14 January, 2016

So much new life in the pasture

Let’s do some photos, shall we? At two weeks old, and with the mud finally freezing, May’s babies are getting out of the barn and doing some exploring. And of course last weekend Kate-with-Soays dropped off 5 beautiful new Soay ewes! With seven new faces in the pasture I don’t know where to turn my camera, honestly.

A leggy sheep with fleece in shades of gold and sharp black trim walks toward the camera, pursued by two tiny goats. One is white with a red blanket, dramatic red eyeshadow, and black highlights on her legs. The other is pale tan with a black blanket, black knee socks, and sharp black diamonds over her eyes. They both have long floppy ears and are soft and fluffy.
Ella was rather dubious about her tiny entourage, as you can tell by the set of her ears and the way she angled her head to keep an eye on them.

The tan and black baby goat, Spice, sucks on my fingertip.
Spice pauses in the middle of exploration to find out if my fingers are food. Spoiler: they are not.

A tiny sheep, about knee high on your average human, nuzzles at my hand. His body fleece is golden-red-brown, while his face is a complex mix of cream and ash brown hairs that yield subtle stripes from his eyes to his muzzle.
Reuben seeks reassurance that despite all the new animals, he’s still my favorite Soay. Of course you are, little buddy!

Three Soay ewes rush past side on to the camera. They are varying shades of auburn brown, made darker by the angle of the light. Their bellies and insides of their legs are creamy pale, and there are markings around their eyes in the same color.
The new ewes are still in Confused Sheep mode, which means they stand still and stare at things then rush off. Here three are rushing between sets of grain dishes because a pig got too close to them. I love their graceful, high-stepping gait. Horse people will probably notice that the one in back is pacing (the legs on each side move together, rather than diagonal legs moving together). So far I’ve identified three or my seven ewes as pacers, which is intriguing. Unfortunately it’s not something the scientists on Hirta are studying. However it’s probably genetic, and if you study pics of Soays found online you can identify a lot of pacing sheep. To complicate matters, my pacing ewes sometimes trot. If I ever win the lottery, I’m funding a grant to study the locomotion of the population on Hirta.

21 September, 2015

Training games are the same, no matter the species

I’ve used various elements of Sue Ailsby’s Levels for dogs for more than a few years now. They will helpfully give you a structured way to teach your dog a bunch of very useful life skills. Recently, though, I’ve been using them on goats, who can use many of the same life skills, like “not being an obnoxious shit if a human is holding food”.

Using cheap cookies and my voice instead of a clicker, I’m particularly working on Food Zen. Some goats are catching on quite quickly that backing off makes a treat appear. Other goats are a little slower. The best goats, of course, are the ones who are already polite (and get lots of cookies for that).

A mahogany red goat with white ears and nose and a heavy sprinkling of white hair throughout her coat nuzzles at my hand while watching my face.
Siri tried biting my hand and that didn’t work, so she shifted to gently nuzzling my hand. But no treats appeared until she broke contact with the treat hand.

I need to keep working on it, but Siri grasped pretty quickly that standing at a polite distance and looking at my face got her cookies. Sanglant, on the other hand, just could not believe there wasn’t a way to brute force getting a cookie. He tried many, many ways to get my hand to open, but none of them involved NOT trying to maul my hand for a cookie. He’ll get it eventually I’m sure, but meanwhile Sebastian is highly amenable to positive training so I’m going to start teaching him to work in harness and do silly tricks.

The other animals that need training are the mini pigs Janus and Tethys. They’ve settled down around us a lot but still won’t approach, which is no good when they’ll eventually need routine care. So right now I just sit still and wait, and if they approach voluntarily within five feet I start gently tossing cookies to them. It took about two cookies apiece before they were standing about four feet away, so I gave them another couple cookies and ended the session. Tomorrow they’ll have to come closer than four feet, and so on until they will eat cookies from between my feet. I probably won’t teach them to take cookies from my hands since pig teeth are sharp and I don’t want to have to teach them Cookie Zen later!

