Sunday, March 29, 2009

One armed paper-hangers!

The Womerlippi Farm has been a hive of activity lately, although the humans were not the active ones, at least not on the farm. Since Tillie dropped her two white lambs last week, Nellie dropped one, her first "starter" lamb, pictured above, which she seems very proud and attentive of. This baby comprises the first lamb born to a ewe that was also born and raised on this farm.

Well done, Nellie!

She's a good mother although like a lot of new ewes, seemed to take forever to let the lamb feed. Every time the little bugger would head for the teat, Nellie would back away as if to say, "Hey! What do you think you're doing?" The other three-yearling mother we've had, Molly, did exactly the same last year.

There's a procedure for dealing with this, manual placement of the lamb on the teat. Twice we held her down and placed the lamb onto the teat manually, just to make sure he wouldn't weaken. Each time he drank very greedily.

But eventually she got the idea, allowed the baby to feed, and the little bugger is now strong enough to join the rest of the flock later today.

That was quite a bit of activity and excitement for everyone in the barn, and things had just settled down again, when I went out this morning to find Molly licking a new black lamb. She hadn't been separated yet, no particular signs being shown, except for a moment yesterday when she wandered off on her own unusually.

That meant that all the other sheep and lambs in the main pen were bleating away an emergency alert at 5 am when I stumbled groggily into the barn to see what was up. So I got the others our of the way by opening the back door, shooing them out, and closing it behind them. Then I picked up the newborn black lamb, bleating lustily, and put it in the second lambing pen (the first still occupied by Nellie), and then proceeded to push and pull Nellie in that direction. She's a big four-year old ewe, at the height of her conditioning, and this was a bit like Shaun the Sheep pushing massive Shirley on the kids' TV program, except that Molly fought back.

It was after I got her separated that I realized that a second white lamb still bleating away by the hay rack was not in fact one of Tillie's twins left behind when mom was shooed out, but a white lamb new-born to Molly.

These three latest, Nellie's one and Molly's two, are the offspring of Snorri, the rental ram from last fall, also pictured.

Snorri, who came in a pick-em-up truck from the Beach family farm west of Farmington, Maine, is a crossbred Corriedale/Romney ram like ours, but shorter, fatter, heavier in the head and face, and with more facial fleece.

He's a very cute and gentle ram which we liked a lot. Were we not bound by a promise to the previous, rather unpractical owners of this flock to keep our current stud until some natural death, that might have been the end for himself, Abraram, who is mean and somewhat dangerous and has rather more daughters around than my geneticist wife is comfortable with. Bringing Snorri in for a season was a good compromise. We have multiple quite well-separated pens, so Snorri was able to be secluded well away from Abe with all Abe's duaghters, and now we reap the benefits of this deal, which cost us about 25 pounds of lamb and ham in trade, but was well worth it since we now have three lambs we would not otherwise have been able to breed.

There might be one or two more depending on how well Snorri got on with our slightly retarded ewe, Lark.

Lark, or Larkie, had white muscle disease as a baby, although not on our farm where we take the proper precautions. As a result, she was a late bloomer and a runt, and only filled out to adult size in her fourth year. Now a very late developing five-year old, she still is the filthiest sheep we know, lacking the intelligence to keep her coat clean or even stay out of the muck. We put her in with Snorri more in order to have a place to put her away from her incestuously minded father than to actually breed her. Again,we are bound by this promise not to cull her, nor any of the flock we started with three years ago, although we really should have done so.

But increasingly I think I see a bulge in her side.

I hope she is bright enough to be a decent mother. I guess we may find out.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Aimee made a video of Tillie giving birth to her first lamb the other night, and put it on Youtube for students to see the process. It's particularly good for seeing the instinct ewes have to lick the lamb, despite the pain and exhaustion they're obviously feeling.

What a good mother. What a great ewe!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Midnight special

Our official Head Ewe, Tillie started acting very grumpy after afternoon feed yesterday. She put her head down in an odd corner of fence away from the flock, and charged me several times when I came to see what was up.

Mean old girl! But I expect she blames us for the pregnancy. Her upteenth. She's probably ten years old. We don't know for sure, since we never got full details from the people we got her from. But this will be her last, though, because you could tell today that she's done with the breeding game.

I'll tell you what happened next, and you will see why.

So we sorted her into the lambing pen. It's easy enough to catch a charging sheep if you're not in a confined space or on slippy ground. They sort of play into your hands, literally, since if you field and catch a sheep's head and hold it tight and turn it or lift it so they can't see where they're going, then you have them and can move them around well enough. It's a bit like a rugby pass, I always think. Aimee, who's now back from Nicaragua where she had very big adventures in the campos and in the jungle, was on hand to do gates, which makes life easier for me. Once caught, Tillie was easily bundled into the lambing pen despite being a very grumpy old ewe.

(Normally she's very sweet and loves to be petted and spoiled.)

There she stood for quite a while, bleating occasionally for her missing family (all the way up at the other end of the barn, at least fifteen feet away!), until I went out to do a check at 10.30 pm (right after we went through Aimee's hundreds of pictures from Nicaragua for the first time).

