Monday, 17 September 2012

If only I knew what Ewe knew

Here at the increasingly rurally oriented goat haven at Mole Creek Heights we are on a steep and painful learning curve as we wrestle with the realities of animal husbandry. With the arrival of Spring and the presence of frolicking lambs in the paddocks of the neighbourhood we eagerly awaited our first born.

New born Lambs
Mum shows udder contempt

It was expected that the sheep would be the first to drop with the goat girls up to a month later. The probable dates were dutifully marked in the calendar and assessments made as to the relative rotundity and udder expansion of each animal. Because the sheep came to us ready reared so to speak, they have never had the charm or character of the goat girls and though they have names it is impossible to tell them apart. So lets call them ewe 1 and ewe 2 (where have I heard that name before?). Spring arrived and so did our first lambs. Lyn discovered the birth one morning on paddock patrol and promptly had to rescue one of the babies from the water trough. This should have been an indication of things to come as we watched the mother disdain her offspring, walking away whenever they sought sustenance and even knocking them aside whenever they became too insistent. This was obviously a game of 'survive if you can'. One lamb rose to the occasion while the other fell to the wayside.

We watched all this but were powerless to intervene. At this stage we had nothing better to offer and so felt that intervention would possibly be fruitless. As a result of our unpreparedness, natural selection took its course with the little runt finally giving up the fight. The winner, now the sole claim on mother's attentions, managed to invoke her maternalism and is now thriving. Score 1 out of 2.

The goat girls weren't expected to do their baby bit for a few weeks so it was worrying when Polly looked like she was succumbing to pregnancy toxemia. She ticked quite a few of the boxes for this condition being a first time mother, the bottom of the herd pecking order and carrying twins. The first sign of problems was when we found her lying on her side and unable to get up. Rolling her over so her legs were down hill fixed that problem but she was obviously feeling sorry for herself and continued to look unhappy, lagging behind the others rather than being at the lead as she usually was wont to be. We discovered that her predilection for falling over wasn't so much a weakness on her behalf as the pushiness of her herd mates who took advantage of her infirmity to give her a well paced nudge now and then.

Having not yet learnt our lessons about expectant mothers and trusting in the natural instinct of childbirth, we were again unprepared when Polly decided to be the first of the goat girls to drop her kids. We weren't the only ones unprepared. I don't think Polly knew what had happened to her. Survival rather than nurturing was probably her first priority as she took stock of her bodily responses and did her best to cope while the demands of two helpless kids didn't even register on her radar. One kid had been left in the middle of the paddock and the other, a helpless bundle at its mother's feet, was, to Polly, merely a curiosity.

What are these things?

Polly being non plussed about motherhood

A hopeful maternal moment

There's no mother like a real mother. Embracing this philosophy we attempted to bond mother and kids, rubbing their noses at mum's teats and taking encouragement in the merest sign that Polly was interested in her babies. Of course, we were super excited, taking photos and admiring these little replicas of their mum. Lyn went so far as to announce their arrival on Facebook prompting our vegetarian daughter to be to immediately seek adoption orders.

Sadly, left to the inadequate care of their mother who was obviously having her own difficulties reconciling what had happened to her body with the demands of these little bleaters struggling to find their own role in this new world, the two kids, our first born goats and the hope of our new ruralism, died during the night. A more positive note however, was that Polly was OK. She seemed little concerned, (or was she relieved?), that the two demanding voices were now still, allowing her to retake her place with the other girls who, still awaiting their turn at birthing, were independent of responsibility and demand other than for and from themselves. 
Score 1 out of 4

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

In Which Lyn Builds a Wall and the Goats Taste Cider

Our move into the rural lifestyle has been gradual. Leaving the big city of Sydney to migrate to the village of Mole Creek 19 years ago and then transitioning to the isolation of a country retreat after 12 years of frenzied living as guest house proprietors, we have eased ourselves into the changing world around us. Since getting the goat girls, the pace of change has picked up and now new developments are almost a daily occurrence.

The Circle of Goat

Each week there is a new acquisition from the rural suppliers be it fence parts, animal food or animal husbandry implements and each week we learn new things about the complexities of keeping livestock. Part of Lyn's work in accommodating this new situation as been to build the goats a shelter to keep them from the cold and make their sojourn with us a pleasant experience, safe from the elements and with all the comforts of whatever it is that goats find comfort in. Mind you, this is one project that is likely to take as long as the book shelves I promised Lyn several years ago.

"I am not an animal"
Sugar realigns the string lines

The location of the shelter was chosen due to its relative level ground and a convenient pile of nearby rocks. Preliminary site works involved mowing the area to provide a clear work place and to discourage the persistent occupation of anything of the slithery variety. Unfortunately, even short grass isn't a definite deterrent for the slitherers and no impediment to the leeches at all. Digging the foundations gave Lyn an excuse to play in the dirt and reinforce her discernment when it came to telling a useful rock from a nuisance rock. Each afternoon when I arrived home from work the first task was to find Lyn in the paddock and see if any extra muscle was needed to shift a particularly recalcitrant stone.

