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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rambo's roomies start Lambing 2013

Let's talk turkey and get them out of the suburbs.


A few years ago we had a group of wild turkeys living in the bush next to our pasture. Every day we saw them hurrying across the field, in a line along the stone fence. I once counted forty of them. They never ventured near the house, because we have dogs and other animals that would scare them away. When the neighbours dismantled their corn crib, the turkeys left. We still see a handful of them scurrying across the bottom field once in a while, and sometimes you can watch toms competing in a grand mating dance for the ladies. The turkeys are not fazed by the sheep and they will mingle in the midst of the herd, right next to the donkey and horse.

That particular brand of turkey boldness is what is freaking out the people of Barrhaven right now. Turkeys are strutting across intersections, down sidewalks, into back yards and up to store fronts, in search of food. The problem, say wildlife experts from the wild bird care centre, is that houses are going up very quickly in areas that were once forested. The turkeys are attracted by the easy access to food in the suburbs: fast food restaurants with outdoor garbage cans, and overflowing bird feeders in every backyard garden.

The Barrhaven rafter or gobble of turkeys is close to 50 in number. Some people are reporting that the birds are not only bold; at certain times of year they are actually aggressive. Residents are sharing their turkey encounters in social media posts. One woman uploaded a video of two turkeys nipping at her heels as she tried to walk down the sidewalk. Some seniors have noted they are now afraid to go outside for fear of being attacked by the wild beasts.

Experts say it is not aggression, really, but hunger or ardour that has these turkeys approaching humans. Springtime makes them a little crazy anyway, as it marks the beginning of mating season. And it’s only natural they would want to have a few good meals before all that dancing begins. Then of course there is also the habit they have formed, as their initial presence in the suburbs was likely met with a warm welcome and numerous offerings of treats. When they see people, they think food. We have it and they want it.

There are close to 70,000 wild turkeys in the province of Ontario now. It is legal to hunt them but many hunters say the season is too short, complicated and expensive to be worthwhile. The hunt took only 8,000 turkeys out of the population last year.

The Ministry of Natural Resources will relocate wildlife that ventures too far into civilization, but they will only move them one kilometre from where they were found. This isn’t quite far enough for the people of Barrhaven. Now that winter is ending and birds are better able to fend for themselves, homeowners are being advised to stop filling their birdfeeders. If they are empty, the turkeys aren’t going to hang around.

The other obvious advice is to only put garbage outside on garbage day, and to ensure it is in a container with a tight-fitting lid. When I lived in Barrhaven I left a smelly bag of shrimp shells on my back porch, much to the delight of the entire family of Mr. and Mrs. Raccoon and their friends, the Skunks.

As seasons change, the turkeys may move farther into the evergreen forest, away from civilization. If they persist in the suburbs, MNR may have to consider relaxing their relocation protocol and hunting regulations. Part of the appeal of living close to the city while surrounded by countryside is the occasional glimpse of deer, coyotes or other wildlife. But when the critters are waiting on your front step for you to head out to the bus stop in the morning, you don’t call them a rafter of turkeys anymore: they’re a gang.

 Email Diana at: dianafisher1@gmail.com.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Spring fever strikes again

Sometimes Spring chooses a sunny day in which to step out of the forest and survey the land. She gathers her skirts as she vaults over the fence and lands with a bounce onto the moist earth. Her garments fan out over the field, melting snow and ice and uncovering dormant grasses and moss. Then she rests, turning her face to the sun, watching it kiss every branch on every tree, coaxing buds out of hiding.

Other times Spring slinks in less obviously, under cloud cover and rain. It's not as easy to tell when Spring has arrived in this case. Unless, of course, you watch the animals.

Animals always seem to know when something is going to happen weather-wise. And they get very excited about Spring. We slept in a bit the day the clocks sprung forward into daylight savings time. I was mixing up a batch of buckwheat pancakes and the Farmer was lounging, finishing the last chapter of his book. He stepped out the back door to spread the woodstove ashes on the sleeping garden when he spotted the cows, two fields back.