The water had broken and part of the water bag was sticking out, but nothing else as yet. I got Aimee and we watched for forty minutes as Tillie struggled quite a bit to get a very large, very yellow lamb out. Tillie then proceeded to lick it to death the way ewes do, which I expect helps stimulate the baby. Tillie doesn't like to see a newborn lying down on the job, and literally kicks and hoofs it up with her feet, until it stands up for itself, which is brutal to watch, but never seems to hurt the lamb. None of our other ewes do this kicking and hoofing thing, only Tillie.

That seemed to be it, so we waited until the lamb was on its feet and drying off well enough, then retired to wait for the placenta. Tillie was still charging us anytime we made moves to get into the pen, and she's a big ewe, very hard-headed, so we didn't try to feel for another lamb. We guessed there wasn't one, and all that charging and ramming in the lamb pen can be very dangerous for the baby.

I went to bed for an hour or so; Aimee stayed up working on her pictures and stuff.

At about 1pm, Aimee yelled up the stairs, and I struggled awake. Another lamb coming. But this one was stuck. I struggled to get my overalls on, but by the time I'd got out to the barn, Aimee had pulled the second lamb out. Aimee said it had had one foot back, which is not too bad of a position, but with an older ewe like Till, it was enough to turn a routine birth into a marathon.

Tillie, by this time was prostrate with fatigue.

But, since she was down and calm, more or less, we could now get in the pen and work with her safely. This was why Aimee, normally much more circumspect than me about ramming sheep, had been able to get her hand in Tillie's vagina. Aimee, it must be admitted, also has tiny slender hands. My big hands are not great for this job.

Now it was my turn to help. I stripped a big wax plug out of her teat, causing a pained "baa" as the milk spurted out for the first time under high pressure. then I jammed the nipple in the first lambs mouth and stripped some milk right in. He got the idea and started to feed. The second lamb was put up by Tillie's head, and she started the licking process from a prone position, which was sort of sad, but it did allow one lamb to get licked while the other taught itself to feed. At one point the first lamb made Aimee laugh by trying to find a nipple on my woolly sweater, banging me with it's head as if I had an udder. After a while we helped poor old Till back up, and then watched and waited a little longer before going in again.

We set the alarm for an hour later, 2.15, and both went to bed. But Aimee's far-too-complicated computer alarm clock had the "weekend override" on, which meant we slept way too long. At 4am Aimee kicked me awake and sent me out to check, following along groggily in my wake.

We stumbled into the barn where we found all more or less well. Tillie had expelled the placenta, the lambs were drying off. Back to bed, where we slept until 7.30, very late for us.

But when I finally woke and went out again, the lambs were feeding.

All's well that ends well, I guess.

But this is definitely Tillie's last time as a mom. This particular birthing hurt her pretty badly.

Friday, March 20, 2009

No way... !!!!

If you haven't seen this extreme sheep-herding video yet, you must. These guys are just brilliant. Absolutely hilarious, I feel just a teeny bit sorry for the sheep, though, being buggered about all over the hill.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Recycling a sheep

Today was one of those unexpected days.

I had decided to use up one of my holidays getting a jump start on a job I need to do with students after the break: putting up a small wind turbine to replace on that is broken on the college's so-called "Eco-Cottage," a small solar- and wind-powered dorm we set up nearly five years ago.

Generally, switching out a wind turbine, or anything like that, is a good opportunity for a lesson. In this case, I set up bench tests for the old, broken turbine head, and for the new one. Students can do the tests, see for themselves how the electricity is produced, and then we can go assemble the new turbine to the tower. Getting ready for this was a nice puttering job for a claggy sort of a day.

But when I dropped in on the college's Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham to ask for a hand dropping the old tower, which takes three or four people to drop, he had news. One of the college ewes was looking very badly, and would I go look.

So I did, and realized that whatever she had, she needed to be put down right away. She wouldn't get up, was having breathing difficulties, and had crawled under the hay rack to, well, die, I guess. She was in a very bad way, and to call a vet would just prolong the agony. In our neighborhood it's actually sometimes quite hard to get a livestock vet to come by at all. No James Herriots anymore, I'm afraid. There's been so little money in mid-Maine farming for so long, the vets are all small animal vets, not livestock vets. This ewe is 13 years old, bad-tempered, and prone to hoof rot. Any serious sheepman would have culled her long ago. Obviously, the college flock is more for lessons than for meat or fleece production, but that just means we have even more of a responsibility of care. When a domestic animal is sick, you have to take care of it, one way or another. It's your business. The animal is dependent on you. You're the one in charge. You have to take responsibility. So we had to figure out what to do.

And so, at 13 years old, her time was up, I thought. Better to die quickly and painlessly than slowly withering away in pain and fright, hiding under the hay rack.

