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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Surviving Snowmageddon on the farm

I’ve just finished shovelling a foot of snow off the front step, and I pitched Ferg’s beloved ball for him a few times to give him some exercise. The dog will spend the rest of the afternoon curled up on a sheepskin rug in front of the wood stove, while I putter around the house, preparing for Sunday dinner. It’s Snowmaggedon on the farm.
We may not get too many guests venturing out to our remote farm today, even if the snowplows have cleared the road, because it’s just too cold. The weather man says this is the coldest snowstorm we have had in 100 years, at an average -23 degrees. Normally we get that kind of cold on a sunny winter day – not a snowy one.
It is nice to finally see the snow this winter. It forms a barrier of insulation around the house, blocking the wind and sealing drafts. It has the same effect on a barn. You pray for lots of snow when you have animals giving birth in winter, for this reason. There’s nothing worse than a bitter, biting wind blasting across the pasture and through the cracks in the barn walls, freezing the baby animals inside.
The trick to a creating a warm barn is to pack the animals in closely together. They warm up the place with their body heat. Cows don’t mind the cold, and they give off plenty of heat so if you can host your goats or sheep in pens surrounded by cows, you’ve got it made. It will be warm as a sauna in there.
One day several winters past I went to check on my baby lambs and the blanket that we hang outside that room in the barn had frozen to the wall. I hurried to pull it loose, worried that my newborns had frozen to death in their sleep. But as I opened the door to the lambing room, a wall of damp heat hit me in the face. It felt like a steam room in there.
In every pen, a fat ewe lay comfortably chewing her cud, her babies tucked in beside her. That was a very snowy winter. The snow had formed a solid blanket around the barn, and we had a really good lambing season with a low mortality rate.
One of the worst lambing seasons we had began during a winter of very little snow and very low temperatures. When it did snow, it blew right through the cracks in the barn walls, forming small drifts in the lambing pens. We hung blankets on windows and doors and stapled feed bags to the walls but without the barrier of snow outside to insulate the barn, we just couldn’t keep it warm enough.
That year I was constantly bundling wet newborn baby lambs up in towels and running them to the house, tucked inside my barn coat. There I carried them down to the basement, where the Farmer had set up a playpen with a heat lamp over it. I rubbed their little bodies dry and thawed out their frozen feet before carrying them back to the barn to meet their exhausted and overwhelmed mothers.
We had to put heat lamps in the pens, to keep the lambs alive. We turned them off at night, though, because the Farmer was afraid that one of the ewes might pull the hot lamp down into the hay, setting it alight. Hopefully someone has invented a cool-touch heat lamp since our lambing days – or a better way to keep animals warm in a drafty barn.
Ideally if you are raising animals in a Canadian winter, you will erect a coverall barn or Quonset that you can heat if necessary. Big Sky Ranch, our local animal sanctuary, used donations to build a closed barn for their rescue animals. This winter, however, they have to turn on the heat to keep their 100 shelter animals alive. It will be a costly season, so if you can spare a few dollars, send it their way. Or if you just want to look around the house or barn and see what items you can spare for donation, head to their webpage for their wish list.
On our own farm, we got smart and locked up the ram until December so the babies wouldn’t be born until April. He wasn’t pleased but we had a lot more healthy lambs born in springtime.


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This winter is for the birds

Maybe the birds know what’s coming better than we do. They seem to be more voracious than usual, at the bird feeder. I have a rather large lantern-style feeding station, and my troupe of chickadees and blue jays can empty that thing in just about forty-eight hours. I think that’s supposed to mean it’s going to be a long, cold winter. The birds know these things.
I have one feeder hanging on the side porch where the cats can watch from the window. I cleared them a spot on the side table where they sit and comment on the proceedings outside. The cats make a weird clucking noise when they see the birds. Sammy fell off the table today, startled by a jay that appeared to be flying straight for him. He gave me a dirty look as I laughed at him.
The other feeder is outside my kitchen window so I can watch the birds while I do dishes. On the window sill I have two small books: Peterson’s Field Guide of Eastern Birds, and the Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Birds of North America. When a new feathered friend pops up, I try to find them in the books.
I’m not much of a bird-watcher. I don’t go on bird-watching hikes or excursions or anything. I just like to know what is visiting my feeder. It used to be mostly blue jays and chickadees. Now I get the occasional rose-breasted grosbeak. It’s amazing how the sudden sight of an unfamiliar bird can take your breath away. Especially when it’s uniquely coloured, like the grosbeak, which appears to have received a splat of red paint on its chest by a painter’s wet brush.
A few weeks ago we had a family of yellow birds at the feeder. I’m going to suggest that they were some kind of warbler. I guess the next step in my bird-watching is to listen for the individual birdcall so that I can confirm my identifications.
This morning we had special guests, when a couple of cardinals stopped by the feeder. Their red feathers make a beautiful sight against the white backdrop of snow. When you see cardinals it’s supposed to mean you are being visited by the spirit of someone you lost. I’m not sure who came up with that idea but I think it’s a lovely sentiment. And we only see the red birds once or twice a season.
We seem to get different birds every year. That makes it interesting. I get tired of watching the blue jays bully the chickadees away from the feeder. And that idiot woodpecker is getting on my nerves. He has pecked open the side of the feeder so that the seeds leak out. Then he takes them and shoves them in a crack that he created in the wood trim under our bedroom window. Just make yourself at home, bird.
As the winter wears on and the birds come to rely on my feeders, I notice they are staking out their territory. The bigger birds are at the lantern feeder outside my kitchen window. The smaller chickadees are at the long tube feeder outside the cats’ window. This is undoubtedly the safer of the two feeders for the birds (despite the voyeuristic cats), because the other feeder is on the back porch. The neighbour’s cat, unlike my own pampered felines, doesn’t mind the cold. He leaps up onto the porch railing and sits rock still under the feeder, waiting for a feathered snack. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t fooled one yet. They keep their distance, squawking at him from the cedar tree until he gets bored or hungry and goes home.
The Farmer has a live trap for squirrels on the back porch. It’s right beside the feeder, where they are often spotted hanging out, stealing a snack. The other day I was working in the kitchen when I heard a rhythmic banging noise. I looked out the window and saw a blue jay, stuck in the live trap. I had to move quickly to save him before he damaged one of his wings. He was panicking, thrashing around in there.
The Farmer wasn’t very happy to see that I dismantled his live traps, but I can’t take the chance of a bird getting caught in there again. The long, cold Eastern Ontario winter is hard enough for them. I’m trying to make them as comfortable as possible.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Shall We Dance?