"The girls have decided today would be a good day to take a walk," he announced. "I'd better go turn that electric fence back on." The high-voltage Gallagher had been off for a few months because the weight of snow and ice just causes it to short out, and the cattle never venture far afield when wandering involves picking their way through snow up to their hips. They must be able to smell the earth peeking through the melting snow, because today they are on walk-about.

The Farmer went out to the barn and turned on the electric fence that he had recently spent half a day repairing. One of our calves stepped on it and snapped it last week as she climbed over the rail fence into the neighbour's yard in search of something new to eat. They are getting tired of hay. Within ten minutes of switching on the electricity, the cows could be seen jogging up the field. "One of them must have put her wet nose on the wire," the Farmer decided. "Fence works."

Meanwhile, as he was tending to the cows, I laid strips of bacon in the pan and turned the oven on. Just then something caught my attention out the window. The horse was on the front lawn, nibbling recently uncovered plants in my perennial flowerbed. I grabbed jacket and boots and darted out the front door.

Misty took off down the driveway and made a hard right at the tractor lane, digging up chunks of earth with her dinner-plate hooves. Donkey followed hot on her heels to the barnyard gate, which they found firmly locked and frozen into the ground. Much snorting ensued.

"So you run out of the barnyard, tear things up and then try to get back in. What are you doing?" Misty then took off through the bushes, gathering speed. She wasn't even hungry this time. Her hay feeder was full. She just saw an exit and decided to use it. Boredom and mischief are sure signs of spring fever.

Misty ran back through the shed and the open door, but Donkey continued to try getting through the barnyard gate. His horse-friend arrived on the inside, visibly upset that she had left her donkey on the outside. I actually thought she might try to jump the fence, she was so frustrated, snorting and running in circles. The Farmer tried, unsuccessfully, to bust the gate free of the ice. I circled Donkey to chase him back up to the house, where the Farmer had already closed the escape gate.

Confused, Donkey went to the garden gate. It too was latched. I couldn't get to him fast enough. Misty appeared on the other side, coaxing Donkey through. He kicked his hind legs up and with one burst, he blew the gate off its hinges. Back in the barnyard, the two spring fools ran in circles, snorting and whinnying and kicking their heels up in the air.

The sheep watched as the horse and donkey ran around like complete idiots. I used a bungee cord to fasten the gate back onto its hinges, and went back into the house to tend to my burning bacon.

"Sorry about that," said my husband, who had left the shed door open, providing the escape.



Thursday, March 7, 2013

Two lovely ladies, 74 years apart.

Victoria Labelle was born in 1915 in Gracefield, Quebec. On March 2nd, my grandma ‘Vicky’ celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday. Her hair and nails are still fire-engine red. And up until she broke her hip a year ago, she lived in her own little apartment.


Growing up, my family would visit my grandmother at her home in Gracefield, which used to be a one-room schoolhouse. She would feed us ‘til we could hardly move: tortiere and mashed potatoes and vegetables from her garden, and raspberry preserves with ice cream for dessert. Then she would stoke up the woodstove and we would have to go for a walk or take a nap.

I tried to practice my French with grandma Vicky, because it was her first language. She said if she didn’t speak it every day herself, she would ‘lose’ it.

Grandma sang continuously. Washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, weeding the garden. And she passed this on to my mother. Still today when she visits I see her puttering around the kitchen, touching and moving things and singing softly to herself.

This woman raised five children – four sons and a daughter – all by herself. She worked very hard and stretched every dollar to put food on the table. My mother says they were poor. She remembers going to a friend’s house after school and being amazed at the big bowl of fruit on the table. That was a sign of wealth, she thought, and made a promise to herself to always have fresh fruit on her table when she grew up.

Vicky worked in the cafeteria at Carleton University – a job she remembers fondly. And she worked very hard at home. That work ethic didn’t diminish with age. On a recent visit, Vicky told me a story about when she was helping her partner to load cords of wood into a truck. She was peeved with him because he had parked where she would have to climb uphill while carrying armloads of wood. “Up and down the hill I went,” she said. “I couldn’t believe we had to do this all day! Finally I told him, that’s enough! I’m taking a break. I’m eighty years old, you know!”