The putting down wasn't so much the problem. All the livestock people around here have rifles in our homes for this purpose, as well as for predators and feral dogs. I was not worried about whether or not I could give her a quick, humane death. Disposing of the carcass is the main difficulty. The general plan with a sick animal that can't enter the human food chain because of some unidentified disease (plus being old and tough) is to compost the carcass, which is encouraged by the state agricultural authorities. You simply bury the carcass in a well-aerated, well-mixed compost heap. Less popular with the authorities, but still permitted, is burial. It isn't encouraged because of potential effects on ground water, but a little common sense in picking the spot alleviates most of these worries.

Finally, you can always butcher the animal for dog food. I don't know if you've noticed, but the digestive system of the common dog is generally capable of coping with anything from horse manure, through completely rotten meat, to, well, stolen slippers and items of underwear. Not to be too light about it, but even an old sick animal can generally be fed to dogs.

That was what we settled on.

I didn't want the carcass around my farm because I have new lambs and it might attract predators, the college Facilities boss didn't want to compost or bury her on campus, nor could we put her down there either, discharging firearms being against campus rules.

So we drove around to one of the Amish farmers I know, and asked. "Did anyone in the (Amish) community have a lot of dogs and need any dog meat." Amish often breed dogs for sale, and we quickly found an Amish Springer Spaniel breeder with three dogs who would all be happy to help eat an old ewe.

And then we gently put her in the back of the pick-up truck, drove her to my farm, where we did the deed as quickly and humanely as it can be done. It's never easy to do, and it always takes longer than you think, but with an accurate shot through the spinal cord and the base of the skull, there can be no pain because there's no neural connection anymore.

(I don't know for sure if this is true, but it sounds right, is how I was taught to do it, and is what the books say to do.)

Then we butchered what was left. This was all a new experience for Aaron, but he was willing to learn. As you can see from the picture, he was more than a little surprised and bemused by the whole experience. Being Unity College Sustainability Coordinator, a job he's soon to give up to go to graduate school, has been an interesting set of experiences for him. Today was certainly no exception.

Finally, we delivered her to the Amishman. Aaron was pleased, and curious, to meet so many Amish in one day.

All pretty gruesome, and pretty hard on an old sick ewe. I felt sorry for her, but I think it was for the best in the end. She was barely sensible of what was happening to her, didn't even get up in the pick-up truck ride over, which is unknown. Any sheep taken from the herd and put in the back of strange vehicle will usually struggle.

There's more death to come. I found a cold, frozen newborn lamb out in our own paddock. It was frozen into a layer of snow that fell several weeks ago and was finally thawing in the general drippy thaw we've been having. I guess one of our ewes must have gone into labor early, while we were riding out one of the nor'easters I wrote about earlier, most likely the 24-incher that fell last of all.

I was surprised and upset by this, and looked to blame the bobcat whose carcass I found earlier not fifteen feet from where I later found the lamb. But I have to say, it was more than likely the blizzard. When a ewe drops a lamb into a snowbank on a cold wet night, the lamb can't dry off, and is liable to die. We've seen it before. The remedy is to get the animals into the barn, to separate the ewes in lambing pens as soon as you see the signs, and to monitor closely. This one must have been born in the night, before we started doing night checks. If it was born during that last blizzard, to the ewe I think it was born to, the one currently looking suspiciously svelte, then it was three to four weeks premature.

I guess it could also have been a triplet to Maggie's twins born two weeks ago. There was a small snowstorm soon after. But it was pretty well buried and actually frozen into some ice. I had to chip it out with a pick-axe. It hasn't been long enough.

We will have to figure it out, because we're supposed to have three pregnant ewes left, and this means we may only have two. Unless it is Maggie's triplet, in which case three still.

So that's a lot of death to deal with for one day. Sad.

But there's always death in the life of a farm. And life, encouragingly, goes on. We'll have even more new lambs running around soon enough, to be followed by new green growing things.

My friend who is just getting ready to defend her PhD dissertation, and worried about two teenagers (having ordinary teenager problems) was happy when I told her about the old WW II government signs now back in vogue in the UK, "Keep calm and carry on."

She found the slogan comforting.

Well. What else is there to do?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Exercising the beast within...

I've been enjoying my spring break holiday, although I miss Aimee, and want her back safely, especially as we heard of a student's mountaineering accident on a different spring break trip with a different organization. The student is in hospital, but her instructor was killed. Knowing something about mountaineering accidents, it now worries me even more that my wife is backpacking in the Nicaraguan jungle, but at least there's no rockfall and avalanche in the jungle.

But I get pretty tried of 10 and 12 hour days during term time, so the break has been great, despite the lack of wifey. Mostly it's the dearth of exercise when you work in an office or classroom. I've been known to get up to some fairly strenuous high jinks to get the student's attention, like illustrating the 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics by climbing on the table and jumping off! (When the fat professor jumps of the table and lands on the floor, where does the energy go to then?)

But table jumping aside, even the grottiest day around the farm, with lots of stomping around in muddy boots in the rain or snow to get chores done, is better than the best day at work. And the several large hikes I've had have made me feel better than I have felt in years, physically speaking. I wish I could keep up the routine.

