Living with nature can be a beautiful, peaceful experience, but not always. Some weeks, it can feel like the farm is under attack, and we just had one of them.
It started on a recent Friday, when I left Farmstead right after closing time and all the delicious to-go dinners had been picked up. Dusk was arriving, and it was time for evening chores. It seems like that time draws earlier and earlier each day noticeably as autumn approaches. I had herded all the ducks in their houses, locked the doors on the pullets and young turkeys, and was just closing in the adult turkeys when I heard squawking from the laying hens out in their mobile housing in the pasture.
Every two weeks, we pick up all their electric mesh fence and pull them with the truck onto fresh ground, so they have new grass and bugs to peck and their manure fertilizes the soil, growing even better pasture grasses for the sheep next year. With each move, we’d pulled the hens further and further out into the field, until at this point they were waaaay out there.
At the sound of panicked squawking, I leapt into the utility golf cart “The Blueberry” that is my chore-time vehicle and booked it out to the pasture — I mean really booked it. The whole back end was rattling, the headlights jumping, the engine whining. I didn’t care how jostled I was — I was saving my chickens.
Anyone who has ever had chickens knows that there is a litany of creatures that want to eat them. We take many precautions and over the years have learned what does or does not work to deter predators, but every now and then one still slips in. I arrived at the scene of the crime to find terrified birds huddled at the edges of their mesh fence, others holed up in their hay wagon coop, eyes about ready to pop out of their heads. Whatever had been attacking (likely a fisher) had fled upon my noisy arrival, with one hen dead in the yard and a pile of feathers but otherwise unscathed second bird. I had arrived just in time to prevent a total massacre.
The chickens felt completely under attack, spooky and screaming. Meticulously, I walked all over the large pen, finding those tangled in the fence and helping them back into the coops, which I locked securely. Next morning, we hitched up to the wagons and pulled them into the yard, out of the field. If there’s anything we’ve learned from predator control, it’s that once you’ve had a strike, you must move the birds out of the area or the foe will be back.
Then, there was Sunday. Sunday afternoons after closing time is my time to be in my tapestry studio. I look forward to it all week. This artful, round structure sits near our house and holds several of my looms, a tremendous stash of yarn, patterns and designs I’ve created over the years, weaving books and more. It’s a place where I can leave projects out and they’re not in anyone’s way, and it’s where I’ve been making the beautiful crane tapestry.
That Sunday, I closed up shop after scooping our signature sheep’s milk gelato and finishing a needle felted puppy commission and headed off to the yurt, a song in my heart. But when I opened the door, I found that disaster had struck. Yarn had been pulled from baskets and dragged across the floor, fairy lights knocked off the walls, crane feathers askew on the floor, and there was a terrible smell.
I wanted to sit down and weep, but my realist side kicked in instead. It was time to assess and evacuate as much as could be salvaged from this mess. Every basket, every drawer, every tote had to be emptied out onto the floor and sorted. Any loom with a project on it that could was carried out and into the house. Tiny turds everywhere, pee on papers, whole skeins of, of course, some of the most expensive yarns shredded to bits. My mind felt in total shellshock as my body kept working, making endless trips to the house with armloads of materials and product that might be saved.
Upon greater inspection, I found that the assailant(s) had chewed a hole in the window screening, which meant squeezing through wrinkles in thick Velcro that holds on the vinyl window covers. With the scale of the damage, our estimate is that the intruders were red squirrels. It would seem unlikely that mice would have dragged yarn all over the room and between cabinet drawers.
By nightfall, the space was stripped down to nothing but wood and metal, with the only fiber item I could not remove being my beautiful tapestry in progress. Even when the family came home from cutting wood that evening, we could not discern a way to remove the massive Varpapuu loom from the studio. It had come in as pieces, and there was no way for it to fit out the door whole. Dismantling it would have threatened the ability to re-stretch the piece again later.
So, we set live traps, stuffed Bounce sheets into any cracks around the vinyl windows, tied more around the feet and top of the loom, and wrapped the tapestry in sheets. I’m still a bit in shock over the violation of my artmaking space, but I know we’ll move forward to make it secure once again.
Hopefully, that was the end of the attacks for that week! The chickens are much happier in the yard, slowly calming down from their terrifying night, and I’ll be working to replace that screen in the chewed window.
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or www.northstarhomestead.com.