On Victoria’s seventy-fourth birthday, another feisty young woman entered the world. My daughter Milena shares her great grandmother’s love of life, self-confidence and maybe even a little bit of Vicky’s fighting spirit.

I was awakened in the hospital a few hours after Milena’s birth, by the sound of a metal cart being rolled down the hallway. The cart was a rack of shelves, each one holding three babies in baskets. They were being distributed to all the nursing mothers for their night feeding. This was 1989, at the Grace Hospital. Now they allow mothers to keep their babies by their beds.

They say a mother knows her baby by its cry. So I listened, but I couldn’t pick mine out. When they arrived at my bedside and handed the warm loaf to me, I knew why. Milena was completely silent, but her mouth was in a perfect ‘o’. “She’s an old soul,” said Frances, the nurse / midwife. “She has been here before and doesn’t see the point to all that screaming.”

Sure enough, Milena was a pretty content baby for the first couple years of her life. She rarely cried, but she also rarely smiled. As a toddler, her little brow would be knit with furrows as she muttered to herself about one thing or another. If you tried to make her laugh, she would simply stare at you until you were quite finished.

When Milena was about eight years old, she caught a glimpse of her profile in the mirror and didn’t like what she saw. Convinced she was ugly, she wouldn’t come out of the bathroom. I told her that she simply had a regal European nose that she would definitely grow into one day. And Mama was right. Baby, look at you now!

Now twenty-four, Milena is a self-employed graphic designer. She lives with her sweetheart Shayne and their cat-baby Wolfgang in a Barrhaven condo.

Later this week we plan to get the two birthday girls together for lunch and a story or two. I’m sure Vicky has a few we haven’t heard yet – or a few we wouldn’t mind hearing again.

The blessing of four seasons


It’s Canadian to talk about the weather. And it’s Canadian to complain. We don’t even realize we are doing it. It’s just our go-to for conversation topics, to comment or complain about amount of precipitation, beyond-average temperatures, wind levels and intensity of sunshine. Well I guess we should be grateful for our four distinct seasons, as we are never without something to talk about.

Ten years ago this month, I left Canada for Asia. It was already ‘springtime’ there, if you can call it that. Immediately I noticed something was missing. Yes, the patches of grass in the park were greening up, and the trees were budding. But that springtime smell was missing.

In Taiwan, the damp chill of winter, at times dropping to 5 degrees, is quite uncomfortable as most homes do not have central heating. You huddle around a portable heater at home, and plug in another one under your desk at work. Spring comes and goes quietly, and one morning you wake up to a blinding sunrise and sweltering 50 degrees of humid heat. Summer arrives with fanfare and cymbal clash in Taiwan.

Canada’s seasons have rhythm. One fades gracefully into the next, with perfect timing. If you live in the same part of Canada for a period of time, your body will learn the rhythm. You will learn to expect the next season—to anticipate its arrival. Can’t you just feel spring waiting around the corner?

Springtime on the farm means lambing.The first of our sheep is starting to grow an udder. She is “bagging up”, as the expression goes. By the end of the month we will have a lambing room full of ewes—ten to a pen, forty in all. There they will fatten up on hay, sweet feed and mineral, and wait out the impending arrival of eighty to ninety little ones.

I love lambing season, but it is probably our most exhausting season of the year. It’s the only real ‘work’ we have to do on the farm. When the animals are outside, coming and going and seeking food and shelter when they need it, it’s very simple to put a big round bale up every few days. The only daily task is refilling the water troughs.

During spring lambing we attend and often assist births, we feed and water and clean and attend more births. For a solid month the lambs are born, and for a few more weeks they find their corners and bond into their little family units. Sometimes we get mothers who have no maternal instincts. As nature would have it, however, there is always another mother willing to take on surrogates. We just have to find them. Lambing is about watching and waiting, experimenting and monitoring progress. Last year we had a few to bottle feed – lambs whose mothers for one reason or another were unable to feed them. Some of the smart lambs learn to steal from other ewes who are more than willing to feed someone else’s young.

Then comes the day when everyone is old enough and secure enough to be released outside. When we are confident the lambs know their mothers, and will not lose them in the great outdoors when they are hungry or thirsty, we slide the big barn door and slowly open the pen gates.