The downside of all this is that of several big jobs that needed to be done before Monday, two remain undone, one not even started yet.

I remain defiant. Screw them! I work too bloody hard. And I have dogs to walk and lambs to watch!

Still, yesterday I worked all day, and no hike, and today I have to travel to scope out more anemometry sites for possible community-owned wind turbines. That leaves four days to hike before the end of spring break and the onslaught: Thursday, Friday (Aimee comes back late that night), Saturday and Sunday.

In case you're feeling sorry for me, don't. Remember, we don't teach all summer, although I do community service and research work, especially wind assessment, and Aimee does her crab research.

And in the fall, I get to spend two afternoons a week getting paid to hike, and several other long sessions getting paid to be in the outdoors teaching barn-building and carpentry. Not to mention the wind assessment seminar with all the outdoor work and field trips.

It's a fairly varied and interesting job I have, with a lot of outdoor work, this one I complain about so much.

It's just the mid-winter period where exercise is so elusive and valuable. From early December to spring break, and even on to the end of term in May, I essentially have to fight with my schedule, my bosses, my students, and sometimes even my wife, to make room for exercise. And I always lose. It gets a little easier after spring break because the snow melts and so I can walk for a half hour in the campus woods, but not much better, because you still have to make time for that walk.

I find it hard to believe that I permit this, considering how much better I feel about myself when I get time to exercise. This is all my own fault, of course. If I hadn't spent all that time as a youth climbing mountains with the RAF, I could be a happy fat slob and never know the difference.

Our college president, also an exercise nut, has a better time of it, I think, probably because his preferred forms of exercise, basketball and cycling, can be fit into a work schedule. Mine, farm work and long walks, require a half day at least.

Anyway, the upshot of all this whining and rambling is, I guess I have to choose between finishing up my spring break jobs, or taking some more hikes, and then I have to go back to those 12 hour days.

I think I've settled on unmitigated defiance. Screw the work. I'm taking a hike tomorrow!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Say hi to Patrick and Paddy

Here is one of Jewel's twin ram lambs. I distinctly remember Aimee saying I could pick names for them in her absence. It is St. Patrick's Day tomorrow, and I just got a card from my buddy Pat, an "Irishman of note."

So in Pat's honour we will call these guys Patrick and Paddy. I know that's redundant, but I'm thinking ahead, see: Twin lambs, nursing the same ewe, the same age?

We'll never tell them apart! It's best for all concerned if they have interchangeable names.

Off course, none of these executive decisions I'm so boldly making might survive the wifey's return. But we'll see.

In other news, I decided it was Mary's turn for a nice long walk in the snow. Mary is a Redbone Coonhound (say that with a nice fakey southern accent for the full effect -- lots of extra vowels and syllables!) and likes to run free in the woods, which is not good, and she is a fidget in vehicles, trying always to stand on the dash and flap her long ears out of the window and drool on the car behind.

As a consequence, she is not often allowed to go for walks that require the preliminary of a ride in the pick-em-up truck, so she never gets to go to Mount Harris, unless Aimee comes along. But she is allowed in the woods behind the house, where she generally runs right for home as soon as she figures out that we've reached the turn-around point in the walk.

Here she is risking her neck on the ice. And a nice shot of an old snag overhanging the beaver pond.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Two down, three to go

Well, ewes being "off their feed" is as good a sign as any, I guess. Just three hours after being placed in the lambing pen, Jewel got down to some lambing.

This first one slipped out without any bother. She struggled for an hour with the second one, and wouldn't let me near her to help, because she had the first one to defend, see.

This was until I went in there, pinned her head in the corner, and her body against the wall, grabbed the legs that had been sticking out for nearly forty minutes, and pulled it out. A crude kind of midwife I make, I know, but the patient wasn't cooperating with me, indeed had charged me several times already.

Who says nature knows best? By the time you've had your legs sticking out for forty minutes, and no movement, I'd say nature is being pretty silly right about now.

Although I suppose that sheep are no longer as natural as, say, a whitetail deer.

Still, it all came out right in the end. The lamb lived and seems fine. Jewel shed her afterbirth with little difficulty. One boy. I didn't check the sex of the second one yet. I don't need to be rammed again today. I went inside to watch the rugby internationals instead (on time delay on Setanta). Much less violent an experience for all concerned, than lambing. And less blood.

I'm glad there wasn't a third up there. That might have gone hard on poor old Jewelly.

Only three more ewes to go. Molly, Tillie, and Tootsie. All are experienced. Should be no problem.

I hope.

Up to the overlook

As advertised, Haggis and I went up to the overlook above Howes Pond today. The day was warmer yet than yesterday, plus we were up at higher altitudes, in a shady corrie where the "sun don't shine" much, and so there hadn't been as much freeze thaw action on the snow surface, while some snow was definitely thawing in the warm sun, so I had to wear snow shoes much of the time, for about two-thirds of the hike.

The first shot shows one of the post-holes that convinced me it was time to put the snow shoes on. This was a tough hike, and I would have had to turn back without the snow shoes.

