animal psychology, Birds

Winter Visitors

No one is allowed visitors. We aren’t allowed visitors except for Liz, Bill’s sister (she’s in our bubble) but today in aid of Granny’s mental health we went for a walk in Peterborough. Why would anyone want to go for a walk in Peterborough? Not even around the cathedral. Just a Sunday constitutional — an elderly couple walking 20 feet behind a young couple with a little boy — shouted greetings — shared townscapes — a visit to the duck-pond. These little things make all the difference! But, do you know, we are noticing other winter visitors!

Greylag Geese dropped in from Iceland.

Did you know that these gregarious, noisy birds (sounding like a pack of hounds) make long term monogamous bonds and the divorce rate is only 5-8%(I don’t know how we know) and 14-20% are in same sex relationships. Their sexual orientation is flexible — widower ganders may re-pair with females (who are smaller). Large homosexual couples often have dominant positions in the flock and may act as guardians. You don’t have to watch geese for very long to realize how cautious they are and how mindful of potential threats. As they move around the available grazing in the local park individuals are watching the humans and the dogs and leading the others in defensive phalanxes.

In the last couple of weeks we have noticed some other winter visitors, photographed by Bill Branford (BY-NC-ND 2.0), mainly on Pitsford reservoir.

Here is a beautiful smew from the end of last winter — seen at Rutland Water

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animal psychology, Babies, Humour, Lambing, Sheep, Welsh culture

When is a sheep not a sheep?

Years ago, long before we knew anything about sheep, fate presented us with an orphan lamb.

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Here she is, still nameless and rather thin, at the foot of her ailing mother.  Our subsequent experience “bringing up Aby” (that is her name) forms the basis for some of my recent book, Iolo’s Revenge.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you but can tell you that it was a very steep learning curve and taught us a great deal that we had not previously realized about bonding, despite having five children!

And it’s not just humans that are suckers for baby things!  Here is Pedro our tough and, then, sometimes wilful, dog (who would kill an adult rat or rabbit in a trice) cleaning up Aby with puppy love.

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Here she is a few weeks later and a lot more confident.

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Queen of her domain.

She has had ten lambs of her own now, always helped into the world by yours truly, (though they never really needed it).  She would always lie as close as she could to the kitchen door and call for her private midwife.  She would make a terrible fuss if I went in for a cup of coffee or a call of nature and when the lamb was almost out I would gently help and present it to Aby.  It reminded me of a cat we used to have who would not have her kittens unless my dad was standing by with sterilized nail scissors.

I’ll save you the slippery, slimy pictures.  All cleaned up next day –note the number one –that’s Mum’s number — she was, after all, our first.

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Last October we sold our breeding flock and Aby has retired.  She runs with the new flock that graze our land.

Last week they were to be moved to the farthest field, beyond the woodland.  Now when sheep are faced with a scary predator their instinct is to flock together.  Aby took one look at the enthusiastic sheep dog, a Huntaway bitch, that had come to do the job and she peeled off from the flock and hurtled (she doesn’t hurtle often) towards the sound of Alan’s voice.  She hid with him in the orchard until the job was done and when shepherd and dog came back to the house Aby was standing with Alan in the garden still absolutely confident that when people say “sheep”, they don’t mean her.

She stayed in the garden all night, eating forsythia to which she is rather partial and which had only just recovered from its last assault, and I walked her up to join the other sheep in the morning which she did quite happily but in her own time.

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animal psychology, poultry, Small Holding

High-Rise Chickens!

High-rise Chickens — My very good friend is married to the Chicken Whisperer. Their smallholding is Paradise on Earth for world weary hens, and some ducks and geese. They live in a woodland glade with a babbling brook and ponds that can be emptied and refilled at the turn of a stop-cock. Everywhere is cottage garden and orchards with tumbling verdura and magic, mossy, stone walls sprouting ferns and navelwort. Here is the ultimate gated community with little houses for the various feathered cohorts, groups of birds with special bonds of species, family or long association.

They all return to their own homes at dusk to be locked securely in until dawn, when they are free to potter in the gardens and browse on nature’s bounty or feed from the bowls of delicious and varied porridges that my friend prepares under instruction from the Whisperer and which cater for their special dietary needs.

A few weeks ago a hen disappeared. Searches were instituted. The ground was scanned for feathers. Every nook and cranny was probed – no hen was found. Security was reviewed; electric fences and nocturnal patrols were discussed. Then she re-appeared!

She was not alone; behind her marched seven chicks, brooded in secret and now displayed to the world. But every night, just before dusk, they disappeared again.

My friend and her husband hid in the bushes, peeped around trees and skulked in the lane but could not find their hiding place.

Every morning in trepidation they counted the chicks. Every morning there were seven – now almost as big as their mother. The Whisperer and his wife were wan with sleeplessly anxiety about this stubborn mother hen and her at-risk offspring out in the night to be smelled out by a fox.

‘What they need is a new house – their own place!’ Timber was purchased, and roofing felt and dowelling for perches, door furniture and hundreds more nails and screws than were actually needed (that’s hardware retail for you these days). Digging and levelling, sawing and hammering ensued. It took a couple of weeks in the rain and wind, dodging falling branches as Hurricane Ophelia came and went. Still every morning seven chicks would appear and march in step past the work in progress.

Then humane traps were constructed and baited deliciously (these chicks were not stupid) and the Whisperer knew that it had to be all or nothing –  mother hen and every single chick or no-one. To leave one or two chicks alone in the wild night was unthinkable. Catching them all took enormous concentration and time (two whole days) and lots and lots of treats. But Bingo! They were all caught and decanted into their beautiful new home. They were shut in for two days and two nights (a lot in chicken-time). ‘That should be enough,’ said the Whisperer, confident that now they would return each night to their secure and luxurious new accommodation..

However, they did not.  On the third day, at dusk, their coop was empty: no mother hen, no chicks!

But hey, what’s this?  Upwardly mobile chickens!   Not very clear photos, but they are all up in one of the tallest trees. That’s right, you can see the top of a telegraph pole which gives away their altitude and the falling leaves have denuded their cover.

Arboreal Chickens – what next?

 

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animal psychology, Humour, Neurophysiology, Sheep

Why don’t sheep laugh?

When I fell over in the snow the sheep didn’t fall about laughing, they were just perplexed — couldn’t work it out.  They know, you see, that humans are vertical creatures (everyone knows that!)  Horizontal humans just don’t make sense — it’s unthinkable.

When we humans have our preconceived notions challenged, when a paragon of respectability is caught with his trousers down or a judge is spotted slumped in a corner with a glass in his hand and his wig skew-wiff, we giggle and move on.  A sense of humour helps us think the unthinkable, it is great, it helps us accept the apparently unacceptable and we enjoy it.  I think that’s part of what it’s all about — broadening our minds!

Poor sheep: no sense of humour and they still can’t get their heads around it.

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animal psychology, Hill Farming, Lambing

A Bad Start!

This ewe gives no hint that she is labouring until the last few minutes.  This morning she pushed out a large ram lamb just as I was feeding the others — I could see the lamb moving but by the time I got there things were not looking good — I pulled a great wadge of membranes from his throat but he did not react.  I swung him and pressed rhythmically on his chest.  I blew in his nose.  I even gave him mouth-to-nose ventilation (I really shouldn’t do that) but he was dead.

What a waste!  What a blow!  Fifteen seconds earlier, half a minute perhaps and it would all have been different.

I started to take the dead lamb away and the ewe wailed — I put it down again and thought, I wished she could have a live lamb…  Then I remembered!

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Here she is a few hours later with her new lamb. (Can you spot the deliberate mistake!) He’s wearing a sheepskin overcoat!

Thanks to two neighbours this little orphan lamb now has a healthy young mum with lots of milk and the ewe, well, she is none the wiser.  Her lamb that would not move, nor baa, nor feed, that lay in the pen unresponsive to her pawing was taken away for a moment by the big man who comes in the red truck and the next minute her lamb was right as rain — so right, he has two tails!

A little deception and the application of an old country skill and the dead lamb was skinned and the skin with all its associated love is transferred to the orphan (acquired from the other neighbour) and everyone is happy.

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Pink rinse from being rubbed with placenta and mud from earlier pawing.

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animal psychology

Change in Management

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If you are conscientious about studying this blog, which I doubt, you might remember that we have two farm cats which, as the taxman knows, control our vermin.  One works, he’s called Midnight, sleek and black, he catches the mice, voles, rats and the odd mole, while the other, Guinness, the fat cat, manages; he is the manager; an agent if you like, he takes a cut of the quarry, and a percentage of the pay — 60%, I think. He’s never gone out much but he coordinates from his office by the fire while Midnight is out in all weathers …  That is until recently.

A little while ago I came down in the morning and stepped over Guinness, sprawled in front of the fire, basking in the heat.  But, hang on a minute, the fire was out.

“Is that cat dead?” said Alan and I’m afraid he was — it was all rather unnerving and sudden, though he had climbed a 15 ft pollarded tree  the previous week-end which was so out of character that Alan had wondered if he might have a bucket-list.

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Perhaps he did.

The amazing thing is the change in Midnight, the worker.  He didn’t go out for three weeks.

“He must be grieving!”

“No he’s not — he’s inherited the territory, the house, the staff, you and me.”  Always a cat of very few words, within weeks he is waking us up, caterwauling at the bedroom door, demanding food, chatting, complaining about the weather, knocking my handbag off the kitchen table if I put it where he now likes to sit —  I don’t know what will happen when the spring comes and all the vermin start to reappear.  Perhaps he’ll advertise for an assistant.

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animal psychology, Communication, Doggy, Hill Farming, Humour

Working dog? Superdog

Here he is!

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Not working!

Is he a Welsh Sheepdog?

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Well, sort of.

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He certainly understands sheep.

He knows when they are ill.

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A caring-dog for any of our lambs that are poorly.

He’s much more than that.

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Intrepid mountain-dog and finder-of-the-way-home-dog.

‘Responsible-adult’-dog.  Always alert, sensor-of-danger-dog.

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Night-hound, watcher-of-your-back-dog.

Ratter, humane catter, licker-up-of-mess-dog.

He’s a parson’s nose disposer.

He’s not a ‘blind-dog’ but he’s a seeing-in-the-dark-dog, a hearing-for-the-relatively-deaf-dog and a sniffer-dog for the finding-something-dead-job.

But most important — he is a remembering-dog.  Working with the terminally forgetful.

If the chickens have not been turned out or the cratches not filled with hay he will fix the farmer with his beady eye (see above) and throw glances at the chicken house or the cratch until the farmer says,”Oh yes, we’d better see to the chickens,” or the hay or the 101 other forgettable chores on our little farm.

spring 2012 209 Pedro

Pedro

 

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animal psychology, Hill Farming, Sheep

Predator!

Wolf alert — Mid-Wales

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Well– not quite.  But it gave us quite a turn.

I was innocently photographing lambs at play when they yelled ‘Wolf!’ and hurtled towards me in panic.

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Don’t panic!

I didn’t believe them but have a closer look at the photograph

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Can you see it?

It is, in fact, a very well behaved cousin of wolf, the DNA is unmistakable even to a two week old lamb — they and their mothers cleared the paddock near the road in seconds — I didn’t even know they had a major evacuation plan.

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They don’t like big cats either, or little ones — there is something about their shape that is hard wired into their perception of danger.  It’s a shame because Midnight, one of our farm cats, likes to walk around with me.

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He takes an interest in sheep

But they will not tolerate him anywhere near when they are about to have their lambs!

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 Clear off!

 

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animal psychology, Hill Farming, Lambing

Numeracy

Sheep can undoubtedly tell the time.  However I fear their grasp of numeracy is in doubt.  Number 39 is a good mother she has raised  one fine lamb each year since 2014.

Here she is again this year — ‘This is my lamb!’

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’39’ and lamb — 2016

So, ’39’ whose is this?

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Just born and all alone — too young to be all alone!

This year she had twins which confused her — she knew they were both hers when they bleated or came close enough to smell — the trouble was she couldn’t count so when the second one went to sleep she’d wander off and forget it.

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What do you mean — where’s my other lamb?

Thus it was that in the midst of a ferocious blizzard, I was seen running across the above field with a wriggling lamb under each arm, hotly pursued by an angry ewe, trying to knock me over sideways.  Anyway, the penny dropped that I wasn’t trying to abduct them when I plonked them both in a nice dry pen where mum was happy to join them and start her crash course in remedial numeracy, we’re only going up to two this year and she’s picked it up already!

But then, we all make mistakes: meet 33’s lamb!

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Sleep deprivation? — or the reason I can’t back a trailer!

 

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animal psychology, Hill Farming, Lambing

Snatched within minutes of birth!

What a tragedy when a baby is taken from its mother…  But spare a thought for the perpetrator — sometimes they are victims too!

Two new lambs are born before dawn, they are lying with their new mother under the hedge — both healthy.  Above the hedge I spot another ewe so, before marking the new lambs, I go to check the other ewe.  She is licking the ground and chewing on membranes in the grass; from her rear dangles other membranes and her large udder is streaked with blood — she has obviously just given birth, but there were no lambs.

I hunt up and down behind the hedge — there is no trace. Several neighbours have been troubled by a predator this year.

Damn!  Damn!  I should have been up earlier — That damned fox has had a new born lamb…

Unless…  Something in the manner of the ewe with the two lambs, below the hedge, had not been quite right — as I approached her she had looked excited, not wary, she had given me that Oh-good-time-for-breakfast-look.  Sheep that have just delivered usually have more on their minds.

I rapidly fashion a pen out of hurdles and lift the new lambs into it then let the new mother in and examine her pristine rear — it is clean and dry, she has stolen these lambs.  More accurately she has kindly fostered them after they rolled through the hedge, probably because of over-enthusiastic cleaning by their old mum.

I return the lambs to number 1 mum who looks doubtful.  She smells the first lamb and nuzzles it but pushes the other gently  away, it rolls through the hole in the hedge and bleats.  Foster mother screams from the pen and tries to jump out, collapsing the whole caboodle.  The lamb rushes to her and suckles.

Plan B — I carry the lamb down the not inconsiderable hill (up and down which I have now been running for some time) The foster ewe follows me complaining and I shut her in a more substantial pen, then re-patriate the lamb, which is surprisingly vigorous, with its real mother.  ‘Not mine!’ says the real mother and knocks it over.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No it isn’t  — look!’ she’s pushed it through the hedge and it’s running amok, bleating and several of the other ewes are coming up to investigate, including Number 19 who was involved in a custody battle a couple of years ago.

‘I think it might be mine,’ says Number 19,’ I do vaguely remember giving birth,’ she sniffs it, ‘Yes! It’s definitely mine!’

That’s it!  I’ve had enough — I bundle the troublesome lamb over the fence, reunite it with it’s real mother and sister and then we painstakingly  walk them, with much arguing and to-ing and fro-ing, the long way round to the barn where I shut up mother and both lambs in a small pen.

After such a long and tiresome walk so soon after giving birth on the frosty hillside where it is now raining, the sight of a warm, dry pen and a bucket of feed persuades the mother to concede, ‘Alright they both might be mine, but I still don’t like the look of that big one very much!’

She has now fed both lambs and Alan has bought me a cup of coffee, but still the cries of injustice from the kind, obliging foster mum can be heard — I hope she has her own lambs soon.

And to reassure any farmers reading this, just to be absolutely sure, I go and find the placentas and they were both above the hedge.

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The following morning things are not looking good.  The mother is butting the larger lamb who is starting to look wary of her.

‘Smell her,’ says the mother, she’s not mine!’

I sniff  her — she smell terrible, like a dog that’s rolled in rotting fox-pooh.  I sniff the little one — she smell all lamby and nice.

So, while waiting for a friend to bring us a lamb-adopter, I wash the offensive creature with clean warm water — she doesn’t like it much, then I dry her with kitchen towel and finish her off with her sister’s woolly back, then we exercise the human lamb-adopter who has come to investigate — he holds the ewe and the big hungry lamb has a feed and we squirt her with milk.  The mother is sniffing them both now and looking confused — hopefully she can’t count.  We withdraw and hope for the best.

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