The ewes are usually the first ones out, but they are reluctant to leave their young so they often come running back in. The most efficient way to encourage an exodus is to grab an armload of lambs and step out into the sun. The ewes will come screaming after you, looking for their young.

Once outside, the lambs and ewes blink at the sunshine, and sniff the air. Ahhh. Fresh, green grass. That first day is one discovery after another. Sweet new grass, salty mineral soil and rocks, sun and shade, hills and valleys. The oldest lambs start springing across the field, joyful and exuberant.

The ewes breathe grateful sighs of relief, and seem to walk proudly as they lead their young to pasture. We still need to monitor, just a quick sweep late afternoon, to ensure no one is left behind in coyote territory when the herd comes back up to the barn for the night.

It’s a busy time of year, but I love it. One tiny miracle after another, for weeks on end.

Calving 2012 A Huge Success

Calving season is always a little nerve-wracking for newbie cattlemen like ourselves. For months we watch as our cows get heftier and heftier, until they can barely fit through gates and shake the earth when they lie down with a thud. When the udders start to swell, we know the time is coming soon.


Attending a calf birth is quite an experience, but it’s an elusive one. Even when you know a cow is in labour, it’s difficult to predict exactly when the birth will happen, much like with a human birth, so if you leave to get a snack or go to the bathroom you are likely to miss it. I guess this is why many farmers will actually sleep on a cot in the barn during calving.

Our cows wait until we leave, then they give birth. We come back just moments after the fact, to find the mamas licking their babies clean and dry. This is good. I always have nightmares about the calf getting stuck and having to be pulled out. So far, we’ve been lucky. The mother’s licking stimulates the baby so it will get up and look for milk. Unfortunately, the Eastern Ontario landscape (or maybe just our 200 acres of it) is low on selenium. This mineral deficiency affects the calf’s ability or inclination to suckle. So they often just lie there, hungry, weak and tired and unsure of what to do next.

Sometimes we get lucky and the calf is up and nursing as intended within minutes of being born. But more typically, we have to intervene. And we now have a system. Get close to the mother while she is still docile from the birthing ordeal, and steal some of her valuable colostrum. None of our cows are particularly tame but the only one that has disallowed being milked after birth was Ginger. She’s mean.

Once the mama has been milked, the colostrum or first milk is fed to the calf with a huge plastic syringe. This warm liquid gold fills the belly and works like magic to energize and revitalize the newborn. Next, the Farmer gives the calf a shot of selenium, the mineral that is lacking from our soil and grasses. Literally within hours – and sometimes minutes – the calf develops the urge to suckle. Only once did we have to bottle feed a calf to maturity. It ain’t easy and it doesn’t make for a very big bull but it can be done.

So Julie was the last calf to give birth this year. Her big day kind of snuck up on us because she didn’t look particularly huge or uncomfortable with her swelling girth. The Farmer just went out to water the cows one night and didn’t come in for over an hour. Finally, “you have a little heifer out there. She is going to need some milk.” I mixed up a bottle of calf formula, grabbed a flashlight, pulled on snowpants, barn jacket and boots and headed out to the barn while my husband filled his hypodermic with selenium.

I could hear the cows mooing, so I went out to the main shelter where they sleep and hide from the wet snow. I saw all the adults, and four calves. Hmmm. I just catalogued the cows last week. Now who goes with whom? Ginger had the solid brown heifer. Betty had a white-faced heifer. Mocha, a solid brown heifer. And Oreo had our only bull-calf, rusty brown. I saw a big black cow standing over a tiny calf, so I pulled the calf up onto her feet, pinned her between my knees, pried her lips open and shoved the bottle nipple into her mouth. Betty immediately started bawling, and pushing at me with her huge head.

I quickly deduced it was her calf I was trying to force-feed. Just then the Farmer stuck his head out of the lambing room door at the other end of the barn. “What are you doing over there? The new calf is in here!” Well of course she is.

Julie allowed us to dry her babe with an old towel, and to feed it a bottle of milk. She just watched and made soft comments, her eyes shifting from the Farmer to me and back again. Trusting.

The next morning, the calf was under her mama, happily nursing. And that marks the end of calving season, 2012.