Archive for November, 2013

red in tooth and claw

Friday, November 15:

   The dogs have been killing sheep.

   Some predator killed a ram lamb a month ago.  Since then the pony has shared the sheep’s paddock and there had, until two days ago, been no trouble.  But we are approaching the season when we feed hay out on the pasture, to spread fertility (noun concrete) more evenly and to spare ourselves the chore of moving fence all winter, and for the past two days the sheep have had the run of the home pasture, sometimes wandering far from bossy, cantankerous Bridget.

    Our six-year-old, who is small and moves softly, sees things which change or move away before we larger, heavier folk arrive.  He saw two coyotes and a skunk on the wooded edge of the back pasture Monday night while two of us were up there mending a water line.  He walked up on a hawk with one of our half-grown ducklings clutched in her talons, giving us later a description of the event which might have come from a naturalist on a field expedition, his prose lucid and untutored, guiltless of plagiarism since he cannot read.  Today he witnessed canine pack predation.

   Narrating events from the dogs’ hunting spree this afternoon he draws a animated picture before the mind’s eye:  the three dogs spread out, closing on the sheep flock, pressing it here and there; the lead ewe taking two steps out and stamping a warning foot; the dogs’ dart and bark; then the lead ewe steps too far and they cut her out, drive her down the hill.  They hound her up and down the creek bed, biting, pulling, the six-year-old shrieking and bringing down his stick on any dog within reach; the chase grows hotter and the ewe more exhausted until she collapses in the shallow water under the bridge.  The son beats away the dogs with his stick.

  When we arrived, summoned by his shrieks, the ewe, less hurt than terrified and exhausted, scrambled to her feet.  At once the dogs closed in again, chivying and biting like animals possessed, deaf to shouts and threats that would under normal circumstances have sent them into retirement under the front porch.  Even when by our combined efforts we beat them away and the ewe, limping and shivering, took refuge with the two June calves, who sniffed and licked her in stolid reassurance, the dogs still circled, half an eye on us and the greater part of their attention on their prey, looking for a chance to dodge in and cut her out once more.  Like the drive to reproduce which consumes the male dog in proximity to a female in oestrus and enables him to overcome any obstacle, the feral instinct overcomes domesticity.

   We know of no cure for the dog who hunts livestock.  We are in mourning.

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Wednesday, November 13:

   Updates.  The lactating cows are still on the front pasture, and it looks like they will be able to graze there another two or three weeks, making two months in all.  This pasture was only worth a month of grazing in July.  The conclusion to these facts is that the second-growth forage has a higher feed value, due in part to the beneficial effects of rotational grazing.  This is predictable, but still gratifying.

   The dry cows are moving across the back half of the farm, where there is still about five weeks’ grazing before they must be moved closer to the frost-free spring tank.  Even paddocks that were grazed only a week or two ago show green regrowth, and the west side of the hill, over which the cows passed in September, is emerald green and smooth the fuzz on a peach.  This area is remote from the monastery; a six-year-old boy with a golf-club and no interest in the work at hand returned from a dusk stroll with reports of two coyotes patrolling the wood’s edge, and a frenetic skunk doing the hoochi-coo in the naked raspberry canes.  It is an interesting life.

   Eight small piglets were moved to the monastery garden last Thursday, where they patrol an area some thirty by thirty-five feet, grubbing for whatever pigs grub for.  We have not yet put them in the barley patch; right now they only have access to frozen beans, which are of only slight interest, and the beets and turnips, which have more appeal.  Unforeseen is the disparity in size between the turnips – many are larger, considerably larger, than a softball – and the tiny mouths of these fifteen-pound baby pigs.  The tops of the vegetables are eaten with relish, but the roots themselves are just too big for the  babies.  Shall we cut them up? – lengthy job – or pull them and cart them back to the barn for Hunk and Porca, the parent pigs?  Actually, Hunk, who lived his first five months on commercial feed, shows little interest in roots, but Porca, who has been with us since she was a little piggy and knows all about vegetables, loves beets and turnips.  Come to think of it, it will be nice to know that there is at least one food Porca will get to enjoy without having to compete with Hunk, her ungallant lover.  At any rate, the pig garden looks like giving us a good deal of pig food, one way or another.

   Our first snow of any consideration fell late on Monday night, and the cows’ consumption of water went down to almost nothing.  Who needs water when every bite of grass includes a good mouthful of snow?  But paddocks have to be bigger now, when the cows require extra food just to keep warm.  The two-year-old steers that have been out on grass an hour west of here on the farm of a friend with more grass than livestock, were fetched home yesterday and put in with the dry cows.  The grass must have been good where they were; they are huge, for Jerseys, solid, with a look of meditation in their dark eyes.  One will go to the locker on Monday, his karma being to provide fuel for the monastery’s prayers.  They knocked down a fence this afternoon, so I, for one, will not miss him.

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early november

Saturday, November 2:

   Three nights ago blew in a gusty rain, southerly, but shredding the rusty leaves from the trees and revealing the brown backs of these Appalachian foothills.  In the ditches and along the riverbanks, though, the sumac is still red, if it is the small, five-year variety, or gold, if it is the tall, twenty-year kind.  Five-year sumac has cones of dark red berries held upright over drooping compound leaves like palm fronds; twenty-year sumac trails wads of winged brown seeds like dirty cobwebs.  Both are weed trees which spring up in rocky, sour, or waste soils, and add brilliant color to our autumn show.

   We burned the late fall bonfire last night, the weather giving of its best, dry, cool, and windless.  Along the lane the torches that topped each fence post smoked and flared, and the bonfire itself sent sparks seventy feet in the air.  The summer kitchen was the center of a crowd gathered there for hot doughnuts, cider, and cocoa, and on the lawn people sat in folding chairs and on blankets and held long conversations about the dead, and the future.  Prayers were offered for both.  It is almost winter.

   Today we planted hoops over the winter beds of greens, carrots and beets; next week these will be covered with plastic sheeting to protect them from the frosts that are getting more frequent.  The pig pens had to be forked out, and the Massey-Ferguson in its big shed swept free of chaff and dead leaves and covered with tarps to keep off the snow.

   The three little children went out to shift the home paddock and were gone an hour and a half.   Bridget, the sorrel mini, was feeling the seasonal shift and broke out of the paddock where she is nominally in charge of the sheep to go charging up and down the south pasture chivvying chickens and squealing like air escaping from a balloon.  The sheep got out, too, to go surging up and down the hill, and even the two July calves got into the act, galloping to the top of the steep pasture and requiring to be brought down again when the new paddock was ready.  The animals are grazing their way up the middle section of the pasture and have grass enough for another two or three weeks; when hard frosts put the grass into dormancy we will begin feeding them hay.   The sheep are due to begin lambing in a couple of weeks, anyway; time to go into the barn, out of reach of coyotes and stray dogs.

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