Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Native species

I’ve always been in favor of native species. It just feels like a good idea. The nonnative Japanese beetles that were brought into the country to sell to home gardeners as lady bugs have become a real problem – at least in my house where they drown in vases and die on the windowsills by the hundreds. The buckthorn in our woods is another example. For the first twenty years we lived here, I searched in vain for spring wild flowers in the woods. The only blossoms were the ones my mother and I had planted, rue anemone, nodding trillium, hepatica. The buckthorn had completely taken over the under story. When our girls Amber and Laurel were old enough to need summer jobs, I hired them to kill buckthorn. They pulled, cut and poisoned buckthorn. Now we can see through the parts of the woods where they and their friends worked. Best of all, the plants my mother and I set are spreading, and I’m finding new flowers, plants that must have struggled or lain dormant for decades. Three cheers for nonnative species control. Dave and I are planning on converting our least productive (and weediest) hay field to prairie this summer and, of course, planting native species of prairie grass and flowers.

In general, we aren’t really very good at planting native species. I have purple coneflower in my sun garden and Virginia bluebells in the woods along with the other woodland flowers that my mother helped me plant. Beyond that, our farm is a fine example of native and nonnative diversity. Our lawn (I can call it that because it is the relatively flat area that stretches from the back deck to the woods and the fields) is a wonderful profusion of flowers right now – violets, perriwinkle, forget-me-not, and ground ivy. The lawn is beautiful. There are so many flowers that I don’t even watch my step when I walk, I know the flowers will survive. But the grass itself looks terrible. The ground ivy is a vicious nonnative, taking over lawns, gardens, forests. My shade gardens are carpeted in ground ivy, and although I love its little blue flowers in May, I hate the way it chokes out the other flowers the rest of the summer. I’ve even lost a mugo pine tree to ground ivy – it was completely covered!

Then I read an article in the Macalester Today magazine about Mark Davis, the first biology professor I had at Macalester College over forty years ago. Davis believes that exotic species are here to stay and that we should learn to love them. He says that exotic species act a lot like native species and that local ecosystems now have about 20% more plant species in them than they once did because of the foreign species. He feels we should only try to control those nonnatives that are threats to human health (like avian flu) and to the economy (like gypsy moths and emerald ash borers). The article specifically mentioned buckthorn as a species that was already entrenched and not doing much damage.

I’ve walked the Mississippi River banks in late fall and seen all the green leaves of buckthorn (the last tree to hold it’s leaves) and grumbled about how it is taking over the world. Dave and I debate spraying herbicides on the ground ivy in the lawn; we’d lose the violets and the forget-me-nots. And the ground ivy replants itself faster than the other spring flowers. So I weed the shade gardens as much as possible and hope for the best, enjoying what flowers we get. And I curse the non-native species. Dave sprays surreptitiously and selectively, and vows to pull more buckthorn when he gets the time.

Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the movement of species around the globe should be viewed as a part of the evolutionary process, not necessarily a destructive force. Mark Davis advises that we learn to love nonnative species. One of my friends even suggested that the battle against ground ivy was un-winnable and I should just relax and enjoy the flowers. I’m keeping and open mind and working on my attitude.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring rain

billowing black clouds
first lightening splits the sky
lambs race for the barn

on the gravel road
long, pink night crawlers stretch out
around fresh puddles

after the first rain
thin, flexible blades of green
push winter aside

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Unbearable cuteness

Photo by Glen Larson

I have just spent almost three weeks with a new grandson and I can say without hesitation that babies are unbearably cute.
Of course, I already knew this. Lambs are also unbearably cute. The problem with lambs, as the shepherd, is that I frequently don’t take the time to appreciate their cuteness; I am too often more focused on getting them fed, or medicated, or rounded up, or sold. Also, there are seventy to appreciate.
The advantage of spending time with my grandson, was that all I had to do was to be with him. My normal home chores were left behind (beyond the basics of cooking, washing dishes and picking up of course) and I was allowed the luxury of focus. I learned his smiles, his pouty mouth, the difference between his hand gestures when he was exploring how his muscles worked and his hand gestures when he was hungry and wanted his mom. And the more I watched and held him, the more the feelings inside me grew. This little person, this baby, was wonderful - bright, soft, and unbearably cute.
The lambs are the same. When I can step back from my normal daily chores and appreciate the lambs, I find soft ears, beautiful tightly crimped fleeces that will make lovely yarn, curious faces, and unbearable cuteness. Perhaps that is the most important reason to raise sheep, that occasionally, I take the time to step back and recognize the unbearable cuteness, the incredible wonder, of baby animals.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An experienced shepherd

Nursing more than one lamb is an amazing feat. Nursing three or four is prodigious. When a single ewe raises multiple healthy babies, it’s a boon for the shepherd, but hard on the mom.

When Dave and I left the farm to visit our new grandson, we did it secure in the knowledge that our good friend Glen was taking care of the animals. During most of the year, the sheep are largely self sufficient. But during and after lambing, both the ewes and their lambs are prone to problems. Our normal house/animal sitters do a great job feeding the sheep, Oolong the cat, Gloria and Ted, the fish, and Carly the dog. They make sure that Carly gets outside, or at least clean up after her if she doesn’t.

Right now, however, the sheep need the care that only an experienced farmer can give. Only an experienced shepherd, like Glen, would recognize that a lamb standing with its back hunched is a hungry lamb. Only an experienced shepherd would know to track down that lamb’s mom and get the lamb nursing. Only an experienced shepherd would recognize a tired ewe and when finding her lying in the barn instead of rushing out for fresh corn, figure out what was wrong with her.

