It’s a fine July morning as I write this, in the glory of another Pacific Northwest summer. The house is cool from the overnight chill (temps drop 20 degrees or more at night) and I’m sitting in the morning sun, anticipating a hot day (maybe as high as 80s) but trying to warm up in the sun’s rays. Glorious seems like an over the top word, but it really, really is.
The Swainson’s thrushes are winding down for the season, sadly. I’ve heard a few this morning, but nothing like the intensity of just a few weeks ago. I’ve written of my Swainson’s serenades before, and the two months of their song is never enough. Though I knew they were around for a couple weeks at least, I didn’t hear my first song until May 27 or 28. It reached a crescendo in early July, with the morning and evening punctuated by seeming near-constant competition between birds and their territories, and reaching a fervor that brings wonder and even worry. These birds are small – about half the size of a robin, and fit in your hand easily (one flew into my window in May – I picked it up and moved it to a safe, quiet spot while it recovered from the momentary stun). I am glad I have lots of berries and cherries here for them to feed on as they sing, and hopefully don’t lose any to what has to be exhaustion by the end of the season. I hope to hear them for a few more evenings yet – they are magical at sunset – but I know it’s almost over. As I write this I see a young robin, breast still baby-speckled with immature feathering but obviously on her own, dining on the red huckleberries on my old growth stump. It’s so nice to see.
I took a few days off around the July 4th holiday this year and it was wonderful. It seemed to last longer than normal (total time away from work was 5 days) and I got a lot done in that time. Shearing is almost done, I got the ram lambs banded (except one who turned out to be cryptorchid – the vet will be doing surgery to retrieve the undescended testicle in 3 weeks) and all of them vaccinated except Ginger, Cinnamon’s lamb who is just as skittish as her mama and learning well. Sigh. I haven’t been able to catch her OR her mama, who is the holdout for shearing. I’ve sheared all of them myself this year, with a blade (i.e., hand scissors versus electric clippers). I started off pretty rough and am getting better, and even faster, but I’m not sure I’ll do this again next year. For one, even though I’m getting better, I can’t do more than two sheep a day, and the mini-rodeo to catch the each one is creating some wiley sheep. Thus, it’s gotten late in the year, and doing them in June or July is WAY too late – part of the reason the more recent ones look better is because of the “rise” – the old fleece has basically lifted away and I’m just snipping it away from the new wool’s growth. For another it’s back-breaking, hot work. And yet another reason, even though I’m going slow, I’ve made way too many slices (cuts) to their skin. It was harder in the beginning with the wool tight to the skin, you think you’re scissoring a thick patch of wool when you’ve actually got a snippet of skin in there. Nothing too dramatic (if I had electric shearers I’m sure I would have had some ‘call the vet’ moments – it happens so fast!), but makes me jumpy for the process. Practice, I guess, but it’s still a lot of work. We’ll see.
Now it’s time to start deciding who stays and who goes after lambing. I’ve gotten about halfway through the list and still have some tough decisions to make, as I need to get the flock back to about 10 sheep before the winter months. They’ve pretty much devoured most of the greenery in the pasture, and much of the property as well, and are going through hay at a good clip too – the lambs may only be 40 pounds each, but they are growing youngsters and they eat!
I have one less to place this week, because unfortunately I lost a lamb recently to an accident with my feeding set up. It was a freak accident, but also preventable, as most accidents are. I feed with slow-feeder hay nets inside my big hay feeder. The lambs have been jumping inside the hay feeder to get at the hay nets and I’m just waiting until they are too big to get in (we’re getting close now!). The mesh on the nets is 1 ½ – 2 inches, but one of the nets had a hole where a couple of the strands had broken or worn through. And one of the ram lambs (the polled one) stuck his head in the hole… You can guess the rest. He struggled to get out and it twisted the net and made it worse. When I found him he was still warm. The hardest part of the loss is the knowing if I gone out there to check on them a half hour—or even 15 minutes—earlier I could have saved him. I’ve been using that net for almost 7 years and I think the hole has been there for at least 3 or 4 years. Obviously I will fix it now, but it was a tough day, and though I’m getting over the guilt I will always feel responsible. I shared the incident with folks on one of my sheep forums on Facebook and it helped immensely to do so. Not only are people kind and sympathetic, but so many shared similar stories – even nearly identical stories – of freak losses, which was enormously helpful to hear. Stories about something that had been in the farm environment for years and the one intrepid or inquisitive sheep (or other critter) found the danger in a seemingly benign object or setup – it happens. I buried the little guy out back, and covered him with his mother’s fleece (she’s the scurf queen on a good year and especially with the late shearing this year; the fleece was basically destined for the compost so I was very glad to have it for this use) before covering him with soil. It helped a lot, and brought some closure to the incident. The other, farmer-practical part of me realizes I really need to learn to butcher. He was small, but I could have salvaged something for the dogs at least. Farm life.
P.S. I haven’t heard a Swainson’s thrush song since Saturday night. I guess we’re done for the season. Sigh.