As the wall rose, the goat interest grew. Not only was this activity a novelty in their pastoral existence but they were now aware that Lyn invariably carried treats. It became commonplace for a questing head to be pushed under the armpit whilst positioning stones and as soon as the wall began to gain height the girls delighted in showing their dexterity by leaping atop the stones and parading round the circle, often dislodging the loose bits on the way. At the end of the day we would have to persuade at least one to vacate the barrow to allow the tools to be placed there in and our retreat to the house would be followed by expectant bleats as though we were deserting them in their hour of need.

Polly tries a medicinal elixer
Every one gets in for a drop
There is one aspect of working in stone that may be a peculiarity for Tasmanians but is practised with diligence by all those that I know in the trade and that is the consumption of cider. What it is about apples and rocks that go together so well is beyond me but I am happy to support the habit even without the physical interaction with the mineral conglomerates. Naturally then, on a summer evening, when Lyn is entertaining the goats and placing one rock atop another, it is easy to persuade her that it is time to down tools by the provision of a bottle of cider. Naturally then, the girls would want to experience this phenomenon as well and so, the goats got their first taste of alcohol. I think the general consensus was that they were in favour and could 'go' a bit more but, being responsible husbanders of our charges we let them experience but not indulge.

The walls of the shelter have reached a respectable height but now are abandoned for the winter and visits to the girls and bottles of cider are more widely spaced as the hours are short and the ground damp. But summer will return and with it the patter of tiny hooves as a new generation of kids literally climbs the walls and relishes the stories that their mothers tell of times before the stone walls and of the largess dispensed by those mysterious builders with their strange elixirs and pockets full of treats.  

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Ram, Bam, thank you Ma'am

Toffee casts a discerning eye
It had to happen one day. As the goat girls have grown up we decided it was time for them to move in society and meet boys. It is a bit unfair, rather like an arranged marriage, when the only boy you get to meet is chosen by another and then you have to share with your sisters. None-the-less the anticipated meeting of the sexes has taken place and the girls took everything in their stride.

Bill's arrival was a quiet affair. After selecting him from the local dating agency, we paid the gigolo master a retainer and arranged transport. Before the girls could get too excited on the day it was decided to give them a dose of drench and a basic physical to ensure that they could stand up to the rigours of courtship. Our trusting young ladies came to our call for the offered treats of broccoli bushes and other garden greens and there we set upon them.

Bill comes to visit
Catching a goat is an interesting activity. Having short hair they cannot be grasped by the pelt be it short and curly or fluffed up in its winter thickness but nature obviously foresaw this necessity and thus gave the goat handles. I think goats are of the opinion that their horns are for such useful things as scratching, headbutting and locker room comparisons but really they serve as excellent appendages for grasping and restraining the animal. So each girl in turn found herself rough handled as Lyn and I inexpertly captured and held her to receive her dose of 'medicine'. It was all over quickly and with treats all round to distract them the girls shook off the experience and went back to life as usual. Meanwhile, at the other end of the paddock and out of sight, their new friend awaited.

Rather than just let Bill out of the truck and allow him find his own way, we decided that introductions were in order. So while Ross, Sharon and I stood guard over the billy and watched with fascination as he prepared himself by applying the goat version of cologne (a quick piss on the beard), Viv and Lyn went to fetch the girls. As their 'maas' came closer, Bill got more interested. He'd been living in a segregated dorm with a bunch of other blokes where it was hard to tell who smelt of what and now a whole new vista was opening before him. It was time to go to work.
Polly is targeted by lusty billy

Goat courting is quite an entertaining business and we wondered how long things might take and who would be the first of the girls to fall under the spell of romance. After the aforementioned application of Brut 33 goat style, Bill wasted no time on formalities. No introductions or persuasive words, simply a nose to the rump with the question, "are you ready for it?" The negative response to this question is simply to ignore the question and to walk away while the positive seems to be a vigorous wagging of the tail. The billy continues by wiping his cologne scented beard down the lady's flank and poking out his tongue whilst rolling his eyes in what looks like the suggestive leer of a dirty old man waiting at a school bus stop. All charm!!

Bill makes the opening moves

As all parents know, when their kids come to courting age, there is not much you can do to guide their choice of partner. Hormones being what they are, what one finds obnoxious another will find irresistible and it's often the quiet demure young ladies who will fall for the rakish gentlemen and before you know it their reputation is in tatters. Such was our experience with the goat girls. We've watched them grow, enjoyed their little character traits and assigned virtues and flaws to each one. The 'butting' order is firmly established and though they hang together, we suspect that, like any group of girls, they have cliques which change as often as the weather. We thought we knew them; adventurous Toffee, dominating Molly, the matron of the group, sly Sugar who is not adverse to getting a nose into whatever mischief is afoot and demure little Polly who gets pushed around by the others. Obviously the first one to have her head turned would be one of the most self assured, or so we thought.

Polly offers a 'come on'

I wasn't quite shocked and I don't know why I was disappointed but I was surprised to see that Bill's charms demolished little Polly's defences in no time at all. She was wagging her tail and giving him come hither looks which had him hanging out the tongue in anticipation. Ah! lost innocence! From the perspective of several weeks on, it seems that all the girls eventually succumbed to Bill's questionable charms and now he follows them docilely about the paddocks, confident in the knowledge that his cologne is still strong and he can pull the chicks anytime he likes.

