What's life like on a wild south island merino farm?



Most people know New Zealand’s southern island for its jagged peaks and misty forests – but there’s farming to be done in the valleys. In the case of Icebreaker’s merino wool, the harsh conditions on Lake Heron Station don’t harm the product, they make it tougher.


From the top of Jagged Peak, some 2700 metres high, the views blaze in every direction across the Southern Alps. Far below, the valley floor is thick with grass and tussock burnt blonde in the elements. To the south-west, the crown of Mount Cook glows white as bone, its halo of snow luminous in the sunshine. Mount Hutt hunkers to the east, dreaming of the upcoming ski season; valleys of fresh powder and days of shredding.


Nestled in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Heron Station is a two-hour drive from Christchurch, and sprawls across 20,000 acres of ravishing high country. There’s a sense of wildness here, lurching beneath enormous scudding skies that wash above glacial carved gorges and rocky bluffs.


The weather is unpredictable; oscillating between hot, drought-prone summers and blizzards in winter. It’s here that Anne and Phillip Todhunter farm, raising their 11,000-merino sheep on its grassy valleys and sharp mountainsides. It seems a logical fit that they should sell their wool to Icebreaker, whose apparel is worn to face some of the toughest elements out there; that clothing made to withstand the extremes of weather should be born on the snow-hewn backs of sheep in such wild and remote country.



These merino sheep are long-legged and far tougher than their soft, flat country counterparts. Grizzled by the elements, their brawny frames and hardy dispositions are the hard-won result of more than a century of breeding.

‘Our vision has been to increase the farming production while at the same time not compromise the natural landscape,’ Anne explains. ‘We’d like to think that in 100-years people will look back on us and think that we farmed in a way that was positive for the land.’

Their fleece is unique, naturally growing layers to deal with the brutal cold. They’re a browsing animal, preferring to pick and choose their food over large swathes of terrain. The station has been in Phillip’s family for more than 100-years, and Anne sees their current status as custodians of the land.



‘Our vision has been to increase the farming production while at the same time not compromise the natural landscape,’ Anne explains. ‘We’d like to think that in 100-years people will look back on us and think that we farmed in a way that was positive for the land. It’s a balance; we’re farming on the edge of what’s possible and you have to be very respectful of the environment. You can’t harvest it and not put back.’


Morning Rituals On The Farm


With a routine in constant flux, at odds with weather patterns and fluctuating prices, it’s the small rituals that pull together the seams of farming life. Since the day she arrived 23-years ago, Anne has baked fresh bread in the mornings. The staff come into the homestead for a cooked lunch and sit together at a scrubbed wooden table to eat and talk shop.



Farming isn’t a 9-5 job. It’s a lifestyle with no weekends; where the needs of your stock come before your own. But it’s a life steeped in community and driven by passion; for the outdoors, for a quality product and for the natural environment.


It’s this sense of community that Icebreaker holds so dear. The Todhunters have been in partnership with the company for more than 20-years and love that locally grown wool is used by a New Zealand organisation.


The Merino Difference – Natural Layers That Work


‘Merino wool is a beautifully white, light, incredibly warm fibre that is naturally odour resistant,’ Anne says. ‘It has the wonderful property of being warm when wet, unlike synthetic products, and there’s no itch factor like other wool products.’



Icebreaker were pioneers in the merino field, being the first to successfully tailor this light-weight, breathable fibre into outdoor clothing built to last. The fleece from each merino sheep is spun into five garments a year, resulting in a natural, plastic-free product that’s cool in the summer and toasty in the cooler months.


Merino layering systems completely changed the industry in the late 90s and are now relied upon by any adventurer worth their salt. Their reasoning; if it works for the sheep living atop mountains, then it works for the humans testing the limits of what’s possible in nature.


‘We have visitors from America or Europe who come to the farm wearing Icebreaker, and it tickles us that we may have grown their shirt,’ Anne continues. ‘And I love that when I’ve worn it till it’s too holey to go on, I can put it in my garden to break down.’


Slow Fashion


The bond between Icebreaker and its expansive network of New Zealand farmers is a reciprocal one, based on trust and a shared ethos. Icebreaker is renowned for its strong company principles; adamant that the wool it sources is environmentally sustainable and cruelty-free. Regular farm audits ensure the growers meet the company’s strict animal welfare regulations, and the farmers are known by name rather than a production code.



