How to catch a fox

How to catch a fox indeed!

Last week, looking for a solution, I went to the local rural produce store. This is where I buy my chook food and pig ears for my dog. I recognised the two attendants who looked up as I walked in.

“What can we do for you?” one of them said.
“I have a fox who has taken a liking to my chickens. Do you have any traps?”
They both smiled and gave a wry look.
“We do, but I don’t know that they’d be big enough and foxes are pretty clever.”
“I know,” I replied. It’s the only thing I do know about foxes, apart from the fact that they love chicken.
He reached over to the end of the counter and picked up a business card which he handed to me.
QLD Vermin Control and Wild Game Harvesting
Professional Shooter
“He might be able to help you. That’s all I can suggest unfortunately.”
I thanked him and took the card.

The next day I called the number.
“No worries,” said the professional shooter with a slight drawl. “I’ll come out and have a look.”
He came a couple of days later, late in the afternoon when foxes become active. He brought what he called “lure”: food that foxes like to eat. Sardines and dried liver treats. We walked down into the bush so he could check things out.
“You probably can’t see it, but there’s a track here that the fox has obviously been using,” and indeed once he pointed it out you could see a line through the dried leaves and small trees heading in the direction we’d seen the fox take.
There was a mound of dirt from where we’d planted a tree which had been partially dug out.
“He’s been diggin’ here. Probably a marsupial mouse or rat or somethin’ in there. I’ll put some lure here and see what happens.”
He poked some of the bait into the dirt and then laid two sticks down either side and angled towards each other so they formed a V. He told us that foxes and dogs won’t step over sticks laid like that, but will go around and be effectively funnelled towards the narrow end. If the lure was taken, he’d lay some the next night and the next, and then when the fox was feeling secure, he would lay a foot trap.

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He’d explained to me on the phone that these aren’t the ones with jagged metal jaws, but have rubber edges and are RSPCA approved. When he arrived he opened his car boot and showed them to be. They’ll clamp down hard, but won’t do any damage unless they’re left too long. He also showed me a box of small bullets.
“Once they’re caught,” he explained, “by law I have to shoot them because they’re a grade 2 pest.”
After he lay the lure, he spent a few minutes trying to call the fox out with what he called a fox whistle. It was like an accordion and made a sound like those annoying whistles kids buy at markets and shows, the ones that go right inside their mouths and make everyone start to hate them.
The fox took the lure the first night but not the second.
“That’s ok. We’ll just keep putting it out. Foxes are clever.”
The next time he lay the lures he added a vile-smelling substance made from dogs’ anal glands. Possibly the worst smell in the world, but irresistible to dogs and foxes alike. Maggie lifted up her head and kept sniffing the air, even though she was far from it, up the hill on the verandah. I closed the gates, but when she knew I wasn’t looking she found a way out. She reappeared reeking of that pungent stuff. Boy was she in trouble! I’m sorry to say I hit her and then chained her up: something I never do, but I was so angry and am so desperate to get this fox. Until we do, my chickens cannot be allowed to free-range.
My next door neighbour said he’d seen two foxes together one morning a couple of weeks ago.
“No worries,” said the shooter, “we’ll get both of ’em.”

Disappearing Natives

I sometimes try to imagine the original inhabitants of this area on my little patch of ground: whether it was important to them, what they did here. This was once their land, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Aboriginal person in this area. Many were massacred by the first white settlers, either with guns or, most wickedly, after eating damper made using flour deliberately laced with arsenic.

We have lost so much by losing these people. They understood this land, its plants and animals and seasons. What would Australia have been like if white people had chosen to respect and build ties with the Aboriginal people? Most probably there would not now be over 50 species of animal extinct. And counting. The beloved koala is endangered. It has no where to live, its habitat sacrificed to new housing developments. As the forested land near us is owned by the water board and therefore not for development, many koalas are relocated here after being rescued. Some have been orphaned after their mothers were killed on the road. Here they have space to live, but are still at risk of attack by the wild dogs that no one has yet been able to eradicate. These are domestic dogs that have been dumped in the bush by owners who no longer want them and have then bred with the native dingo. They are cunning and elusive. A few pet dogs have been taken by wild dogs along our road.