As a consequence of all this activity, we are hoping to have kids come springtime. Bill will be long gone by then so he won't be teaching his pickup lines to the next generation but already Lyn is anticipating the 'cuteness' of little baby goats. The only trouble here is that said baby goats are destined for the food stores of the future. Will they get eaten or will their cuteness make it impossible to send them to the butcher? Only time will tell!!

Monday, 13 February 2012

We'd control it if we could

The thistle season is upon us and the annual thistle vendetta has been underway for some time. Several methods have been employed as we have worked to rid our small holding of these prickly affronts to good land management. Initially I attacked the slender thistles with the brushcutter, strewing mashed green foliage in a wide swathe of destruction that was very satisfying when the thistles were massed together underneath the blackwood trees. Chasing down the more patchy clumps over a wider area was tedious but the results of a thistle free paddock were worth it.

Steep slopes and rocky outcrops proved a little more difficult to work on and achieve effective control but perseverance and a keen sense of balance pushed the thistles back each year. Overalls were typically stained green and were impregnated with vengeful spines by the end of the season and I have long since abandoned the idea of washing out these residues but instead allow the vegetable matter to dry and then give the garments a good shake. Donning them once again and feeling the itchy prickle of previous battles is a bit like donning a hair shirt as a reminder that the conflict with sin is never over. In fact there are probably many metaphorical comparisons one could make between the control of noxious weeds and the journey of life but I think that on the whole of it the physical prickles are probably easier to control than the mental ones.

Once the mass thistle cull had been accomplished for the first time and we could see the contours of the land and the potential hazards on its surface, we were able to continue control in many areas simply by mowing over the emerging weeds, gradually teaching them the futility of their misguided persistence in trying to re-establish a presence in what essentially was ceded territory. On steep slopes and rocky outcrops however, the story was different. These weeds were like the guerrilla fighters, carrying on a dogged resistance in the hope of one day rallying and reclaiming the land that was once theirs. These stalwarts were not without their allies; for on the other side of the fence where the neighbour's attitude to thistles is far more tolerant, vast armies were gathering as the weeds bred indiscriminately and waited for a fair breeze to send their downy seeds skyward to land like the sleepers of espionage novels, in our paddocks, until the conditions for their uprising were favourable.

Often these guerrilla weeds would manage to go undetected long enough to produce seed and their tough, thorny stalks would wave these into the air in defiance of our version of pastoral purity laws. We found the best way to deal with those in the more difficult areas was to pull them by hand. This isn't difficult with slender thistles as their spiny defences are easily circumvented with a pair of gardening gloves but the scotch thistle can be quite a challenge and prove hardy fighters in the face of annihilation. It can be fairly punishing work, following the thistle trail, pulling them by their roots and teaching them that their kind is unwelcome on our neck of the woods. It's a bit like ethnic cleansing when you think of it and we continually reinforce our prejudices with every weed we pull, hawthorn that we poison and elder that we hack. So far we have used organic methods on the thistles and the least invasive techniques to discourage the hawthorn that in their way are far nastier than their weedy counterparts but there may come a time when bending the back to pull the weeds is less appealing than spraying some toxic substance.

Generally through summer, a walk around the property will involve carrying a hoe and chipping away at any offencive weed that pokes its head high enough to reveal its position. We are a property at war and it pays to be ever vigilant. It is a pity that the same techniques cannot be applied to the control of marauding possums and wallabies that are keen to eat just about anything that isn't a weed.

What has all this to do with goats? Well it is a long held belief of mine, perhaps based on erroneous anecdotal and possibly apocryphal information, that goats eat thistles and it was with this information in mind that I assumed that our thistle problems in at least one area of the pastures would be no more. Alas, this does not seem to be the case as thistle after thistle went ignored by the girls. They weren't interested even if you pulled the thistle and tried to feed it to them. They looked with disdain at this spiky offering and bleated their displeasure in no uncertain terms as they demanded more palatable fare and so I have been reduced to hunting the thistles down in the customary manner, pulling them from the earth and leaving them to wilt under the heat of the sun. Recent observations however, suggest that my previous assumptions may be based on more than myth and perhaps a goat needs to attain some maturity before it will include thistles in its diet. Slender thistles that escaped my previous attentions are now appearing to be flower less and being proffered a bountifully flowering scotch thistle recently, the girls showed interest in plucking off the flower buds and enjoying their delicate novelty.

It is quite amusing to watch an animal attempt to eat a thistle. Obviously they are not immune to spines and have no greater love for being prickled than do I but by careful placing of the lips and manoeuvring to the back teeth, one can crunch through the stem and claim the prize. The question is; can you rely on the goats to eat the thistles when there is so much other good food available or do you remove a potential delicacy for future consumption through a paranoia that if you don't take responsibility for the cleansing of this scourge then it will once again get out of hand? And then there is of course the ever present fact that there is an army massing on our borders and nothing will stop their insidious infiltration as soon as our backs are turned.