It’s a unique connection fostered by a vision that transcends the status quo – slow fashion with roots in nature, infused with technology and doused in durability.


‘We have a ten-year, rolling contract with Icebreaker. It’s pretty unique in the primary industry sector to have that sort of certainty. Everything going well, we’ll still be supplying Icebreaker in 10-years’ time,’ Anne says. ‘It’s great on both sides; it gives us confidence and gives them certainty, knowing they’re not going to be scrambling to find wool that fits their requirements. We also directly liaise with them, so we know what their requirements are. That’s a satisfying relationship, and we love knowing where our product goes.’


Lives Forged By The Mountains


Anne and Phillip are used to pushing boundaries. They’re not your regular farmers, yet ironically they’re perfectly suited to the gamble shouldered by high-country growers. Anne trained as a lawyer before working as a mountain and ski guide, and met Phillip on the mountain where he worked as a helicopter pilot for Methven’s heli-ski company. Three children and 20,000 acres later, they’re still walking a path forged by tenacity; maybe now with a little less après ski.



Phillip balances his life as a farmer with flying, still operating as one of the country’s longest standing heli-ski pilots, while Anne also oversees the holiday accommodation on the property. Their days begin at 6.00am, working in the office answering emails and going over the week’s plans while Tess, their 15-year-old black Labrador, snoozes at their feet. The farm’s calendar is broken into seasons, segmented into the never-ending tasks of a farmer’s life.

‘One of the big things we focus on is grazing the land lightly and then moving the stock on,’ Anne says. ‘We get a lot of wind in the area and if it’s hot and dry the wind picks up the topsoil and blows it away. You can lose soil very quickly in this sort of environment and we’re really aware of that.’

They grow lucerne hay over summer and crutch in April; then the shearing gangs arriving in September and in three frenetic weeks of blaring music and energy the sheep are relieved of their heavy coats. Winter can be savage with up to a metre of snowfall, while December and January can crackle with seemingly endless dry. Their annual autumn muster takes a memorable four-days, 3,000 castrated male sheep, named wethers, are gathered from the high country they roam for most of the year.



The country is too steep for horses or motorbikes and the shepherds move by foot with their teams of working dogs, scrambling across scree and climbing up to 800-metres a day. At night, they retreat to a back-country hut, moving off again at first light, their breath misting white in the thin dawn air.


Agreeable Agriculture


Sustainability is a word bandied around freely, but at Lake Heron it’s a measurable outcome.

‘One of the big things we focus on is grazing the land lightly and then moving the stock on,’ Anne says. ‘We get a lot of wind in the area and if it’s hot and dry the wind picks up the topsoil and blows it away. You can lose soil very quickly in this sort of environment and we’re really aware of that.’



The Todhunters are mindful of the natural contours of their property, and avoid erosion by only cultivating flat country. Anne is especially passionate about re-planting native vegetation and keeping waterways clean.


‘We’re mindful to put reticulated water in our intensively grazed areas, fencing off waterways so they’re not polluted by the cattle,’ she said. ‘It’s an ongoing process; we’re not at the end, but it’s the vision for the future.’  


As the daylight peters out and dusk spreads her velvety fingers over the alps, the wind that has plucked constantly at the grass goes still. The chooks line their roost, tucking their heads to the side to listen. The lights go on in the homestead, yellow squares in deep darkness. The silence is all-encompassing, pressed down by a lid of stars blinking with brilliance in the cold. On the hills the sheep move, sniffing at the night. It smells like snow, the air scrubbed clean and raw. The mob is unperturbed, warm in its jacket of fleece. Another day done at Lake Heron Station, slipping into a stream of a million just like it.

This blog post was first featured on We Are Explorers. We Are Explorers is proud to have produced this article in partnership with Icebreaker. Written by Emily Herbert.

Lake Heron Station, RD 1, Ashburton 7771, Canterbury, New Zealand
Phone: +64 3 303 9014 

Email: info@lakeheron.co.nz

© 2019 by Lake Heron Station.

Proudly created by The New Zealand Merino Company

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