Then there's the view, with and without clown-feet.

A shot of Haggis posing. Such a poseur. He's a very photogenic dog, and the problem is, he knows it.

Last but one, the unobstructed view, which is what we went up for, right? That and the exercise.

Finally, what animal has five toes on each paw, is about 18-24 inches long, has rounded paw prints about 3 inches across, and can either walk step by step in its own tracks or bound along two-by-two like an otter? The answer at the bottom for those who like to puzzle out animal ID problems

When we had gotten back and had some lunch and a nap, we went out to the barn to feed, and noticed Jewel the ewe-l was off her feed. About time. Her bag is fit to burst, big as a balloon and as pink as a baboon's bum. So we separated her into a lambing pen. We being me and a couple of chickens, the other half of this farm business being off in Nicaragua swanning around in the tropical sun. Luckily, Jewel is not a difficult sheep.

We were observed by our neighbors, mom and two girls, who came to see the lambs and get some eggs. I'm not sure they were ready for the sight of a fat middle aged man wrestling with a pregnant sheep.

Sounds like the kind of thing a Yorkshireman would do!

Once the girls were gone I watched Jewel closely for a while. The lambs have definitely shifted. There's these two big hollows on either side of the small of her back that were not there yesterday, while her belly almost reaches the ground.

The answer to the animal ID? I think these are fisher tracks. Click on the photo to enlarge it. A fisher is a giant polecat/weasel-type thing, a mustelid, big as a house cat, that preys on porcupine, and is often called a "fisher-cat" here in Maine, although not at all feline. I worked with fisher reintroduction when I was a biology student in Montana, and am familiar with their habits.

The only thing that give me pause is that the animal was stepping along one foot at a time in its own tracks. Fisher do sometimes walk along like that, but their usual gait is a sinuous bound. If I'd gone further and seen the typical side-by-side bounding gait prints of a fisher, that would have clinched it.

Here's a link to a copy of the IFW tracking poster. See what you think. The tracks were quite large, about 3 or even 4 inches across, almost too big for a fisher, so if there were only four toes, they could be lynx. And there could be four, since they were obscured by the animal having stepped in its own tracks. It's hard to tell. But fun to try.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A long walk on hard snow

Today was a fine and warm and pleasant early spring day, and a good day to go for a big hike. The nights have been cold, the days warmer, and the snow has set up well, so that although it is still several feet deep in places, and a least a foot in most places, you can walk on top of it.

Spring snow is the best hiking.

After a relatively successful earlier walk demonstrated that conditions were good, Haggis and I decided on an expedition to the Howes Pond basin. We started out on a snowshoe trail, which was firm and pleasant, but soon realized we could hike anywhere we wanted.

The snow and ice covers all the wet spots and underbrush, and so is in some ways easier walking than in summer. This first shot is of the pond, which is shallow, a lead in the ice which we crossed on a snow-bridge. The next shot is of the old beaver lodge, which seems disused. We chatted later with the landowner who said he had had some beavers trapped close by a while ago because they were flooding the road.

Then there's a shot of Haggis running the snow shoe trail.

Finally, mud season is here, and the roads get sticky in the afternoon or in the rain which comes every few days. This mud will stay with us until the ice that is below the surface melts, allowing the water to actually go somewhere. This is what a dirt road looks like in Maine in mud season. Click on the image to get the full effect. This, and the snow and ice, is why we drive four-wheel drive vehicles. Aimee and I used to have to drive three miles of a dirt road like this to get in and out when we lived at the Bale House. Here at the "New House" which is actually 109 years old this year, we only have a quarter mile of mud to get through before we reach blacktop, and that's not so bad because it's steep and drains well. The ruts in this mud were only about nine inches deep at the most.

This was a good walk, and I even managed to buy a third of a cord of very nice dry firewood from the landowner, who logs this forest lightly for fuel and sells it. I was glad to get it because my pile was almost out. With that La Nina, it's been a cold snowy winter, and I used quite a bit more than I thought I would.

Now, after walking three miles and stacking firewood, I'm nicely tired.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Indoor work

Nasty snotty weather all day today. The storms come and go, but they're increasingly wet with warmer days in between, and the snow is disappearing slowly, giving way to mud. See that pile at the front of the greenhouse? That used to come up to the eaves.

With a perfect day for NOT working outside, it was time to get the greenhouse ready for Aimee's plant start business. She generally grows a lot more than we need ourselves, gives away a large number, and sells the rest. We made a few dollars on these last year, which reduced our farm losses a little.

Actually, I just did the income taxes and in the process calculated the farm accounts from receipts of items bought or sold, and I think if I were to put a fair value on all the goods we made for our own consumption, or gave away, we probably showed a profit last year for the first time.

We certainly live well, and thriftily, and our friends and neighbors get to eat a little more homegrown food.

So I spent the morning in the workshop happily enough, with nail-gun and cut-off saw. Once I got these benches made (out of the lumber left over from the five-bar gate), I wanted to see how well the kerosene heater I scavenged from the waste transfer station worked, so I lit it.

