Wednesday, December 29, 2010 Fence

Normally, when we look out our back window, this is what we see...our furry family quietly grazing on the hill...not a care in the world...oblivious to everything, except the last green sprigs of grass to survive the first snowfall of winter. When they look like this, we know all is right with the world. They're our barometer of trouble on the perimeter. Then, every one is facing the same direction, intently studying the suspected intruder. But this afternoon, we saw something totally different. The entire herd was on the run, but not in concert as they usually do. This time the pattern was more erratic and irrational. Then we noticed...there were too many bodies out there, and they were leading the pack.

It's not uncommon for us to see white tailed deer up on the hill just above our field. Sometimes there are as many as a dozen or so, including a rare white deer that seems to glow in the afternoon sun. But today, they were lost. There's a small road that traces the back of our property, and the herd had decided to take that road today.
But on their way back, two of the doe had jumped our five-foot fence and were greeted by our legion of male Alpacas. The ensuing frenzy erupted as the deer frantically tried to find an opening to get out of the pasture. The front-runner made it over the first barrier with a standing high-jump, clearing the five foot fence with a foot to spare.
The second...not so lucky. Either she couldn't see the mesh fence, or in her desperation, she couldn't gauge her jump. Three times, she slammed headlong into the fence, buckling the wire and ripping it off the fence posts. Finally on the fourth try, she slowed down as she approached the fence and cleared it without effort. But there were still two more fences
between her and freedom. Behind the barn and beyond my line of sight, she made the same mistake at least one more time, leaving a waving fence line as a memory of her ordeal. Third time was the charm. Free at at last.

Adventures in Cat Wrangling

Last Spring, when the snow melted and everything came back to life, we found ourselves inundated with a herd of squeaky critters, just waiting for feeding time. It was time to bring in the professionals..."Barn Cats". We got two from a kindly cat lady who must have had 20 running around her barn. We were very optimistic about the prospects of witnessing the "Great Mouse Migration".

Good News/Bad News

The Good News is, we haven't seen a live mouse in the barn since the Barn Cats arrived, although one of the cats soon disappeared after arriving. The remaining cat, Stella, has proven to be a natural born killer. In fact, anything smaller than a cat that lives in the vicinity of the barn, does so with an impending sense of doom. And rightly so. We've seen Stella tearing across the yard in hot pursuit of full grown rabbits. That's had an additional benefit of improving our garden survival rate.

The Bad News is, Stella is a female cat. And mother nature taking its hand in things, we soon had "Little Cat", Stella's first born. We were surprised that she only had one kitten, but life went on. Keeping a vigilant watch on the potential mouse population was a big job. Then a few months flew by and Stella had another litter, this time five little carbon copies of "Little Cat". So now we've repaced the scourge of too many mice with too many cats.
It was only a few days after Stella had her kittens in the middle of the hay loft, until she decided to move them. Up in the quiet warmth of the rafters above the hay loft she had carefully hidden them. Except for the occassional head peeking over the beam, we didn't see them for several weeks.
Then one day as we came in for Alpaca feeding time, we were greeted by fuzzy little puff balls scurrying around the hayloft. One...two...three...four...wait, one...two...three...four... I know there were five kittens when we started. Where's five? Listen...what's that? We heard a faint muffled cry somewhere above us. Maybe one of the kittens didn't make it out of their hiding place. So up the mountain of hay bales I climbed looking for five. Listen...there it is again. But I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I reached into rafter space where the kittens had been hiding. Nothing. Then I heard it again, only this time I could tell it was below me. Since I was at the back of the hay bin, next to the wall, the mystery was coming unraveled. "Five" must have slipped between the last bale of hay and the cavity left in the open-framed wall. It hadn't been that long since we had brought in the new load of hay...enough to last til next summer. So somewhere below the five-story mountain of hay...was "five", huddled in the dark with no clue how to get out. So one by one, we de-constructed the mountain of hay bales. And of course they were cross-stacked to hold them in place, so it took moving twice as many to get just one row out. Finally I reached the bottom of the mountain, and there he was, "five" huddling next to the wall, looking very confused.