Once the pigs are approaching confidently, it will be time to teach them basic skills like letting us examine their hooves and run our hands over them to check body condition. Pigs are clever beasts so I don’t expect it to take long if I let them lead the way and tell me what they’re comfortable with.

I’ll also be working with the Soays in the same way just as soon as I discover a reward they find meaningful.

Using positive reward systems to train various species is a lot of fun because of the cooperative aspect. Prey species like goats and sheep aren’t particularly amenable to harsher methods since it takes very little stress to kick them over into fight-or-flight responses. While you can get results from punishment-based training methods with some species, there’s not a lot of joy in hurting an animal until it does what you want.

12 August, 2015

How smart are sheep?

When I asked on Twitter for my followers to inspire today’s blog post, two people almost immediately wanted to know: are sheep as stupid as people think they are?

All five Soays march toward me in a determined fashion, led by Urdo the wether.

It’s a little bit of a complicated question. The short answer is no, sheep are in their own way bright and curious creatures, if flighty as hell compared to goats. Sheep can be trained, and while a flock is at first glance a mindless mob, there’s actually some really interesting social dynamics going on.

But they’re not, y’know, geniuses. Let me demonstrate with an anecdote. Periodically when we’re moving fences, a couple Soays escape. We’ve set up a sheep trap consisting of a 4 foot tall puppy exercise pen with a dish of grain in it and a long string attached to the door so it can be closed from a distance. Inevitably (and quite quickly now that they know about the grain) if I sit quietly on the milk stand, the escaped sheep will walk right into the sheep trap and I will pull the door gently shut behind them.

This trick wouldn’t work on goats. A goat would remember where the door is and charge it, and given that I’m holding it shut with tension on a long rope cobbled together from pieces of baling twine, the goat would escape. The sheep, however, totally forget where the door was and spin in confused circles, so we latch the door, lean over and grab the sheep, and take them back to the flock. It works every time, and in fact the more it happens the easier it gets, because the escaped sheep beeline for the trap and its dish of grain. Supposing I did manage to trap a goat, they’d never set foot in that pen again. Goats have great memories and hold a grudge; sheep brains seem to be easily short-circuited by a pan of sweet feed.

At the same time, none of the Soays have ever gotten their horns caught in the hay feeder, whereas any goat that can get their horns through it will, and then will forget how to get their horns back out, leading to us taping a Stick of Shame to them to prevent them getting trapped.

Frankie, a brown and white wether, has a Stick taped across his horns and extending three or four inches out on each side. He does not ahead to be amused.

So the question of sheep intellect isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Certainly they are smarter than people think they are, but a really bright sheep still isn’t all that smart. But they are curious, gentle creatures, and a pleasure to keep.

7 August, 2015

A Paradigm Shift to Conservation Breeding

Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.

But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.

An elegant Soay ewe, long-legged, lean, and small compared to modern sheep breeds. She has a warm brown-auburn fleece, small horns, and dark patient eyes.

Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.

A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.

Ferrington stands side-on to the camera. He has a heavy body, a mahogany fleece, and a long black ruff of guard hairs on the front and back of his neck. His horns are exactly what you think of when you think of ram horns. His face is black, with white under the chin and striking white eyebrows, and he has a Roman nose.

It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.

1 August, 2015

23 July, 2015

Catching up

What have I been up to?

Well, I’ve been writing for the Piedmont Virginian’s blog. My most recent piece is about my current service dog, Xita.

I’ve had to pare down the goat herd due to my health issues, and am shifting over to low-maintenance breeds of sheep that are more appropriate for the pasture we have (as well as being way less work than dairy goats). I successfully crowd-funded a starter herd of Soay sheep, and last weekend a friend and I drove down to get them. They’re amazing little perfect woolly jewels, observe:
Two small and mildly wooly reddish-brown sheep, one of whom is looking at the camera. They are elegant and slightly deer-like (if deer grew wool), but only knee high.

I am especially smitten with my ram, Saltmarsh Ferrington:
A dark mahogany brown ram with massive curling horns and distinct white eyebrow markings deliberately poses for the camera.