I sometimes hear koalas growling at night out in the bush. At first I thought I was hearing wild pigs, another feral animal that roams this area. It would be a rather terrifying sound to someone sleeping out in the bush at night and who didn’t know what it was. The neighbours actually spotted one in a tree on their property recently. In almost nine years, we’ve seen just one.

At least there are plenty of wallabies. Early in the morning and in the late afternoon you hear them crashing through the bush. If they’re moving you can see them; when they stop, they melt into the surroundings. Sadly, I hit one one afternoon coming home. It sprang out of the bush at the side of the road a split second before I hit it. I didn’t even have time to hit the breaks. I pulled over and went back to see if it was dead. Mercifully it was, but here was a beautiful creature that I was responsible for killing.
As I was driving home late at night a couple of weeks ago, a bandicoot ran out onto the road between me and the car in front. It ran to the middle, then back then forward again, its nocturnal eyes confused by the headlights. I tried to slow down and hoped that it would get across the road before I hit it. I thought maybe I’d just missed it, but felt a bump under the back wheel. Another little creature dead.

Every day you see possums, snakes, goannas, lizards and birds that have been killed on the roads. I once saw a duck that had been hit. Strangely it was sitting upright, but covered in blood, and its partner duck kept circling it and nudging it. Our (fairly recent) ancestors having eliminated the native human inhabitants, it’s as though we are now, albeit unintentionally, gradually eliminating the native animals.

Far from the madding crowd.

For the last two afternoons I have taken Maggie down to the neighbours’ dam for a swim. Their dam is much bigger than ours–usually about three metres deep–but I’ve never seen it so low. But it didn’t matter to Maggie, who was in and paddling before I even got down there. She does some laps, swims to the side, gets out and shakes herself, then stands there waiting for me to start throwing sticks. I think she would fetch sticks from the water all day if I kept throwing them.
But the thing that struck me while I stood there in the late afternoon, was the calm stillness around me. The trees stand quietly. The birds flit from branch to branch, twittering to one another and occasionally swooping down to dip in the water. They fly back up onto their branch and shake themselves, rearranging their feathers before diving down again for another dip. The sun still has some warmth in it, but loses its fierceness as it goes down and the softness of Autumn is already tempering everything; having weathered the brutal heat and hard light of summer, everything breathes a quiet sigh of relief.
I often think of those in the city when I’m sitting by the dam or walking along the track above the river in the morning. I can hear the roar of cars from the main road as people race to school and work, but the countryside is indifferent to it all. Far from the frantic pace of the inner city, of people hurrying across intersections, while impatient drivers wait for the lights to change, with the roar and rush and beeping of the pedestrian lights, the natural world carries on doing what it has always done, oblivious of the worries and stress of human beings who need to be somewhere. Trees quietly grow, occasionally rustled by a breeze or, when storms sweep through, standing firm or sometimes giving up a branch or even their whole trunk if they must. The wallabies lay low in the grassy paddocks during the heat of the day and creep down to the water holes in the early morning and late afternoon, bounding away in a moment if startled.
Yesterday, as I hung out the washing, a single bell-bird called from a tree nearby: a single, clear note that rang out and was answered by others. I stood and listened and thought how fortunate I am.

Waiting for the rain.

We waited all summer for the rain to come, but it never did. Now we are officially in Autumn. Last night there was a brief heavy downpour and there have been brief showers today. Our tank is about full, but our dam is almost dry.

Before I watered my plants yesterday afternoon I walked down to check the water level. As Maggie ran ahead of me as usual a wallaby bounded away up the hill into the next property. I tell her she mustn’t chase the wallabies; goannas are fine, but not wallabies. The float, which is attached to the hose from the pump to keep it from sinking to the bottom and sucking up mud, is not floating. It is resting on the bottom of the dam. I don’t turn on the pump in case it does suck up mud and breaks. I finally have to water the plants with a watering can using the house tank. This can’t go on.

I constructed a vegetable garden up on the hill a few months ago. My existing garden beds have become too shaded as the trees have grown up over them. To lop them would be very expensive as they are on a slope and not very accessible. I haphazardly planted beans and lettuce and silverbeet seedlings in the new garden. I put a net over them, but as they grew, had to pull it back to give them room. Inevitably, the chooks or scrub turkeys or both destroyed them. It serves me right; I need to fence and net them properly. A pumpkin vine survives, but I hold slim hope of getting any pumpkins. You can’t garden half-heartedly. At least I still have lots of herbs.

But this lack of rain is worrying. Bushfire is a constant threat in the back of my mind, even though Queensland doesn’t usually have big fires, unlike the southern states. It’s humid here in the summer, whereas it’s very dry in the summer down south. Our bushfire season is late winter and spring–August to November when the rain usually returns. The Rural Fire Brigade have been warning of a bad season every year for the past few years, but not much happens. When we have a lot of rain over the summer they say it means there’ll be lots of fuel to burn. If we have little rain over summer, does this mean there will be less fuel? I think it means everything will be that much drier and more likely to burn. It’s been more than 40 years since there were big fires in this area. Perhaps that means we’re overdue.

The Leaving of Esme

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It’s been a while since my last post and I don’t really know why, except to say that I guess life has intruded.
Since I last wrote, my oldest and dearest chicken Esme, had to be dispatched. She had been failing for some time. Meghan, the ever compassionate and diligent vet, tried but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Some antibiotics later, some worming solution, isolation in the guinea pig hutch for a few days; none of it worked. I watched when I threw the food scraps to the chooks as Esme pretended to eat, picking up bits but dropping them again. Such was the unusual nature of this avian creature, that even at her sickest, the other chickens never ostracised her.
Usually, at the first sign of illness, before any human could notice, the other chickens will start to pick on the affected chicken, chasing them away from water and food and even violently setting upon them as they did with Sylvia when she was ill. (Although given Sylvia’s bullying tactics I can’t help thinking that was karma).
But no one ever gave Esme any grief. No predator ever took her, even though she free-ranged whenever she wanted, where ever she wanted. What can it be about a chicken that would make other chickens intrinsically respect them?
Esme would escape the confines of the coop and come up to the house and start clucking if I was late taking the scraps down. One afternoon I was so late that she actually came to the back screen door and began banging on it. When I called “Essie!” to her in a sing-song voice, she would shake her head vigorously as though the sound tickled her brain. She was unlike any other chicken.
When Esme disappeared one night when she was very sick, I feared something had finally taken her in her weakened state, and I was sad. But at eleven o’clock the next morning I looked up from my desk to see her pecking about on the lawn as usual. I was astonished, but shouldn’t have been surprised. She had disappeared on many occasions overnight and always turned up. I entertained the vain hope that perhaps she’d made a miraculous recovery, but when I looked again she was sitting in the garden and flies were hovering around her. I knew then that her time had come.
You may think, like my husband, that a chicken should be dispatched with an axe. I could no more end Esme’s life with an axe than I could my dog, Maggie’s and so we set off on Essie’s last journey to the vet.
Meghan looked crestfallen that she had failed to diagnose the problem and could do nothing more to help. I promised her I wasn’t going to fall apart; she said she couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t. She took me through to the treatment area where she had everything ready to go. I placed Esme on the table. She was so weak now that she couldn’t even sit upright, so I lay her on her side. Meghan slipped a small plastic cone-shaped mask over her little head and let the anaesthetic gas put her to sleep. Esme’s eyes closed and she lay breathing evenly. Meghan then lifted a wing and sought a vein in which to inject the drug that would stop her breathing, unceremoniously called “Lethabarb”. The veins were tiny. Using an insulin syringe and needle, Meghan drew up the green liquid and injected it into the vein. It took a few doses because Esme’s circulation had all but shut down. And then I realised she was no longer breathing.
I left her for Meghan to perform an autopsy for her own and the veterinary students interest, to see what had caused her illness. They would then safely dispose of her. If we tried to bury her on the property she might be dug up by a goanna. Rather gruesome for us, but potentially fatal for the goanna, which would also get a dose of the Lethabarb.
And so Esme, who was in the first ever batch of chickens I bought, before I knew the ways of chickens, and who strangely commanded the respect of her fellow chickens to the end, at the age of 8 years, departed. When I got out of the car on arriving home, I swear I heard her once more. I like to think she was saying goodbye.

PS: She had a diseased liver. We still don’t know why.

Drastic Measures

On the weekend I went to a meeting about food security. The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance are holding kitchen table meetings around the country to gather peoples opinions and concerns about how we want our food to be produced and supplied. Basicly, if we rely on imports and agribusiness to feed us, how can we guarantee quality and security of our food supply?

Boring! But unfortunately, an issue we need to think about and act on if we want to keep eating. For example, the guru from the ASFA told us that in the event of some catastrophic event we would only have 50 days of grain supply left. I’m not sure this means for the world or just Australia; I was too focused on whether I should eat one of our hosts scones with strawberry jam or a raw bean, and on how sweet that bird is that keeps bathing in the small bird bath.

This puts me under considerable pressure to get growing if I’m to take up the slack if and when said catastrophe occurs. The fact that it now hasn’t rained forever is making things a little difficult. Our dam is but a muddy puddle and we’ve already bought one load of water for our tank at a cost of $125 for 10,000 litres (a quarter of a tank).

We did discuss people growing more of their own food and bartering their excess. I’ve been coveting my friend’s vege garden for some time now. She grows everything! Even her own lentils. She even bought a cow recently, and has been endeavouring to squeeze milk out of the beast with mixed success. Since cows can’t eat gum trees, I can’t have a cow, goat, whale or any other lactating beast. If I hadn’t speyed the dog to stop my vet surgeon Dad nagging me, I could have got her pregnant and milked her. Then she would at least be of some use.

Would you drink milk from this dog?

Once I’ve got a useful amount of anything coming out of my garden I plan to  enter into a bartering system with my neighbour and any others that might be interested.

I asked the guru at our meeting whether it would be feasible to grow your own wheat or other grain. It’s all very well to grow beans and carrots, but most of what we eat is grain (unless you’re one of these city-dwelling, no-carbs freaks). He said an acre of land would yield about 5 tons of wheat. I’m pretty sure we don’t need that much. Our budget doesn’t run to a combine harvester and storage could become a problem. Extrapolating (unnecessarily long word) from this, I reckon I can grow our own wheat supply in the back yard. Apparently, it’s even possible to grow what is called dry land rice. I can feel my back aching already. And I’ll have to buy one of those pointy, Vietnamese hats.

Bloody Reptiles

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Well none of Sylvia’s eggs hatched. She’d been sitting on them for four weeks and since nothing had happened I shooed her off the nest and chucked the whole stinking lot. The dog enjoyed some of them. Rotten eggs. She’ll eat anything.

This didn’t deter Sylvia from returning to an empty nest so I stuck a few more eggs under her for another go, but of course, now that the weather is warming up our old nemesis, the goanna, has returned. There is more than one of course, but the same one has been visiting every day when it’s warm. It quickly scared Sylvia off the nest, ate the eggs and took off up a tree with the dog very close on its long tapering tail. The next time it visited my husband was home sick, but not too sick to peg several hundred rocks at the evil thing. He missed every time. He had another go when it returned on the weekend and managed to knock it out of the tree. It just ran straight back up again. And since it was back again yesterday thrashing around the chook pen with the dog barking furiously on the outside, it doesn’t seem to have taken the hint that we fucking hate it.

