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Goddamned pigs, y’all.

A very small spotted boar with tiny tusks looks at the camera.
Y’all. For two years now we’ve had Piggy Bank, a mild-mannered and well-behaved little boar who is known for his love of tummy rubs and business-like trot where food is involved. Even when Maggie was breaking out of the fence he stayed peacefully in confinement, doing his pig thing.

And then sometime night before last or in the early morning hours of yesterday, he broke out of the fence and traveled a quarter mile down the road to a house where another mini-pig boar lives. We found out because the same animal control lady who dealt with Maggie texted us and let us know. But by the time we got down there, he’d melted into the woods. Great.

Then that afternoon the people who lived there came up to the house because he came back, broke into their pig’s pen, and kicked his ass. We went down there to try to recapture our little asshole and he went zooming off into the woods again, leading us on nearly a mile long chase before we lost him. Right. Great.

This morning the neighbor stopped by, Piggy Bank came back only this time he broke the other pig out and tried to lure him off to a life of freedom in the surrounding woods. Which I guess is better than trying to kill him but JESUS CHRIST REALLY?? The other pig happily went back to captivity but Piggy Bank melted away into the surrounding forest, oinking balefully. He appears to have decided to go completely feral in the space of 36 hours and now wants accomplices.

I mean what the fuck. TWO YEARS with not a single indication he was longing for freedom and now he’s all “I AM WILD BOAR”. The next step is probably you start putting food in a crate down at the neighbor’s house to see if we can trap him and drag him back home squealing and kicking. But really, goddamned pigs.

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The year in review

It feels weird to be doing my year in review now. When you’re a shepherd of tiny Neolithic British sheep you start to really understand why British Celts started their new year around the first of November – late October and early November are when the sheep start breeding the new lamb crop, you see. […]

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I’ve been putting off writing this post

Not long after lambing season kicked off, our regular hay guy ran out of hay. No big deal, I thought, we’d just use another supplier to get us through the couple of months until his first cutting was ready. I found someone else who could deliver round bales and thought my hay problems were solved.

And then sheep started dying. I looked for parasites, I looked for subclinical illness, I wracked my brain and laid awake at night going over every detail and came up with nothing. Sheep kept dying. I dreaded doing the chores because I didn’t want to find another one down.

Finally in desperation I sent hay samples out for testing. It was the only thing that has changed. And changed it had. Results came back showing levels of copper much, much too high for sheep. The lab said the overall profile of heavy metals etc was common for hay fields that had been treated with biosolids – aka dried sewage. The hay from those fields is fine for cows but lethal for sheep. I hadn’t even thought to ask when buying the hay, and as a result of my mistake I lost two Soay ewes and their lambs plus my little Rambouillet wether.

I’m still grieving my sheep. I hate that when I make mistakes, it’s my animals who pay, sometimes with their lives. The only recourse in this matter I might have is small claims court but that’s a roll of the dice and I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it. I did leave the guy a message telling him not to sell hay to shepherds anymore.

The happy ending is that my regular hay guy had a fabulous first cut after a wet spring, and with healthy hay, summer grazing, a protein tub, and slightly increased grain rations the rest of the sheep are recovering beautifully. The goats thrived, their mineral needs are more similar to cattle than sheep and they require amounts of copper that will kill their ovine cousins (I normally provide it via rumen bolus).

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I’m being ever so patient.

From my previous adventures breeding goats, I’m accustomed to the face of a heavily pregnant ruminant who is severely regretting her adventures with a handsome male member of her species 5 months previously. I say “ruminant” and not “goat” because it has become apparently lately that in fact Soay sheep ewes get exactly the same face.

Here, Relationsheep and a friend will demonstrate:
Relationsheep, a moderately light brown ewe with a pale cream belly, stands with her body in profile to the camera and her face turned three quarters toward it. Her belly is enormous, giving her whole body an appearance of heaviness. Her eyes are narrowed and her ears stick out at an angle that implies that she's just done with everything ever, but especially rams and most especially being pregnant. Lying down on the right is a ewe who is a rich dark chocolate brown who has exactly the same look on her face.
Those are two ewes who do not want to talk to Ferrington, even though he had nothing to do with getting them in a lamby way. They do not wish to speak to energetic young wethers like Reuben and Urdo, either, or bouncy baby goats. They want to enjoy this here sunbeam and not be pregnant anymore.

In my experience with goats, once they start getting this look on their faces it is at most 4 weeks until babies make an appearance. I’m mentally placing bets with myself as to whether Relationsheep and her friend there are going to present me with twins or if they’re just the sort of sheep who look enormous when they’re pregnant with one tiny single lamb. It could go either way, really, I’m not familiar enough with sheep to say. What’s driving me absolutely nuts is that sheep carry their tails down unless they’re pooping and their udders are hidden under a generous layer of belly wool, so I can’t reliably check either their vulvas or their udders to get an idea of how close they are. And they’re definitely not going to let me get close enough to grope their tail ligaments so I can check for softening! They are only slightly more interested in speaking to me than they are in speaking with the rest of the world that isn’t pregnant ewes, i.e. if I don’t have a bucket of grain I can go to hell and stop bothering them and must I breathe so very loudly and stomp around like that?

So here I am, being very very patient and waiting for lambs without being able to do anything but stare at sheep who are busy giving me the evil eye right back while they cud and plot the demise of all rams ever because they’re so very tired of being pregnant. In fact I think the ewes at this point are more interested in seeing lambs than I am, since then they won’t be carrying them around anymore!