Unfortunately our garden was destroyed by goats this year, so there won’t be any vegetable harvest until the fall crops have been planted and gotten a chance to thrive.

Meanwhile, I’m finally dealing with the Veterans Administration trying to get them to admit that the Navy broke me and they should be giving me money. Fun, only not.

30 August, 2013

17 June, 2013

Things to Eat: Daylily Buds

So daylilies are invasive and beautiful and at least around here, incredibly prolific. Did you know they’re also edible? You can eat the shoots, tubers, buds, and flowers. Evidently dried flowers are used in some Chinese recipes as “golden needles”, and they can be used to thicken soups and gravies. We have an abundance of them here at the Manor, because as it turns out they are perfectly willing to spread from seed if you don’t deadhead the buggers.

Anyway, if you want to reduce the number of seedpods they produce without wasting them, here is Andrea’s Simple and Easy Recipe For Daylily Buds!

You will need:
A bunch of daylily buds, just when there is some orange on them but before they mature and open.
A clove or two of garlic (garlic to taste, really)
Olive Oil
Skillet that will hold the amount of daylily buds you have picked.

Step one: Go dig up a garlic bulb from your garden and grab a couple cloves. Alternatively, you may purchase garlic at the store, but it won’t be as good. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step two: Gather as many daylily buds as you feel like you want to eat. They are delicous, so plan accordingly.

Step three: Wash and drain the buds to get any bugs off them that may be lurking.

My hand holding a paper plate on which are many freshly-washed daylily buds, all about 3 to 4 inches long.

Step Four: Heat your skillet to a high medium or a low high heat and coat it in olive oil. Then add just a wee bit more olive oil. Wait for it to be good and hot, then crush your cloves of garlic directly into the pan. Stir the garlic around a moment and enjoy the smell of sauteeing garlic.

Step 5: Dump your daylily buds in the skillet. Sautee until the bases are a bright, vivid green and the tips have caramelized.

Step 6: Put sauteeed buds on plate, grab your fork, and dig in. They are mild, crunchy greens with a taste sort of like a green bean but not quite.

24 October, 2012

Wednesday is for goats who refuse to stop lactating

Have I introduced Luv-R-Goats JHV Ambrosia? I don’t remember and I’m too lazy to go back through and look, so you get to meet her again if I did. Brosia to her friends, she came to me courtesy of Pun Kids Farm. I’ve been trying to dry her off for over two months now, and she just refuses to even consider ceasing lactation. She says she lives to lactate. I have argued her down to 3 quarts a milking now that I’m milking her every other day; previously she was giving me a gallon. It’s progress.

Ambrosia is a LaMancha, with what are called gopher ears, which means that no, no one cut her ears off. She was born like that. She is a very friendly and exceptionally inquisitive girl who likes to follow you around nibbling your fingers delicately until you give her actual food. And boy, does she love her food. It’s the only thing she loves more than going to get a drink and then coming over to dry her tiny little beard off on your hand.

Ambrosia, an earless LaMancha goat, rests her chin on my hand and looks straight into the camera.  Her coat is black, with gold stripes running from her eyebrows down to her nose.  Her nose is white.  She appears to be smiling in the way of a creature who is plotting something.

22 October, 2012

Still Catching Up: Monday is now for young lady goats

Did I introduce Chribrydon Maybelline’s Siri? Siri (and “Sweetie”) to her friends. Her friends include every biped she’s ever met, and her favorite thing to do is to come stare lovingly into your face while she has a cud and you rub her neck. She’s a gorgeous little thing, a more modern style of Nubian with a graceful, delicate build and a lovely arch to her nose. And, of course, this gorgeous bundle of love comes wrapped in a rich mahogany red coat sprinkled with white roaning and sporting some awesome moonspots.

But mostly when you try to get pics of Siri, you get pictures of her face, because she needs to be close to you. She needs love. Love NOW, monkey. Love.

A close up of an adolescent Nubian goat's face.  She has a dark brown-red coat with a frosting of white hairs, white ears, a white nose, and a white star on her forehead.  And she loves you.

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