"There's something wrong with Spidey," said Farmer Wan. "I think you'd better come."
That was yesterday afternoon. Only the day before, Friday the 13th, our big blonde cow Bonnie had slipped a calf (miscarried) for the second year in a row. And now, it seemed, Spidey was sick.
"Sick" was an understatement. He was foaming at the mouth and staggering. We could hear an awful gurgling in his abdomen and he was fighting to breathe.
Poison, I thought, but that seemed ludicrous. A few days earlier, we'd moved the sheep into the orchard because it's the only place where we have any decent grass. There were native tree plantings by the fence that I knew were harmless -- coprosmas and flaxes -- and some non-toxic ornamentals bordering the driveway.
We did have have a bit of buttercup in the drainage ditch, but a local sheep farmer had told us the sheep would avoid it. Maybe Spidey wasn't poisoned at all. Maybe it was bloat, or something.
I won't go into the gory details. Suffice it to say that we did everything we could think of while Spidey's condition grew worse. Farmer Wan asked me to call one of the local farmers for advice. I rang five different people but no-one was home. By the time I ran outside again, Spidey was dead.
It took a while for Spidey to grow on me. He wasn't particularly attractive and he was incredibly greedy. But in our first lambing season, we lost a ewe in horrendous weather and one of the other ewes started pining for her. She parked herself in one of the sheep shelters and refused to come out. She didn't eat or drink for three days and for all that time, Spidey stayed in the shelter with her. When she eventually came out, he did too. He remained by her until she started to eat and drink normally again.
I loved him a little bit for that.
Today is Farmer Wan's birthday. He spent this morning burying Spidey and Bonnie's dead calf.
And I loved him even more for that.
There were two small, undigested leaves in Spidey's stomach -- obviously the last things he ate. We took them with us into the orchard to find out what killed him.
We located the culprit down by the fence, a small shrub in amongst the native plantings and partially obscured by a large flax. I'd never noticed it before.
"Rhododendron, maybe?" I said. "But it looks way too small and I'm not sure."
Farmer Wan cut some of it, brought it inside and jumped online.
"Rhododendron minus," he announced.
This is a dwarf rhododendron and the physical description certainly matched what we had. The toxic effects matched too.
Farmer Wan dug it out and then found two others, both partially hidden by flaxes. None of the bushes were over 50cm high and yet they're so incredibly toxic that two little leaves were enough to kill a full-grown ram.
Ironically, the former owner of this place loved rhodos and had planted more than 50 on the bank behind the house. When we bought the property, I invited her to take them away if she wanted them and said that if she didn't, I'd probably rip them out and burn them because they were poisonous. She did take them out and I thought that was the end of it. These other three in the orchards were missed, although it's possible they were planted by someone else further back in the ownership chain and no-one else knew they existed.
So RIP, Spidey. Lambing will be a bit poignant this year and I suspect it's a birthday that poor Farmer Wan will probably want to forget.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Wow . . . two months since the last update. Just confirms what I already knew: we have been busy!
Muntanui is exploding with life at the moment -- baby animals, rampant weeds and the beginnings of what looks like a bumper season of produce. Our trees have been laden with more blossom than we'd ever seen before, we desperately need to cut hay before everything bolts to seed and my vege garden's assuming triffid-like proportions. The mild winter and very wet spring seem to have triggered a massive mast (flowering en masse) in the surrounding beech forest. Our hills are tinged with gold and red -- a palette you'd normally associate more with a New England autumn than an alpine Kiwi spring.
It's an incredible time of year.
If there's one thing we managed to nail properly this year, it was lambing. Waiting until May to let Spidey in with the girls was the best thing we could've done. We had a higher pregnancy rate, more lambs born and the mortality rate was halved. The weather, although very wet, was a great deal warmer than it was last year and we used a paddock with plenty of shelter as the nursery.
We had a no-interference-unless-absolutely-necessary policy this year. It paid off -- no ewes rejected their young'uns, And, to top it all off, Farmer Wan became a dad, delivering two lambs all by his big, soft-hearted self.
If you'd like more of a blow-by-blow account of this year's lambing, including numbers and stats, check out our 2013 Lambing Diary.
We remain committed to converting Muntanui to biodynamics, so on Sunday 17 November we stirred and sprayed our second lot of Preparation 500. We distributed it over a paddock we're re-vegetating (more on that in the next post), with some left over for the orchard.
This time, we managed to get through the entire process without arguing, so we're counting that as a win.
It's way too early yet to know how successful our biodynamic practices are, especially when the conditions generally have been so ideal for rampant growth. The grass in the orchard is the lushest it's ever been and while it's true that we sprayed Prep 500 over it in autumn, it also got the benefit of drift from all the soil amendments we spread back in June. So it remains to be seen but we're very happy to persevere with the process for the foreseeable future.
The vege garden is totally full of plants for the first time since we arrived here and I'm feeling smug about that. Planting it all out was set back by a month because October rained solidly and I couldn't work the saturated soil without risking damage to it. We won't have our own tomatoes for Christmas, but we should have them by late January, which is better than this year, when we didn't get them until May.
The warmer weather means we've had our first wave of visitors and they've willingly donned gloves to help us out, for which we're very grateful. Big thanks to Kim and Jan, who cheerfully assisted with everything from tailing and rubber-ringing the ram lambs to weeding my woefully overgrown knot garden. Thanks also to Big Lil, weeder extraordinaire and best mate of St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. I'm still not sure how much he had to do with Farmer Wan's sunglasses turning up again but hey, we're very grateful nonetheless.