The weather was nasty, snow and sleet, temperatures hovering around 35. The heater got the greenhouse up to 60 in a few minutes.

Should be enough to keep the frost of the plant starts in late April/early May.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lambs in the sun

Today was warm and sunny again, so I decided unilaterally that the lambs should leave their lambing pen and go out into the sun. Given a vote (with their hooves), the lambs and mother Maggie concurred.

This was also very exciting for Aunt Nellie, Maggie's sister, who is always very find of her nephews and nieces.

I tried to walk the dogs down to the beaver pond, but left it too late. Earlier, around the farm, the snow was set up and you could walk anywhere you wanted on hard "neve" snow. But by the time I went off into the woods, it was melting again. The worst feeling is the one you get when you can walk on top of the snow three steps out of four, or six out of seven, and then you fall in! Crusty snow makes for painful post-holing too, bruising your shins.

So instead we walked on the snowmobile trail. This is a cross-county trail that runs across our leased land in the back. Back when I was a more avid cross-country skier, I used to complain about snowmobilers. I hated the fumes, especially from the two-strokes, and could not for the life of me see why anyone would ever want to ride such a smelly beast when they could ski or hike.

Now my arthritis is much worse, and I don't ski much anymore, snowmobile trails are good for me because they allow me a place to hike in the woods in winter. Regular readers know I don't mind a post-holing hike, nor a snow-shoe hike, but the conditions aren't always good. If it were not for the snowmobile trails, I'd not find it so easy to stay in decent shape.

Still, you'll never get me on the machine itself, only the trail. I still can't understand why anyone would want to ride that fast through the woods. You'd never see a bird, or a track, or smell or hear a thing!

Anyway, as you can see, Mary and Haggis are good buddies on the trail.

After that, it was my job to dig out the back door to the barn, so the lambs would be safe from predators tonight. Digging out a foot of ice and snow and bedding and manure all around the door was a pretty good workout. That's two days of hard exercise in a row. Happy Mick.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The pictures to prove it..

These pictures relate to the earlier post, below:

Frozen adventure

I'm sitting in my nice leather armchair in the den with the oil heat cranked to 68 degrees, which we never do, and working down my second cup of hot coffee, with a pot of oatmeal on the stove, trying to get warm to my bones. After which I'll probably fall asleep, although it's only 9am.

The weather map says it was 19 F last night but it sure felt a lot colder than that when I walked home the ten miles or so from the Dixmont-Troy line. More like 10 F.

I was driving home from having dropped Aimee off at college to start her field trip to Nicaragua at about 5.30 am, when I hit one of our ubiquitous Maine potholes. A few minutes later the car started to vibrate and the front end began to wobble. I pulled over, turned the engine off, and got out with a flashlight only to hear the unmistakable hiss of a tire going down. No jack, and no lug wrench, in that car, I'm afraid. And we don't own a cell phone. There were houses around but I didn't want to wake someone up.

I was already cold from standing around at college, loading vans, having neglected my macinaw. Yesterday's sun had lulled me into false complacency. I could have waited it out in the car, I suppose. Someone driving by would have called 911 sooner or later, if I'd put my emergency flashers on. Or, once it was a decent hour, I could have walked up to a farmhouse and called AAA. And there was a sleeping bag. But I decided I could hitch-hike, so I started walking.

I got one ride, that's all. I don't mind a hike, but ten miles without a coat, in loose-fitting heavy snow-pac boots, is a recipe for soreness and hypothermia. Luckily there was a box of old hats and gloves in the car, and a flashlight.

After the first twenty or so cars blew by, and the first five miles were done, I started placing the hitch-hikers curse on them all. The one that goes, "don't worry, what goes around comes around. You too can be stranded hiking in the dark and the cold."

After seven miles I gave up, and decided, cussedly, to walk all the way. (As if there were anything else I could do!) In the last mile, I could have had a ride from a couple of different neighbors, but by then I wanted to make it home, just because.

Now I'm trying to warm up and waiting for AAA to bring the car back. I've had a hot shower, but I think it will take a little more than that.

I guess that's what I get for not keeping a jack in the car. I don't remember what happened to it. Probably I took it out for something or other and never put it back. Normally it wouldn't matter. Aimee drives that car, and she wouldn't be changing a tire. She would call me, or AAA, to come get her.

As it was, even when I made it back here where we have the pick-em-up truck, floor jacks and air-wrenches, and the whole nine yards of a well-equipped farm workshop, there was no sense in going back.

Can't drive two cars at once!

This is the first time I've used our AAA membership. The service was pretty good. I did get to see the sunrise from the pass over Harris Mountain. And I have been complaining about lack of exercise lately.

I'm at the tingly stage now. Skin bright red. Feels sort of good.

Just think, if Aimee hadn't taken herself off to foreign parts, I could have jumped back into bed and stolen all the heat I needed from her.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Five bar gate

Today's project was to repair the gate to the main sheep stall in the barn, and to make a new lambing pen (or "jug"), since the one we have is occupied by Maggie and one of the other ewes is likely to drop at anytime.

