Now, as the first chill winds of our winter blow up out of the Antarctic, the alpine vegetation of the Corellas has turned brown, the first snow drifts of the coming winter are starting to grow under sheltered overhangs, and the traditional graziers have moved into the area to round up their free range flocks before the cruel cold of midwinter. In the past, these graziers ran cattle over the ‘High Country’. Now we know more about the ecological damage caused by these animals' hooves, and cattle are now replaced by light-footed polyesters.
Because of the name, most people assume the polyester filament is a polymer, like polythene, but this is a false derivation. The first European visitor to the area was Count Strzelecki, a Pole, who named our highest southern peak Mount Kosciusko after a famous Polish patriot. It was Strzelecki (an excellent geologist, by the way) who named it the ‘polyesta’ after the traditional furry winter socks worn by Polish peasants. The complex laws of zoological naming forced the spelling change, as the name Polyesta had already been assigned to a completely hairless lizard by another Polish scientist with a warped sense of humour.
The Australian polyester, Polyester kosciuskensis, is a large and harmless arachnid, related to the flannelweb spider Polyester onkaparingensis, which is found well below the treeline. The flannelweb makes a blanket-like web in two layers, and nestles between the blankets, gaining warmth from the paralysed birds that are its main prey (the birds often live five days after they are caught), but their ‘flannel’ is useless for commercial purposes, as it cannot be combed, worked or spun, as it is extruded in the form of tight spirals.
The polyester, on the other hand, covers its body in long threads of ordinary spider silk, using this cover as water-proofing, insulation, and camouflage. The wild specimens are smallish -- about the size of a hamburger, but the Australian research organisation, the CSIRO has succeeded in producing a domesticated strain of much larger polyesters, about the size of a dinner plate, and with a much finer coat, which is produced in much greater quantity.
The wild specimens are ruthless hunters of small vertebrates: frogs, lizards, small fish, and even the occasional young snake, but they seem never to attack birds or mammals, and have been shown to be non-venomous to all of the larger mammals of Australia. The larger cultivated breeds also avoid warm-blooded vertebrates, but they specialise in larger snakes and the introduced rainbow trout.
This presents something of a problem, with ‘sporting fishermen’ complaining about the loss of a valuable resource, the trout, while green groups are concerned about the ecological effects of falling snake populations, and delighted at the attacks on the feral trout. They are more concerned, however, at the risk the polyesters represent to certain of the alpine frog species, and the authorities have been asked to build a polyester-proof fence along part of the Ramshead Range.
Tradition, however, is on the side of the polyester herders of Cootaburra, who drive their flocks up into the High Country in the middle of October, just as the ski season is at an end, as they have done since time immemorial or 1967. There are twenty such operations, and each herd carries subtle DNA tags which allow the herds to be separated at the end of the season. So far, there have been few examples of cross-breeding between the herds, so this does not appear likely to be a problem.
Now it is time to round the polyesters up again, and bring them down to safety for the winter. Fish-oil lures draw most of the polyesters in to the mustering sites, and trained dogs are used to round the stragglers. The dogs are also used to drive the polyesters into flat trays, which are then loaded and stacked on trucks to carry the polyesters down to sun-warmed sheds in the valleys below the snow-line. Once there, the polyesters will be fed a rich meal of fish waste and abattoir offal, which causes them to moult, to swell and burst their skins, which can then be gathered and sent to the factories for processing.
For the next seven days, the polyesters are at terrible risk, until their new coat is hard enough for them to cover it in a new layer of web, but in the sheds on the valley floor, very few of the animals are ever lost. Research continues on transgenic implantation of genes from the closely related flannelweb spider, in the hope of producing a hardy breed which can survive outdoors right through the year. So far, these experiments have only resulted in spiders which produce commercially useless woven coats, rather like the flannelweb spider's ‘blankets’.
In the past, the authorities have quietly allowed the misconception about the true origins of ‘polyester’ to go unchecked. Now, as the polyester industry approaches maturity, the herders are less concerned about people's reactions to wearing clothes made of spider web. They can sell all the polyester they produce, and they argue that nobody minds wearing silk. You are likely to hear more about the polyester herders of Australia's High Country in the future.
Unfortunately, the Australian government has placed an embargo on releasing further information about the polyesters until some international patent problems are sorted out. All government sites detailing care and breding of the polyesta have been replaced with meaningless twaddle until further notice. Be warned that enquiries are likely to be met with blanket denials.