Multiple messages were piling up, unread, in my Messenger inbox. I rarely check that file, so by the time I finally saw them, they were at least two weeks old. I almost missed my chance to be part of something really fun.
I was a little put off by the first message I read: “Hi Diana. Our mutual friend (Samantha!) suggested I contact you regarding an event for the Volunteer Centre of St. Lawrence-Rideau. Can you please call my cell when you have a moment?”
Hmm. How ominous. The second message was not much better: “Hi Diana…I know I am trying to reach you at a busy time of year; we all have so much on the go. I was wondering if you might find a few minutes to call my cell this weekend…?”
I’m lucky the poor woman didn’t give up on me. She was only trying to recruit volunteers to take part in the 8th Annual Dancing Stars of Leeds Grenville. I guess our friend Samantha told her I rarely turn down an opportunity to dance – or to help out a local charity, when asked. And my mother always said, if someone gets up the courage to ask you to dance, you say yes! But of course this isn’t exactly what she was referring to.
I have always been a dancer, in my own mind. When I was a little girl growing up on George Street in Kemptville, my sister and I (and a handful of neighbourhood kids) used to put on front lawn ‘shows’ for the grownups and any passing cars. These were mostly our own version of freestyle interpretive dance, set to whatever song happened to be blaring from my father’s radio. We had to be good, and fast, putting all of our best moves in a short 3-minute song, in order to keep the adult audience’s attention. Dad would laugh, shake his head after a few minutes, butt out his Export Plain and head back into the house.
As a young teenager, my best friend Stephanie and I choreographed elaborate dances to mix tapes that we created by running to the radio and pressing the ‘record’ button as soon as we heard the first strains of our favourite songs. Each tune was missing the first few bars, sometimes more, depending on the distance we had to run to get to the radio. Occasionally we actually got to perform some of these dances for a ‘real’ audience, at a summer camp talent night or a school variety show. I seem to remember playing the part of one of the Pointer Sisters (Neutron Dance), along with a shoulder-padded Janet Jackson (Yes, I did “Nasty Boy.” Not my finest hour).
As the years went on and I had children of my own, I hosted a “daily dance hour” where we would turn up the radio and rock out to our own reflections in the big bay window. Again I suspect we entertained neighbours who were out walking their dogs, my 3 little girls and I. It was a great way to tire them out before bed, while waiting for Daddy to come home.
Throughout my life, I rarely missed an opportunity to dance. I would be first on the floor and last to leave when the ugly lights came on.  
On two separate occasions, I had organized dance lessons. At the age of eight, I was a ballet student at a class held in the old Leslie Hall. I just remember feeling extremely awkward, eternally inflexible, and completely intimidated by the instructor, who seemed to really hate her job. I didn’t last long.
Flash forward to 2016, and I was a dance student again – this time at The Workshop Dance Studio in Kemptville. I walked in wanting to learn some sort of clogging or step dancing – but Nancy talked me into trying tap. Lemme tell ya – it’s harder than it looks! Life got busy and I didn’t get to continue with those classes either, but it would appear that I have been given another chance.
I have been paired up with Robert Noseworthy of Westerra Homes (and the Kemptville District Hospital Foundation) to ‘compete’ in this light-hearted dance contest. The audience will cast their votes with loonies (because let’s face it, we’re all a little loony), and the Volunteer Centre will benefit from the fundraising and exposure.
We will be rehearsing once or twice a week for the next two months, with our performance on March 1st. At the very least, it should be a heck of a lot of fun.
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