Aimee got into a fix here the other week when Abraram decided to charge her as she was reaching through the gate to get a feed dish. He not only trapped her arm against the gate pretty good, and gave her a nasty bruise that made her cry, but he splintered the gate at the same time, he hit her so hard.


I heard her yell and came running, but it was too late. So I have to fix the gate. Which means I can use the bad gate for a hurdle, to make a temporary pen.

It's helpful to use lambing pens or jugs when lambing in Maine winters -- you need to keep an eye on the lambs, they need to be close to their mothers, and it makes it more likely that they will avail themselves of the heat lamps we provide. Newborns are tiny and fragile and wobbly, and not yet ready for the rigors of the sheep stall where animals thirty to forty times their weight may step on them. Out in green pastures, as in Britain, the sheep don't get so close to one another as they do in a stall, and there are no solid wooden walls against which lambs can get squished.

But this year, with so many pregnant ewes, we need a second jug. So I did what I normally do when I want to build fence or a gate, and took myself off to the apple-ladder mill in Brooks.

This rural industrial enterprise is owned and run by a friend of ours. He makes apple ladders from big-toothed aspen, a tree considered "trash" and cut to waste by many loggers, because they cannot distinguish it from the other more common, quaking aspens. Both are sometimes called poplars or "popple" around here, although they are not at all like the Italian or Lombardy poplars I grew up with, common ornamentals in Sheffield.

Big-toothed aspen, as a waste tree, is available quite cheaply in Waldo County, Maine. It has qualities similar to spruce, and our experience is that it resists rot well enough to use untreated for fence and gates, assuming you expect to make new ones every five to eight years.

A metal five bar gate costs $90 or more dollars, and only comes in fixed sizes. A home-made one can be made any size you like.

One made of reject aspen apple-ladder sides, at $1/stick, costs $8 plus an hour of labor. It doesn't rust, looks more traditional, and can be used for a hurdle if it ever won't serve as a gate anymore. And when it finally falls apart, you can cut it up and burn it in the wood stove.

So here are shots of the inside of the mill, a Heath-Robinson/Rube Goldberg kind of place I always enjoy. At the top is the device for drilling holes for apple-ladder rungs, and the pile of rejects. I built all the walls of our barn with these things, and routinely use them for benches, tables, workbenches, and other projects.

And a shot of the snowmelt pouring off the roof of the mill. Today was again warm and sunny.

Finally, the finished gate, quite handsome, I thought. This lumber turns gray quickly, after a season, and then dulls, but remains pleasant to touch, especially when polished by human hands or sheep.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Penelope and Pancho

Are the names of the new lambs, per Aimee's executive decision. This one is Penelope.

I always think new-born lambs look like they are made out of the scrap box.

A close shave...

Today was very nice -- 60 degrees F! We haven't seen temperatures like that since mid November. This of course led to the first signs of mud season. In Maine there's a period after the thaw begins but before it's over, when we have a kind of temporary permafrost, if you can have such a thing, below the ground level, which doesn't let water through, and so the top level melts and forms sticky mud.

Aimee and I consider our mud conditions quite luxurious in comparison to the Bale House, which can get stranded in a sea of it's own mud.

My job for this first day of the half-term was to identify how much firewood we had left, and add to it if possible. There was such a tiny amount I went right out and found a guy in Brewer to sell me a pick-up truck of ash slabs, left over from milling blanks for baseball bats, but perfectly good fuel. This is heating up some beans right now. The pallet is what I found left under the snow in the firewood pile. The ash slabs are in the wheelbarrow, with ten-fifteen times that much in the pick-em-up truck.

Then we had a certain surprise. I was walking out behind the barn where I haven't been for month because of the snow in order to, well, do what guys do when they walk off behind buildings and trees in the middle of the day. I followed a dog-trail out there, only to find a dead bobcat. This predator was right up against the corner post for the sheep's current outdoor pen, curled up in a defensive position.

I guess one of the dogs found him and worried him to death. He had a broken leg, and was very skinny, so he had been forced by hunger to take the huge risk of approaching a human barn, only to pay what must often be the price.

"Poor little guy," says Aimee, thinking of the cat. "Close shave," says I, thinking of the ducks who hang out in that pen every night.

We have a fair number of interesting neighbors here on the Great Farm, surrounded by so much wild land of reasonable habitat quality. We have deer and moose, who walk unconcernedly by the back field on the trail every spring without fail. We have bear. One bear ate neighbor Jean's bird-suet the year before last! A student of ours saw lynx tracks in the beaver meadow last winter. We have coyote. Lots of turkeys and grouse, many different woodpeckers, bald and golden eagles, hen harriers (marsh hawks), beaver, and, it seems, American bobcat.

Right next to our new lambs!

In Blake's Tyger tyger burning bright, there's this verse:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

I guess so. But I'm still glad nothing happened to the livestock.

