by moving from plant to plant with different characteristics. The key element often missing is conventional farming systems is biodiversity. Even if you do have some diversity but you graze it hard, the animals will eat the diversity first and then you will be left with a non-diverse environment.


The other really key thing is there is a lot of learning associated with what plants livestock eat, when to shift from one plant to another, and where the plants are in the environment. The learning process relies on mothers teaching their babies, and it takes a couple of years. So, if you want to tap into the natural diversity of diet, you can’t wean the lambs at three or four months, because you end up with a bunch of babies wandering the landscape with no clue about nourishing themselves. Those early months are when the babies most vulnerable to worm burden (intestinal parasites), but also, without the knowledge imparted from Mama, they just won’t thrive.


When I got all of those ideas into my head, I said to Davey “How bad would it be if we didn’t wean?” and he thought for a while and said “I can’t see any reason we have to”. So, we started leaving the lambs with their mothers in what are called multigenerational flocks, allowing the learning process to continue into adulthood. Almost immediately, within the first year, I stopped having to drench for intestinal parasites. I reduced the stocking rate to ensure I had diversity in the system, so the sheep had a level of nutrition they had never had before.


I haven’t drenched in 9 years now. I would if I had to, but I haven’t needed to, which tells me the way we are providing nutrition, in conventional wool growing operations, isn’t sufficient. Very early on, when Davey first came to look at the property, he got up to the top part of the property, which has more areas of native ecosystem, and he said quietly “It’s healthy country”. In retrospect, what I think he was saying is he’d had the experience of working in a whole range of different forage environments and when you see a high level of diversity, the animals are healthier. It changes the ballgame in respect to animal health, but also landscape health, because in order for there to be high levels of diversity, you’ve got to manage the landscape for biodiversity.


On alternative farming methods, we did also change the lamb docking process. This started when I decided one Saturday morning I should have a one-page animal welfare policy for the property, so I started doing some research and I realised the UK and the EU have banned tail docking of livestock. I went back to Davey and asked “Why do we dock the tails?” Davey’s reply was “If they get daggy it can cause a problem with fly”.  However, by this time we had the nutrition right and therefore we didn’t have any daggy sheep, so why else might we do it? – Davey didn’t know, so I asked other people and the answer came back more or less as “We’ve always done it”.


I think the day is coming when, if not through regulatory pressure, through customer pressure, we will find ourselves as an industry asking why we’re tail docking. I started with sixty lambs and didn’t dock their tails the first year to see what the issues were.  The main issue is urine staining in the ewes—it will collect on the tail if the ewes don’t urinate correctly. I see this in maybe 5 percent of the sheep – and this does attract flies.


Sheep use their tales to swish flies, so in fact it’s turned out to be a really good thing from a fly perspective to leave the tails on. From a developmental perspective it’s also really important. There’s a major nerve running down the spinal column going all the way to the end of the tail, and young sheep need the nerve in good working order. Not tail-docking has become a non-negotiable for me. I don’t want to imply everyone should do exactly what I’m doing, but I’m trying to come up with reasonable alternatives which are sensible and work for me. I wouldn’t suggest anybody stop docking tails until they get the nutrition right because a sheep with scour and a tail is not a pretty picture!


It took 10 years to build up the property, at which point you made the next leap to process your wool into yarn. Can you tell us about the associated challenges with getting your wool processed?


I wanted to do something with the wool, but I didn’t know what. I went to Italy, to Biella, looked at the mills and realised how much infrastructure was required to undertake all the processes in milling. So, I decided I wouldn’t be constructing a mill! Instead, I toyed with the idea of felting, which is physically very demanding to do by hand and again you need infrastructure if you decide to do it by machine, so I backed off on the idea of felting.


Then I came up with the idea of trying to create a hand-knitting yarn which seemed like it might be a reasonable niche market, so I somewhat naively started the process of trying to find a processor in Australia. There was a fair list of processors when I googled “spinning in Australia”, but I soon realised most had closed. There was a lot of change happening at the time in Australian manufacturing.


In the AWI archives there was a policy at the time to support processing overseas. I can kind of understand it if you’re looking at how to shift your wool as a raw commodity out into the world and the bottleneck is high manufacturing costs in Australia, then maybe processing here is not the best thing for wool growers.


But if you’re a small wool grower who’s trying to claw her way up the supply chain it’s quite frustrating. So my yarn ended up being spun in New Zealand at Design Spun. They have more or less the same machinery, but a different mindset from the one remaining Australian spinner (Bendigo Woollen Mills), and were willing to try working with my superfine fibre. I get the greasy wool scoured in New Zealand as well, with a company which regularly works with Design Spun and is willing to scour in small batches. Design Spun then does the blending, opening, carding, and gilling of the wool, plus the combing, dyeing, and packaging, so it comes to me ready to be sold.


You were very involved in the process of choosing the colours for your wool. Where did your inspiration for the colours come from?


In some ways, it comes back to the fashion industry, which I find a bit intimidating. I couldn’t think seasonally in terms of colour or take those things into consideration, but what I did have in my brain was the wonderful, wonderful colours in my landscape, which felt right to me. I used the colours I knew in the landscape, and I had a clear idea of the hues.


With the first seven colours in the range I got some help from an independent dyer. Since then I’ve been the one who’s done the solid colours. One of the great things about working with Design Spun is Peter Chatterton, the sales manager—whose whole career has been in the textile industry.  Peter started in the dye room in a mill in Yorkshire when he was 15. He has the best eye for colour. I would send him my samples for matching, and I assumed he was testing them with a spectrophotometer to get the dye recipe.  But no, Peter looks at it and straight away knows what to use to create a given colour.


I knew I wanted the colours to represent the environment, which gave me courage – to represent the things I cared about—and it’s why the colours all go so well together. The other bit of luck I had was the first independent dyer who approached me about buying undyed yarn was Rebecca Robinson of Augustbird, who does wonderful multicoloured designs. Rebecca was willing to design some multis for me. Designing a multi-coloured yarn is a whole different game from designing solid colours. Designing a multi which looks as good knitted up as it does in the skein is a real art.  I needed Rebecca’s expertise, and she has designed 5 different multi-coloured yarns for me over the years.


What is the best thing about being a wool grower?


Probably the very best thing is the freedom to be out there every day in my beautiful environment, with the animals, including all the wildlife.  I just love it—having the deep, deep connection to the landscape and the animals and knowing it’s all working together.  In terms of the yarn, the best thing has to be the people – I so much enjoy the people I’m working with—their creativity and their enthusiasm.