Temperature 108ยบ. One side of her udder hard instead of soft. Glen expressed clear liquid with white clumps from one side of her udder instead of creamy milk. An obvious case of mastitis.

Glen dosed Supermom with an antibiotic and rounded up her lambs. They were very interested in nursing even though she was lying down. Glen built a pen around the little family to keep the lambs with their mom. Then he put each lamb on the nipple on the hard side of Supermom’s udder. The lambs could remove the milk and ease the pain much more rapidly than he could.

Even after the lambs were penned with their mom, they still looked hungry. Glen opened the unused bag of lamb milk replacer we had in our freezer, and mixed up milk to feed them. These lambs were too healthy and too big to gavage, so Glen made a trip to town to find a plastic bottle that our lamb nipples would fit. The lambs took to the bottle with no problems. The only problem was for the shepherd. Now instead of checking the sheep morning and evening, he would be checking the sheep and feeding three bottle babies. Perhaps not such an onerous problem for an experienced shepherd.

Friday, April 9, 2010


photo by Glen Larson

I am amazed by the role instincts play in daily life. The most fundamental, only a few of us see everyday, but they are still there. When I watch a newborn baby turn his head, mouth open, toward my arm as I hold him, searching for his mother’s breast, I see a basic instinct. The human baby roots around on his mother’s breast until a difference in surface texture or the presence of warm milk focuses his attention and he latches on.

We see these same instincts in the barn. New born lambs stagger to their feet and begin to explore the dark crannies of their mothers’ bodies – between her front legs, in the arm pits of her back legs. Finally, entirely by chance, instinct and persistence, they fumble across a nipple, open their mouths and begin to nurse.

Mothers also have instincts. The adult human parent sits, transfixed by a new baby, memorizes the pouty lines of his lips, the fine curl of an ear, the way his tiny hands grip her finger or clench as he explores the movements of his body.

Sheep learn their babies too, licking, sniffing and listening to imprint themselves onto their baby and their baby onto themselves. When the babies and their mothers are released from the group pen after three or four days, they find each other wherever they might be, by baaing. And when baby comes running, the moms make sure it’s the right one by smelling. Baby lambs know they have the right mom if she lets them nurse.

When a mother hen sees a hawk, or the shadow of a hawk, overhead, she flaps her wings and chivies her chicks into the shelter of the barn. Her babies follow, instinctively.

Even non-parental adults protect and nurture instinctively. I can sit for hours, our new grandson cradled in my arms. I handle him like spun sugar, always aware of his floppy head. I wrap and unwrap him as the breezes cool and warm the room. “Those are stairs,” I point out to him. “Your Baba will put up a baby gate to keep you safe.” I am prepared to protect him from the world.

Cali, our alpaca, screams when a stranger steps into the barn yard. She wasn’t trained as a guard animal, it just happens. The sheep respond to her scream by running to safety (illusory or not) behind the barn.

When our friend, Genette, brought her dog Buddy into the barnyard to see if he had any sheepherding instincts, Cali screamed; the sheep all ran behind the barn; and Buddy, well, Buddy ran to the end of his leash, as far as he could get away from Cali.

Sound instincts.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nipple confusion

When I was a La Leche League leader, we talked about nipple confusion. We worried that exposing a baby to easy nursing bottle nipples would confuse him and he would refuse to nurse on his mother, an exercise that was better for him, but took much more work. I was always a little dismissive of the idea. I figured a hungry baby would eat.

Now, I watch a field full of happy, healthy lambs, none of whom are bottle fed, and I am rethinking my philosophy.

On March 1, when lamb number three didn’t seem strong enough to nurse, we milked out his mom and filled a plastic water bottle with colostrum, screwed on the little red nipples we used for bottle lambs, and attempted to feed him. The milk streamed out around the connection between the bottle cap and the bottle.

Damn, we’d had that problem in the past and I’d forgotten. We don’t drink pop, so had no pop bottles (for which the lamb nipples were designed) in the house. We were going to have to gavage this baby to get any milk into him. Dave slid the thin plastic tube down his throat and pushed the milk through a syringe to force it into the lamb’s stomach.

I never did buy a pop bottle for feeding; I didn’t have time to go to town. We used the gavage tube for several lambs that needed just a little help in the first few hours or days. And every single one learned to nurse on its own mother with no problems what-so-ever.

No bottle lambs! 74 new babies and no bottle lambs. Our lambing this year was like no other in the last twenty-five years. When the last ewe lambed we stopped going out to the barn every three hours because we had no bottle lambs to feed. We slept all night; we were away from home for more than six hours; we fed the sheep in twenty minutes instead of forty minutes. Last year we had 8 bottle lambs. This year, we had none. Although I miss having a lamb run up to me every time I go out to the pasture, and our guests really miss having bottle lambs to feed, I’m glad we have no bottle lambs.

Lambs nursing on moms gain weight faster, they think they’re sheep, and I have a lot easier time selling them when they reach market weight. I’m not sure I believe in nipple confusion, but I will certainly gavage hungry lambs next year instead of bottle feeding them.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sugar camp

Photos by Alice Ellison

After we finish lambing, we devote ourselves to sugaring. The woods are so beautiful in the early spring -all brown and tan with small brilliant touches of color.
Take a stroll through our sugar camp and feel the cool wind off the lake, smell the sweet scent of hot syrup, hear the Canada geese calling as they fly overhead, and find the crimson cup fungus hiding in the leaves.