This week, it’s all about the farm: (Next week I’ll write a full report of the talks at the Animal Behavior Society 2013 Meeting in Boulder. It was great, lots to tell you about!) [I should mention here that I just changed that last sentence on 8-8, after a call from Jim who noticed I had actually written "I was great..." instead of "It was great". He pointed out that that didn't sound like something I would say, and he was right. I meant the latter, not the former. Argh, how embarrassing.]
First, although it was lovely to be on Vancouver Island and invigorating to be at ABS in Boulder, it is heaven to be home. Willie is doing well, I’m even giving him a little time off leash, and Tootsie is as adorable as ever. They both seemed awfully glad to see me, but they couldn’t possibly have missed me as much as I missed them. Cats Nellie and Polly are doing well, and can be found sprawled in the sun at any number of places by the house or the barn. This weekend is all about gardening and savoring the bounty of summer; the frig is bursting with local and organic broccoli, corn, summer squash, onions, carrots, lettuce, eggplant, & green beans. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.) There WILL be cooking tonight, I’m just saying. The bread dough is rising and the potential of zucchini fritters are making my mouth water.
But the real farm story this week is Ralphie’s. You may recall Ralphie, the little black lamb rejected at birth by his mother Rosebud, who imprinted on me and was raised on goat milk and sheep milk formula. I had to work to get him socially connected to the flock, but eventually he was content to spend his days grazing with them, or at least nearby. But he remained a “people person,” and he likes nothing better than to hang out with two-legged creatures who have no hooves.
As he got older, managing Ralphie got more difficult, because Willie can’t work and we are doing controlled grazing, Jim and I have to herd the flock into the “pasture of the day” every morning. On the first day without Willie as a working sheep dog, the sheep moved together in a flock and were easily herded into their pasture. The next day they began looking around inquiringly, then at each other, and then back again to their left and right. My translation: “Do you see a dog? I don’t see a dog?” By Day Three they had answered the question. “There is NO dog! Do whatever you want!” Thus, herding them to each day’s pasture became an interesting game. Note to self: Sheep do not flock in the absence of a predator. They pretty much go wherever they want, and that is not necessarily where any other sheep wants to go. We got pretty good at sheep herding ourselves, except for one problem: Ralphie. Ralphie began to dance to a different drummer, and paid no attention to the rest of the flock, or me or Jim for that matter, even if we tempted him with a bucket of grain. “Nah, I’m gonna go this way,” he’d communicate, and moving the sheep up into their day’s pasture always included extra time for Ralphie management. I ended up just picking him up on occasion and carrying all 45 pounds of him inside the fence.
However, Ralphie isn’t the only lamb who has become a bit of a challenge. One of the male lambs has an undescended testicle and is thus a functioning ram lamb. Sheep of his breeding (Katahdin especially) are ridiculously precocious and I knew I’d better check to see if he was still a viable ram with an internal testicle. Yes, my vet clinic said, he could indeed breed his mother and all the other ewes in the flock. That happened to us once when a precocious ram lamb, against all odds because of his age, bred two of the ewes in the flock. Imagine the surprise of the farm sitters who went to the barn in January to discover two lambs at the feet of a ewe they didn’t think was pregnant.
Here’s Problem Lamb # 2, now called Stud Muffin because of his cocky attitude. Quite the looker, isn’t he?
Stud Muffin simply had to be separated from the flock, and soon. That’s where my friends and favorite CSA comes in. Vermont Valley Community Farm is where all that luscious food I described earlier came from. It is run by the Perkins family, and Jim and I count myself to be lucky to be friends of theirs as well as grateful recipients of the food they grow every year. Long story short: They have a good size pen with lots of good forbs and grasses which had held goats before, and Barbara Perkins and I talked at length about whether it would work to have Ralphie and Stud Muffin live with them for the summer. A win/win for sure: Stud Muffin would be away from the flock, Ralphie would get lots of attention from the people who come to the farm to get their vegetables, and also from members of the Perkins family who loved the idea of having two sweet, friendly lambs on the farm.
Our only concern was the fence. Was it good enough to keep the lambs in? They had had problems with a goat getting out in year’s past, so Jim spent an entire morning strengthening any droopy area and fixing up potential gaps we thought a lamb might use to get out. He was very thorough; I’ve had enough experience with a variety of animals to know that they can almost always get out of a much (MUCH) smaller space than you can imagine. After the fence looked truly secure, we transported Ralphie and Stud Muffin to summer camp, and left the next day for vacation and my trip to Boulder.
However, Ralphie and Stud Muffin weren’t the only mammals on the farm. The folks at Vermont Valley CSA have two 100% lovable Siberian Huskies: Shanna, an elderly matron who I wrote about in For the Love of a Dog regarding thunder phobia in two dogs who had to live outdoors to guard vegetables from deer. Shanna is one of those dogs, and Vermont Valley Community Farm is where it happened. Many years later, Shanna is a dear, sweet, elderly girl who still watches over the farm but appreciates the cool, kitchen floor more than ever before. She was joined a few years ago by a young female Siberian named Nasta, owned by son Jesse and his wife Jonnah. Nasta is a rambunctious, fun, friendly, roller coaster of a dog, who will steal your heart in a minute if you give her a chance.
Hummm. Lambs… Huskies… Yup, you know where this is going. Last Saturday, while we were out of town, Barb, David and son Jesse Perkins were in the house and heard baa-ing that sounded atypical. It was indeed. When they went out onto their porch they could see that Nasta had somehow gotten into the pen and had Ralphie down and by the throat. I will be eternally grateful to Jesse for being a lightening fast young man, who by all reports, tore barefoot out of the house, lept into the pen and rescued Ralphie with literally seconds to spare. It sounds as though Ralphie would have been dead within seconds if Jesse hadn’t been able to get there in time. The Perkins family, bless them, spent much of their day at the vet’s office, where Ralphie slowly came out of shock and began to be able to breath normally (his windpipe probably suffered some serious damage). By the time we heard about it, Ralphie was back at Vermont Valley Farm and behaving normally.
Nasta is fine too. She is a lovely, lovely dog, and was only doing what comes naturally. She is super friendly with people and a dream dog around Jesse and Jonnah’s son, Pavo. I bear her not the slightest twinge of ill will, and am just sorry for Ralphie that we under-estimated her ability to scale the fence. Poor Ralphie.
Needless to say, Ralphie and Stud Muffin are back here with us. We just got back from getting them; our visit motivated by the fact that this morning Ralphie found a way to get out of the pen and was found grazing while sweet, elderly Shanna sniffed his butt. Nasta, poor girl, has been kept at her home off the farm (she visits during the day) so luckily Ralphie’s adventures did not continue. Now of course, we still have to keep Stud Muffin away from the main flock, so more fence repair here has ensued. (Keeping a flock of sheep out of an area is not all that difficult. Keeping a ram away from a ewe who is in estrous is another. Shepherds call rams “Fence Testers.”) So now they are in a large, fenced area up at the top of the hill. It has tons of great grass, so we’ll probably put a few more of the smaller lambs in with them to take advantage of the good food there. I’ll hike up the hill every evening and give them their grain and they have fresh water (thanks to the longest hose in the world… well, 5 hoses actually), so they should do well there. Stud Muffin, I’m afraid, is destined for a friend’s freezer, but I still am planning on finding a permanent home for Ralphie. Here he is now, I just went to visit him and give him a neck scratch: