Friday, July 19, 2019

Big Little Farm Hunger Games

The signs were too plentiful to ignore: our little farm had a Big Problem.

It wasn’t just the ever-increasing number of black bits on the shop floor. The incidents at our little homestead were growing by the day. In the space of a few weeks, I’d found:

The back of my work glove, stored in the chicken-feed shed, was chewed away.

In the same shed, a silver-dollar sized hole gnawed in the top of the thick plastic bin where we keep the feed.

Yet another air filter (the 3rd) in our Toyota’s engine, disintegrated into fluff.

In the morning, our strawberry netting would be mysteriously rearranged. And each day we had more and more half-eaten berries in the beds.

Berries littered all over the ground in our west blueberry patch. I looked around, and discovered that
Blueberry hideaway
beneath a nearby lavender plant was a cache of at least a hundred blueberries, single ones as well as berry clusters.

The icing on the cake of this growing season: one day I went out to the shop to fetch the iron sulfate (slug bait) to put around our new seedlings, and discovered the entire bottom of the container had been eaten clean away, and not one pellet of bait remained.

I could go on, but you get the picture: Berryridge Farm had a rodent problem.

John and I had long dealt with mice and voles. He kept mousetraps baited in our various sheds and under the house, and we’d learned that if we wanted to grow any root crops at all, they’d have to be planted in raised, screened beds. But this year, despite arduous fencing and netting, the critters were undeterred. Early in the morning, I’d look out our windows and see them scurrying all over the yard and in the berry beds, making their rounds.

Then came the week we had not one, but two rat sightings. Around dusk, I saw one skulking in the chicken yard, near the maple stump where one of our hens hung out. Then, a few days later, as John and I were ready to go for a walk, I was checking on a strawberry bed and spied a big, fat brown-gray critter caught in the net.

“John,” I yelled. “There’s a rat here!”

He jogged to the shop to grab one of his big sticks (we keep many on hand, for walking sticks, for poking the hornets’ nests in the shop eaves, and just ‘cause we have a lot of wood around), and over he came. He raised his stick, poised to strike, and that stinkin’ rat wiggled out of the net, and "likkety-split" as my North-Dakota dad would say) raced into some dense weeds and disappeared under the house.

Of course, we had no one to blame but ourselves for our rodent issues. First of all, if you try raising food in the middle of the woods, you’re going to have pests. Our biggest mistake was when we started out, not clearing a far larger swath of woods for a critter buffer.

Our second mistake was not keeping up the yard. I’d learned that if I wanted a decent harvest, I had to keep my fruit and vegetable beds weeded and tidy. But I never seemed to have time to tend my perennial beds, and over time, my  5 lovely flower beds had devolved into feral, weed-choked tangles. Perfect cover for critters.

Our third and probably most critical boo-boo started with our hens’ molting season. Buffy, our docile Buff Orpington, had a really hard molt, and the other five girls picked on her mercilessly. (See my February 1, 2019 post.) It got so bad, the way they were ganging up on her, plucking her feathers and damaging her comb, that John and I thought Buffy would die.

She’d learned to jump up to the maple stump, which was swiftly sending out suckers of thick growth, where the other five wouldn’t attack her. All day long, there she’d stay, too afraid to even go to the feeder. So I started leaving a little container of food for her on the stump, along with a pail of water.

Well. I was, in effect, extending a big welcome mat to the rodents, especially the rats: “Come on in, make yourselves at home. And while you’re at it, have a snack of this wonderful organic chicken feed!”

There’s nothing like rats around, to make you feel like you’ve lost any control you ever had over your homestead. But you can try a few strategies for battling rodents. (Emphasis on “try.”)

With the blueberry cache, I assiduously weeded the entire patch, then I cut that poor, innocent lavender bush down to the roots and picked up every last berry. I didn’t even want to know if the perp was a mouse or a rat, but next time it came for a snack, that food, and the food-storage spot, would be gone. (I haven’t seen any evidence the critter returned.)

For the destroyed air filter: Our auto repair tech recommended spritzing some Clorox around the car engine. Not a fan of Clorox, especially if the smell wafts into the car, I’m trying essential oils.

John has bought some rat poison, but hasn’t yet deployed it. (I confess, I’m very squeamish when it comes to poisons at Berryridge Farm.)

Also, I've vowed to try to get our feral flowerbeds tidied up, thus clearing some of the thousands of hidey-holes we have in the yard. These wild spots have made me crazy for years, and these buggers overrunning our place are exactly the incentive I need to get started.

Yet, the story doesn’t quite end here. The one called, “Murder, She Wrote.”

I keep two compost piles in the woodsy edge of the yard—one pile I’m currently adding to, and a second one that’s mellowing, ready to spread. They’re in an area we’ve sort of cleared, at least enough to walk through. It’s a place I enjoy working, turning our kitchen scraps and leaves into magical food for our crops.  

Earlier this week, I was turning my mature compost pile when a vole jumped out of it. Faster than lightning, it leaped away, into a thimbleberry clump. I sighed—it was nothing new. I’d caught these guys in the pile many times before.

But last night, as I was shoveling out some compost to put on my newly-weeded asparagus beds, there was something new: a small creature wiggled out of the compost, with a light brown back and a white tummy. A baby vole!

My brain went into overdrive. What should I do? The animal looked so defenseless, so delicate. But! Within a few short months, it would be reproducing God knows how many more babies, then they would make babies, and so on, and wasn’t our place already being taken over, our crops decimated?

John was gone for the evening. It was up to me.

So I raised my shovel, squeezed my eyes tight, and slammed down on the baby vole. My stomach churning, I shoveled up the spot where I figured the body was, and slung it into the brush. It was done.

Sticking my shovel back in to fill my bucket, I stared in horror as another baby squirmed out of the compost. Revolted, I didn’t kill it outright but flung it after its sibling into the brush. Then another one!

I forced myself to raise my shovel again, toss the body into the brush. Then a fourth baby squirmed up. Once again, I did my murderous deed. Then unable to take it anymore, I shoved my bucket into the wheelbarrow and trundled back to the yard.

I’d never killed an animal before. Sure, I’d smash a slug as soon as look at it, but they don’t count. After killing baby creatures, though, I felt sick to my stomach.

I’ve asked John to turn the compost for me today—I can’t deal with any more vole babies. I’ll carry on with my flowerbed clearing, as best I can that is, in between weeding, watering, harvesting, and putting up the fruits of our labor.

But I’ll never look at my compost pile the same way again.