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We interrupt this blog for TOO MUCH SNOW

Like most of the mid-Atlantic, we got hammered by a prolonged misery of snow this past weekend.

A tall bay goat with spots stands in snow just below his elbows. A golden sheep with black trim is nearby, the snow up to her chest. In the background a small black and white goat stands with snow halfway up his sides. Just behind him a group of sheep stands in a spot that's been trampled down.
For reference, Sebastian there on the far left is just over three feet tall at the shoulder.

We didn’t get as much snow as they were predicting, thanks be to whoever watches over the Piedmont and steered the storm east. The sheep are doing a great job keeping paths trampled down so that the pigs and baby goats and Ben and Stu can get to the hay bale, and we moved water and grain dishes into the trampled down area so everyone can eat. Sebastian just got kind of excited to see us Saturday morning and came charging out through the snow.

The guinea hogs got up to eat and drink and then burrowed back into their generous pile of straw. I’m so glad we moved them into the pen that formerly held geese, their old enclosure is under enough snow that it would have buried them.

And in the shed, the rabbit kits are fat and happy and warm, as are the adult rabbits. There’s seven in the New Zealand doe’s nest and five or six in the Silver Fox nest. I think there’s at least two blue, one black, and one chocolate Silver Fox, a nice mix. Maybe there’s even an elusive lilac lurking in there? I’ll have to get pictures now that they’re fuzzy and attractive and their eyes are starting to open.

The power stayed on throughout the storm, mostly because it never got as warm as predicted and thus the snow stayed light and powdery. You will almost never hear me say “thank God it stayed below freezing” but…here you go. We had the chimney nice and clean so the wood stove was ready to go, but since we didn’t need it for emergency heat I plan to fire that sucker up and make the living room hold a temporary summer for me.

Hopefully my east coast readers had a similarly easy blizzard! How did y’all do if the storm got you?

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They’re breeding like, well, rabbits

There were two nests of baby rabbits waiting for us on Saturday morning, an awesome treat. Unfortunately both mothers are pretty defensive and let’s face it, baby rabbits aren’t that attractive until they grow some hair. But we’re excited about both litters, although for vastly different reasons!

The first nest is NZ x Flemish Giant. These combine the larger size of the Flemish with the meatiness of the New Zealand, and they have two to four months to enjoy themselves before they’re harvested for meat. Rabbit meat is delicious, a lean white meat like chicken but with rich undertones of pork. You can use it as a one for one substitute in any chicken recipe and get a more delicious meal. Rabbit is also especially high in taurine, which makes it a nice meal for cats on raw diets. The second nest is purebred silver fox. The mother is chocolate carrying the genes for dilution (Blue or lilac) and the father is black but carrying the genes for chocolate and dilution. What this actually means is that there’s a possibility of all four colors of silver fox showing up! The silver fox was the third breed of rabbit developed in the US, and is listed as threatened by the Livestock Conservancy. It was developed as a dual purpose rabbit for meat and fur and the fur is absolutely gorgeous with its silver hairs scattered throughout. This nest of silver fox babies will probably get to live for a year until next winter when their furs are prime. Any dilute rabbits (blue or lilac) stand a good chance of being added to my breeding program, whereas blacks and chocolates will become stewing rabbits.

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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.

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Well that was unexpected

Some months ago we had three Silver Fox rabbit does get loose in our shed, where the rabbits are currently living because the colony is escapeable. There are two black does and one chocolate, and we leave food and water down for them.

A couple days ago, I moved the Cinnamon doe in with Norm the Silver Fox buck to get pregnant, so her cage has been empty.

This morning, I went in to feed and water rabbits, and was filling the feeder for the rabbit in the Cinnamon doe’s cage when my sleepy brain registered that the cage should be empty and I did a double-take. As it turns out the loose chocolate Silver Fox doe had climbed the stack of cages to get to the empty one and moved herself in, at which point the latch had fallen shut (doubtless due to jostling).

I guess it’s time to assemble that extra cage, since I am now one cage short…

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A new year, new ewes

Excitement! My friend Kate-with-Soays (not to be confused with my friends Kate-the-author or Kate-with-cats-and-soap and yes Kate-with-Soays needs a website) hit upon a fabulous deal on Soay ewes, at less than half their usual sale price, and graciously shared it with me! You may in fact have noticed the latest round of crowd-funding to expand the herd.

The new ewes have genetics I don’t already have, and have been sending time with an equally worthy ram. This will mean at least five but potentially eight ewes unrelated to Ferrington will be here, opening up the possibility that I can isolate his daughters from him and keep him an extra year before I move him on. Which would be nice, because I’m fond of Ferrington. He’s small for a ram and mellow and good with goats, sheep and humans (pigs occasionally drive him to violence and have learned to avoid him). So another breeding year with him would be no hardship, really.

The three new ewes are mouflon-patterned like my current flock, but come from South Carolina. And that is the extent of what I know as Kate-with-Soays will be surprising me with three of the six she picked up when she made the trip to get them. Unless of course the rain here in the southeast stops and she gets a chance to get pictures — cross your fingers!

At any rate, they will be here in January and then there will be an unstoppable deluge of pictures over on Instagram (they also get automatically broadcast to the farm Facebook page), so stand by.

Other things to look forward to: lambing should start in February, so cross your fingers that the winter stays mild. Ella and Mabel’s lambs will be raised for meat, Soay lambs get to live and grow wool. There may also be piglets around the same time, all of whom will be available as pasture-maintainers, pets, and meat. And of course now that rabbits are back up and breeding like, well, rabbits, there will be an endless assortment of meat bricks, a few of whom will get held over to provide prime furs next winter.