The next few weeks were filled with scurrying fur, two, three, four, five, plus Stella and Little Cat. Our "Cat Explosion" although cute for a while was getting out of hand. After a few calls to other fellow Alpaca owners, we still needed to find some new homes for the kittens. The math was going to get out of hand in a hurry.

So yesterday, we put an ad on Craigs List, and before the day was over, we had emails expressing interest in nearly all the kittens. Now comes the "fun" part...catching them. The plan was simple;morning mealtime always resulted in all a veritable feline free-for-all. So we put all the catfood out in a stall where we knew only the older cats could climb out of. But only three of the kittens joined in this time. The other two were playing in the stacks of scrap lumber across the barn. We now can truly appreciate the phrase "herding cats". Every time I would move the lumber, they would run under the tractor. Then we tried shooing them from under the tractor, and they were back under the wood. Meanwhile we decided to catch the two in the stall before they hatched a plan to escape. Even with two people in a ten foot stall, we had a dickens of a time catching them and getting them into the cat carrier. While were concentrating on these, we saw one of the kittens escape into the hay bin. Now we got you! Or so we thought. Up the hay mountain it leaped, and I was hot on its heels...until it slid between the last bale of hay and the wall...again. Luckily this time it was only two layers down, but much more agile. As I uncovered the escapee, it turned tail and crawled even deeper into the pile. Well, this was going nowhere fast, so we gave up and carried on with our morning chores. Eventually this one came out of hiding and was on the floor of the hay bin. Jo quickly snatched it up barehanded...something she now regrets as she tends her cat-scratched knuckles and wrist. Finally, with the others that had wandered into the stall, we finally had captured all five.

So they've been transfered to maximum security in the kitchen. And after the trauma of their capture has subsided, they've settled down and seem to be quite happy. Of the five, two have already found new homes, and we're just waiting for the phone to ring for the rest. Meanwhile Max and Dylan both have a taken a greater interest in them, now that they're within their grasp. "We're going to miss them". Well...yes, yes we will.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gray Days of Winter

The day after Christmas was always such a melancholy day for me, starting when I was a child. Of course I know the true meaning of Christmas, and it always gives me cause to reflect on the year just about to finish. But it also marks the beginning of a long cold winter ahead. The prognosticators said we wouldn't have a white Christmas, and they were right. The snow is getting here just in time to miss all the festivities...early morning shredding of Christmas wrapping, cooking marathons, and a quiet dinner with just the four of us. It had been a long time since Jo and I had sat down at the table with our two sons, now nearly grown. Max has been off to college now for three semesters, and Dylan will finish High School this Spring.

And now we prepare for the first big storm of the season. Of course it won't be anything like last winter. Two feet of snow, on top of two more left us paralyzed for weeks. The alpacas could only huddle together in the barn, with only the occasional trip outside for necessities. But now, we're prepared. A new tractor in the barn gives us the ability to move those mountains of snow that are sure to come.

Other than the inconvenience of being stranded in the barn, the alpacas don't seem to mind. They've put on their best winter coats and seem to be just fine modeling their ice crystal overcoats. Now the true meaning of farming comes back to us. We take care of them, and they take care of us. By spring, the snow will be gone, and they'll be happy to shed their coats to enjoy the sunshine of summer.

Our intrepid barn cat, Stella, has certainly done her job, ridding the barn of squeaky invaders. But she's replaced them with her own crew of fluffy barn kittens. Her first, "Little Cat" is nearly grown now. And now her second litter brought five more little gray-striped puff balls. Now we just have to watch where we walk. Since the cold weather started, I put in a water delivery system that Jo calls "Smith Family Robinson" It's just a PVC pipe that doesn't freeze and allows us to fill buckets without trudging to the well. Stella thinks the best tasting water is only found at this new aqueduct. She patiently waits for the bucket to move so she can get a fresh drink from the well.

As we finish feeding, we now have to put the feeding dishes up on the fence posts, so we can find them when we come back in the morning to do it all again.

Good night, furry friends. Stay warm. Spring will be here before you know it.