There was a baby one in the garden this morning, just over a foot long. It was quite pretty really, but I knew it would grow up evil like the others so I gave it a stern talking to about not eating either my eggs or my chooks (when it gets really big. I’ve lost several chooks to giant goannas).Maggie obediently chased it and startled a green tree snake in the process. These are harmless to both man and chook so I was perfectly happy to see it. Unfortunately its cousin, the carpet python is very partial to chooks. By day the goannas are after them; by night the pythons emerge to strangle the life out of them, slink off under the house to digest them and then disappear leaving a huge stinking shit just so you were in no doubt.

We saved one chook, Pippi (the only hen that has hatched here and survived) from the clutches of a python. She was in a separate pen with her new baby outside our bedroom when she woke me at 3 am literally screaming. The baby was running around like a windup toy while its mother was being squeezed to death by a python that was wrapped around her several times. We quickly got the baby out of the way, then I started belting the snake with a broom handle. He wasn’t fazed by this so I just grabbed hold of his head, which made him let go and unravel. My husband ran to get a pillow case and we dropped him in there and took him for a lovely night-time drive to someone else’s property. We know they’d do the same for us; I’m pretty sure that’s how we ended up with the massive 7 foot snake that arrived just before Christmas and ate my new chook.

So I saved Pippi from certain death but she had a big flap ripped open on her head. We took her to the vet the next morning and they knocked her out, stitched her up and returned her good as new. It was after this that she took up crowing. Maybe her near death experience gave her the courage to reveal herself as being transgender. As long as she still lays eggs, I don’t care.

Small steps

I’ve vowed to do at least one thing each day in my journey towards (relative) self-sufficiency. Yesterday I stuck three onions in the ground. Better than nothing.

But I did make this on the weekend:

Lemon/Lime Cordial and a knitted dish cloth.

And this:

Strawberry syrup

Public Noises

Well Sylvia has one week to go before her eggs hatch and I have a choral performance tonight. Our conductor is a big fleshy man who will one day have a heart attack at the podium out of frustration with the orchestra, or in raptures over the music. At one point in our Bottesini Requiem he looks like he will simply rise up to heaven and disappear. He loves his work.

But before participating in this sublime musical experience, I have to do the grocery shopping. What a curse of modern living this is. I much prefer the image of myself arrayed in a long skirt and head scarf, bent double in the vege patch pulling up carrots or digging up potatoes, singing as I swing a basket full of eggs and veg and bringing it in to place on the kitchen table next to my rising dough. Instead, I push a steel trolley up and down aisles under harsh strip lighting, listening to Muzak instead of birdsong.

I have recently begun shopping at Aldi, mainly because it’s quiet. No Muzak, just the occasional mother-toddler negotiation, or elderly couples discussing whether they already have toilet paper, and do you think the grandkids will like these biscuits. But last time I found it so quiet that I began whistling the Bottesini Requiem–alto part–and then tap-dancing (I can’t) before realising I had unwittingly drawn attention to myself and so resumed the look of quiet desperation that most people wear in supermarkets. A toddler sitting up in his trolley seat was growling and bearing his teeth at no one in particular. I beared my teeth at him in response, which he appreciated, but I stopped short of actually growling. He can growl like a lion and that’s fine, but if I do it, I’m suspected of being insane. At what point in our development does this happen? I often feel like growling and bearing my teeth in public. *sigh* Modern life is so constraining.

If I were, as I plan to in the future, pulling up carrots in my vege patch, I would be free to growl as much as I wanted. And I could do it naked, although I probably wouldn’t. I was growing a lettuce and would by now be picking it’s fresh leaves and growling as I placed them in my basket, but Esme, my oldest chicken at 7 and 1/4 years, keeps eating it. As soon as it went in the ground she was pacing up and down the fence eyeing it off. I told her not to eat it, but as soon as I turned my back she was over the fence and in there. I put wire and netting over the garden, but she just went through the gaps. I spotted her as she flew up onto the fence ready to drop down the other side and growled at her. She quickly jumped back down again looking sulky, but next time I looked, the lettuce was eaten to the ground. Over the next couple of days new leaves began to grow, but before they could rise more than a couple of centremetres they were gone again.