Last, but not least, this:
Posted by Farmer Nik
Saturday 4 May was set to be the biggest day in Spiderbuilder the Ram’s calendar: we were putting him out to the ewes. Last year’s orgy took place in the middle of April and the lambs were born in the first two weeks of September, during the worst weather of the year. This time, we decided to hold off a few weeks, hoping that the weather would be more settled during lambing and there’d be more pasture growth for the ewes.Natalie, Andreas our neighbour and Charlie, the wether that wasn't
Farmer Wan and a couple of friends had separated Spidey from the flock back in February. They tossed him over the fence into another paddock with last year’s wether lambs for company. After a short period of adjustment, the boys seemed happy to bach it together.
Our Swiss friend, Natalie, was staying with us over Spidey’s big weekend. I’d talked up his previous year’s prowess and she was keen to come with us to watch the show.
Getting Spidey into the ewe paddock was the first challenge. He didn’t seem very interested in checking out the girls, preferring instead to run away from us. He’s not exactly an ovine Mastermind candidate. Or a Rambo (pun intended).
The wethers, by contrast, couldn’t wait to charge into the ewe paddock. Silly, silly us. For some reason, we’d thought that “no testicles” equalled “no interest” -- the bald eunuch in Game of Thrones doesn’t seem to pine for jollies, as an example. It’s obviously different for sheep. The wethers literally ran up over the backs of the startled ewes and began partying like it was 1999.
Spidey eventually sauntered through the gate. I started humming Some Enchanted Evening to encourage him. He sniffed at a couple of disinterested ewes and then noticed what the wethers were up to. He fought them both off for about five minutes before taking a short breather. In this time he managed to do the business with a young ewe, with whom he – it sounds stupid but I swear it’s exactly how it looked – fell in love. He smooched around her, nuzzling her neck, presumably demonstrating that she meant more to him than a one-afternoon stand and he still respected her. It was more embarrassing to watch than the renewed leap-frog attempts by the wethers.
This was not the wildly exciting erotic fiesta we'd promised Natalie and I could see she was growing bored. Farmer Wan suggested playing some Barry White to our love-struck ram to boost his ardour but it was growing cold and there was obviously nothing to see here, folks. We left them all to it.
The next day, Farmer Wan called out that we had a ewe in trouble. Charlie the wether had pestered her so much that in her efforts to escape, she'd got tangled up in some portable electric fencing and ripped out her ear tag. We disentangled her and Farmer Wan dragged her into the yards to give her some peace. Charlie trotted in after her, so Farmer Wan flipped him on his back and started dragging him out. It was then that we saw them -- two bulges that weren't supposed to be there. Charlie, although missing a "purse", is still in possession of its contents -- which totally explained his enthusiasm for the girls. We're hoping that he and the other wether are shooting blanks but there's no real way of telling.
Oh joy. It's going to be another interesting lambing season this year ...
Posted by Farmer Nik
We're discussing fractals. Go away.
Whoever it was, I’d like to take issue with them because our particular, personal ovines are not dumb as stumps, like they're meant to be. They’re smart -- not quite as smart as our dog but streets ahead of our cat (who, admittedly, isn’t that bright and still has to be shown where her food bowl is).
Clever sheep. Just our luck.
The full extent of their intellectual prowess was only made clear to us recently when we attempted to separate Spiderbuilder the ram** from his girls. This segregation was designed to spare us the thrills of lambing during July blizzards. The problem was, we don’t have any stockyards. Or working dogs. Or experience.
The theory was simple: we’d quietly herd them to a fenceline, walk them around it until we got to the gate and then direct them into a pen fashioned from temporary electric fencing. At this point, the theory got a bit hazy but basically involved Farmer Wan rugby-tackling dear Spiderbuilder to the ground, letting the ewes escape and somehow dragging the ram into the adjoining paddock.
The first attempt started well. Aided by our friend Jan, we managed to get the sheep into the temporary pen. Then they panicked and jumped the fence, with the exception of one ewe who managed to get her head stuck through the mesh.
We decided to change the set-up: different gate, more secure pen. Three more times, we had those animals penned up. Three more times they escaped.
They’re good jumpers, our sheep. They have many talents. They're quite possibly Renaissance Sheep.
The weather turned foul and we postponed the exercise until the next day. Reinforcements came in the form of Jan’s husband, Robbie. The game plan was basically the same – no noise, no fuss, just silent and implacable steering along the fence-line to the gate. (Jan has since dubbed this technique “Tantric mustering”.)
We should’ve succeeded this time but we hadn’t allowed for one vital factor: the sheep had learned from the day before and weren’t having a bar of it. They were happy to trot along the fence-line but at the first sign of the gate, they’d bolt. And bolt again. Seven times they bolted. Finally, with sheep and humans all stressed and panting, we gave up.
The solution: a substantial investment in some portable yarding, due to arrive this coming week. Until then, we have to hope Spiderbuilder exercises some restraint -- doubtful. I can just picture him with his three favourite ewes in the collective afterglow, murmuring with the utmost disdain:
“Who said humans were smart?”
** It's a long story. Don't worry about it.
Posted by Farmer Nik
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.