New Baaaackcountry Airbag Protects New Zealand’s “Snowraking” Sheepherders

By Wool E. Critter, BCA ambassador

BCA has been studying “snowraking” at their Backcountry Access Research and Development Lab and has found two things. First, lots of sheep ranchers in New Zealand like to shred pow, and second, these sheepherders need airbags to keep them safe when snowraking in avalanche terrain.

In New Zealand, when sheep need rescuing, it’s like a five-alarm fire and helicopters and local sheepherders immediately mobilize to save their primary assets: sheep.

Snowraking is basically like search-and-rescue for livestock and has created the potential for a new use for avalanche airbags.  After a snowstorm, ranchers head out into likely spots to find sheep. When they can see the snow ripple with movement from a group of sheep, they trudge up through the snow in single file, “raking” the snow with rakes and broomsticks until they find their flock. But because sheep tend to cluster together, they usually only find a few at a time. Once found, getting them down out of avalanche terrain can be dangerous.

Snowraking first caught our attention with this local One News story several years ago.

One News’ Donna-Marie Lever interviews former Federated Farmers Vice-President, Donald Aubrey, on the rescue of 2,000 merino sheep at the Ben McLeod Station that had drifted back uphill on the night of the winter blizzard.

On the South Island of New Zealand, snow is serious business. There’s the skiing, of course, and Kiwi ski culture has a long and storied history, from the “club fields” and their “nutcrackers” (rope tows known to raunch unsuspecting visitors) to some of the best terrain anywhere in the Southern Hemi. But there’s more to snow culture than just the skiing.

There’s sheep, too. A lot, actually. New Zealand is home to over 20 million sheep. That’s six sheep for every New Zealander. Many of those sheep are Merinos. You know those fancy, expensive base layers being marketed heavily nowadays–including that tight, itchy Ortovox underwear? That comes from valuable Merino sheep.

Photo: Peter Drury/Waikato Times. Sheep rescued from snow drifts. Ben McLeod Station, Rangitata Gorge, Canterbury, NZ.

Millions of valuable Merino sheep live in the mountains of the South Island. The sheep operations, called “high country stations” in New Zealand, are like the big ranches in the western US, some of which will span thousands of acres. The sheep are typically free to roam the land, and lots of them spend their time in the high country.

New Zealand can get oodles of snow, but the wind is the great differentiator from other places in the world. The winds on the South Island are intense; traveling uninterrupted around the globe on the southern oceans, they slam into the South Island. In a snowstorm, this means drifting–so much drifting that Merino ranchers can lose their sheep. When a big storm hits, sheep will cluster together for warmth, and those winds can overwhelm and fully bury them.

Baaaackcountry Access Float 3.0: available soon (ha!)

Snowraking is tough work and often hazardous. Ranchers have to deal with steep slopes, deep snow, and avalanche danger to rescue their sheep. BCA’s new Baaaackcountry Access Float 3.0 will keep these sheepherders on top if they end up in a snowraking-related avalanche. Happy snowraking, mate!