And that’s enough to make you scream.

Leaps of Faith

It’s school holidays and I’m home alone! One son is on a ski trip, the other two are with their grandparents at the beach. This is the perfect chance to do some of those things that I’ve been putting off. So far I’ve cleaned out the chook shed, which had droppings and the grain the chooks choose not to eat, piling up and starting to stink. I put fresh sugarcane mulch in the nesting box and also lifted Sylvia, who is broody, off her nest to add more mulch under her six eggs. They’ll hatch in about a week. Sylvia is the worst mother in the world, but the one who goes broody the most often. She’s hatched more chicks than any of the others, even letting another chook sit on a nest for two weeks, only to squeeze herself onto the same nest for the last week, either ousting the other chook, or co-parenting the hatchlings. But she tires of parenthood quickly, leaving them to run after her when she takes off free-ranging. She even left one batch altogether when the rooster came enticing her back into the flock. None of her chicks has ever survived. One was taken at night by a snake and she spent all of the next morning wandering around calling for it, while the snake sat smugly on the rafters under the house digesting her baby. It’s the only time I’ve seen her show any motherly feeling. But she soon forgot, and after a couple of days, the snake did an enormous, stinking shit down the wall and disappeared.

We’ve hatched many chicks over the years but only one hen has survived to adulthood and a few roosters who were given away to be eaten–one of them by a fox. Most are taken by snakes, goannas or hawks. This time I’ve separated Sylvia from the others and mean to do my best to keep the predators out. Hopefully they won’t all be roosters and hopefully she’ll parent responsibly for a change. I’m prepared to give her another chance.Image

I find it very satisfying doing this work. We have our own fresh eggs–much fresher than anything bought in a shop. I’m not sure it works out cheaper, given that we still have to buy grain for them over the winter months when we get no eggs. But it drastically reduces the amount of rubbish that goes in our bin. All of our food scraps, bar any meat, goes to the chooks and is turned into eggs and manure for the garden.They also work at keeping pests down. Last time we had lawn grubs in our tiny patch of lawn I let the chooks loose on it and we’ve never had lawn grubs since. No pesticides needed.

I also potted two chilli plants I bought at the markets last week. I now have rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, sage, chives, oregano, mint, bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves, two tomato plants, lavender, garlic, two pumpkin plants and some tiny kale seedlings. I also have a passionfruit plant waiting to be planted somewhere it can climb. The lemon tree finally gave us several lemons this year after seven years of care and we had one orange off the orange tree. The grapefruit tree had a sulk this year and we got no fruit, likewise the lychee. But I have plans to apply biodynamic tree paste which is supposed to work miracles–kind of like a mud pack for fruit trees.

A week ago I didn’t have to pick anyone up one afternoon and didn’t have to cook dinner, so I took the chance to apply the biodynamic 500 preparation to the garden. This requires a certain leap of faith and would make any scientifically-minded person think I was completely stupid for bothering. They might be right.

Biodynamic 500 is made by burying cow horns packed with manure and leaving them for several months before digging them up again. All this is done with manure from specific cows, at a specific time of year and at a particular point in the lunar cycle. It’s all pretty ‘eye-of-newt’, but people who use this stuff regularly swear by it’s magical properties. And one does not just stick it on the vege patch and dig. One must put it, a mere handful, into a metal (not plastic) bucket, fill with water and begin to stir vigorously one way, creating a vortex, and then the other, creating chaos and then another vortex. One must stir in this way for exactly one hour, late in the afternoon, outside, and then sprinkle it about.

So that’s what I did, while listening to a podcast on my computer to while away the time. The blurb on the packet says not to expect miracles straight away, but that it requires regular seasonal applications before one notices any benefit. I feel like I’m doing something good. I may just get RSI, or I may see a miracle.