"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
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.