The bobcat meanwhile is in the freezer with last year's pesto and tomatoes, under the bulk-buy tortelini.

Undignified, I know, but when Aimee gets back from her upcoming expedition to Nicaragua, she'll take it to school and dissect it to see what killed it.

As the Italians are well known to say, "ashes to ashes, dust to tortelini."

Friday, March 6, 2009

First lambs!

We got home this Friday just before our half-term break, to discover a little surprise in the barn!

Maggie, our new mom, and a three-year old, gave birth to twin lambs while we were at work. It was a warm day (40 degrees F), so no difficulties, at least that we saw. Both lambs have been observed feeding. Both are warm.

We think we have a ewe-lamb and a ram-lamb. I tried to find out, but Maggie turns out to be a good mom. She charged me pretty solidly, and repeatedly, as I tried to pick up the one we think is a girl.

The other is definitely male.

It was silly to continue with this, as the lambs might easily have been trampled by their own rather irate mom in the process of her quite sturdy defense of their welfare.

Defeated by a sheep! But, discretion the better part of valor.

This year is the P-year. All lamb names are alphabetical in order of year. Last year we had Oscar, Othello, and Oliver. The year before was Nellie, Nugget, and Neeps. My sister has already sent us a long list of P-names she and the girls at her work (a department of the Welsh Blood Service) came up with. So, two P-names from the list or elsewhere. Aimee generally picks the names.

Night checks tonight.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Signs of lambs coming soon

Tootsie has a very disgruntled look on her face. "Oh no, here we go again." She may be ten years old, and should probably be rested or retired, but she was the one that had the sex, and she remains very sturdy.

Jewel the ewe-l's bag is big as a haggis or a rugby ball, poor girl, but not as big as it was last year. This ewe has teats like a cows, and would probabably make a superior milking ewe if size alone were anything to go by.

Molly is a giant white fur-ball just like Shirley on Shawn the Sheep. She lies down a lot. Triplets? We'll see.

Maggie is definitely pregnant, her first. She has made a little tight "trainer" bag. Good girl, Maggie.

Tillie is taking it all in stride. But definitely preggas.

Nellie isn't. Good. She is still quite young. Another year. Like Maggie. We like them to first give birth as three year-olds.

Neither is Lark. Also good. We shouldn't breed animals that only have half the IQ of their sisters.

Time to start night checks. Who will be first? I say Molly.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Slaves of Egypt

Aimee and I both enjoy books and read a great deal -- two or three serious books a week. I read more novels than she does, especially in summer -- as a natural-born scientist she doesn't understand why anyone would waste their time on a work of fiction.

My latest is Liberty Men and Great Proprietors by Alan Taylor, detailing the history of the Waldo Patent, originally a couple million-acre royal land grant of which this farm was for a few decades the epicenter.

American revolutionary war privateer Israel Thorndike succeeded to the patent title by buying out a mortgage in the name of General Knox. Knox won title to the patent by a series of manipulations, including marrying one of the heirs. Gaining the title in 1806 by default, Thorndike founded the Great Farm, and one way settlers worked off their mortgages was by working in his fields, or delivering produce, livestock, cordwood, or lumber to Thorndike's farm or to his mills and boat landings.

The settlers were an unruly crowd, according to Taylor, mostly Jeffersonian Republicans and Agrarians, whereas the hated Knox was a leading Federalist. This early American political argument recapitulates those taking place in England in preceeding centuries, between levellers, diggers, and such, and the aristocratic establishment. I haven't discovered yet whether Thorndike was a Federalist.

But local legend has it that his barn on the Great Farm was nicknamed "Egypt" because it was so huge. We think we may have the foundations of this building in one of our pastures.

According to Taylor, the settlers used a language of resistance, in which slavery, particularly the biblical Egyptian slavery of the Israelites, was a common metaphor for the land baron's hegemony. There was mayhem, violence, and even murder, before the Jeffersonians won the day in this part of Maine, and gained democratic control over towns and townships that were formerly in grasping proprietal hands, and of Congress. One consequence was the various homestead acts employed in the settling of the west.

Egypt, huh? It fits quite well. The settlers who worked off their mortgages on the great farm probably considered the produce they delivered to Thornike's personal proprietal tythe barn to be the product of their slavery.

And so the barn was obviously "Egypt." That throws a new light on an old legend.

I doubt Thordike would approve of our occupation of his treasured property. Not only is there the objection that we are obviously modern-day levellers and agrarians, but also that the life we lead is extremely modest and Jeffersonian.

I hope the old bugger is rolling in his grave.

Monday, March 2, 2009

As predicted

A snow/sleet/rain storm, it looks like. These things are coming every week. Like a slow train. About three inches out there, fairly snotty, but not impossible. We're thinking we can probably drive in this one, so no snow day today. But we'll see. It is fairly nasty out there, and supposed to get worse.

No farm blog posting this weekend. We were pretty busy. Aimee had her normal chores and a bunch of genetics grading, I had a Board meeting followed by a statewide SAR quarterly meeting.

We could actually use that snow day that we're not that likely to get.