Issue Number 56
(November 2000)

Farming Daze - notes from rural New Zealand

by Lyn McConchie

Photo of LynNoel Coward {a young steer} bit the dust in early May. He'd been becoming steadily more aggressive for a long time. He was just on 16 months old, a time when many bulls get nasty, but Noel hadn't waited. He'd been like that since he was less than a year old and by the time he was ten months I'd issued an order. No one was to go into his paddock alone. If they went, they were to have someone standing by to call for help. Most of us dared it at some stage, Dean and Dianne after mushrooms, me checking the water trough, but no one alone.

Now Noel was getting worse. We had managed to get next door's cow out of his field but even Alan from the dairy farm where she belonged had noticed Noel's behaviour and said we should get rid of him. A steer who thinks he's a bull is often more dangerous than a straight-out young bull. I agreed. So I called Steve, who does our pig and cattle killing and who lives up the road about twenty minutes away in Takapau. He said he'd be there on Monday.

So Sunday night I went out to move Noel to the paddock we use at such times. Hummmm, if I leaned over the fence, undid the gates and pushed them open, he should wander down overnight to the far end because all three of the heifer yearlings were right by the gate down there. I did and Noel did. I checked in the early morning and there he was.

Now, if I could just sneak quietly into the paddock, I could open the gate. I called Bet {a cow}, who came readily. With her by the fence I drifted across the lambing paddock, opened the gate and scuttled back through to her. It wasn't any distance, but I can't run in an emergency and Noel certainly could. Phew. Safely back behind the other gate, I waited. Noel saw this gate too was open and entered the lambing paddock. I encouraged Bet first to meet him over the fence then to lead him away down it. Once they were a good distance away, I slunk in and shut the top gate.

Noel was in the paddock where he was required. And about an hour later Steve rolled up. I shot out hastily to warn him. He's used to my stock being so quiet he can just walk into the paddock and up to them. Not with Noel if he valued his health. But Steve's experienced and Noel wasn't the first dangerous animal he'd dealt with over the years. He opened the gate quietly, slid into the field and advanced. I stayed by the gate. Noel saw an intruder and roared. Then he dug his horns into the ground, flung earth about, roared louder and advanced slowly.

Just as he was deciding to charge, Easter mooed at him from the nearby field. He turned to reassure her he could deal with this small stupid intruder (he'd grind him into paste in a minute) and, presented with the perfect shot, Steve took it. Noel folded quietly to the ground and became a source of many steaks, roasts, and slabs of corned beef for Winter.

The tail end of May was busy. Between printing out my new book in hard copy and making a copy disk I was being driven completely mad by calves and lambs. Ginger next door had asked me to have my three heifer yearlings home again. Grass growth was slowing and she wanted all her paddocks to grow on well before Winter. I opened gates, waved at the calves who all ignored me. I moved on to throwing things and they noticed fast. The all tore down the paddock right to the end, and bunched there. Sigh. I'd wanted them at the other end. That took a while as we all circled the paddock three times before it dawned on them the gate was open.

That meant it was time to electric fence the big hay paddock. I'd had it fenced off on one wire just to keep Bet out. But one wire at some 33 inches high wouldn't even slow the sheep down and with the wire at the top Holly at least was small enough to sag to the knees and walk under. So Dianne went out and put in three wires. Unfortunately she put them at the three upper levels. The sheep were let in, marched the length of the field, put their noses down, lifted the lower wire and kept marching. Straight into the front third of the field where I didn't want them to be.

Dianne rocketed out of their house truck screaming and waving her arms. The sheep all shot back through the fence again, leaving the lower wire in sagging loops. So back we went and shifted all three wires down to the lowest three levels, tightened them hard, and just hoped the next instalment wasn't the yearlings jumping over the top wire which was now only 27 or so inches above the ground. I watched around a corner as the lambs drifted up to the fence. Hannibal, Cherry's lamb, stuck his nose under. Drat. The electric tape wouldn't lift high enough. He tried several times. I did some drifting of my own, out to the shed to lay hands on an electric fence mobile unit. I had the batteries in a drawer. With that loaded I went out and hooked it in to the wires, the lower one in particular. That gave me an electrified fence. Hannibal came to see what I'd been up to, pushed the wire up with his nose, and rose into the air with a lamb screech. Yowch! Now everyone is staying away from the fence and grazing where I want them.

The ACC (my pension people) demanded I attend a Rehabilitation Orthopaedic specialist over in Palmerston North, giving me under a week to make arrangements.

I rang up and explained in words of one syllable why I couldn't do it. If I take the bus it means walking a kilometre and waiting 15 minutes by the side of the main highway. I can't take the electric scooter as that would mean leaving it there and probably having it stolen. If it's even a light drizzle over the walk/wait, I end up soaked. Then I'm in wet clothing all day. Last time I did that I was flat in bed for more than a week afterwards. Besides which the only morning bus doesn't leave Norsewood until 10.45, to arrive in Palmerston around 12.
I'd been given an 11 o'clock appointment. Even if it was shifted to a manageable time, it would mean going over and back by bus, which in turn meant having to stay a night.

The rehab officer queried why. There were afternoon buses going back. Yes, there were. But I get bus-sick. Take a bus back only a couple of hours after getting off one and I'd be throwing up continually from about halfway home. So, I wasn't coming. If they wanted me they could give decent notice so Ginger could drive me over.

At which point I became puzzled. They can't rehabilitate me in the sense of getting me back to employment. Or did they, I asked, have delusions that after seeing this specialist I could hop merrily back into the employment market and not only persuade an employer to hire me, but also manage to keep the job? Er, well. No. No indeed. They thought he could help with "pain management." A lot became suddenly clear.

It's about five years since I last saw a specialist. Under their own rules they have to have another appointment for me plus the specialist's comments on paper. All this was about getting their forms filled out. So I bargained. I'd see the orthopaedic chap who comes over to our hospital in Dannevirke once a month. I'd get him to send them a report. And I'd have my GP send them a request for pain management so I could see the chap who does that in Dannevirke. Two different people but the same final result. Would that do?

They happily agreed it would and the rehab officer then became confidential. They thought I was doing wonderfully with my writing. They had no wish to push me back to some office and accepted it wasn't possible. But they had to keep the right forms being added to my file. I shouldn't worry. I refrained from telling her that everyone who has anything at all to do with the ACC as a "client" tends to worry a lot. Every time one of their envelopes appears, it's usually bad news delivered in the most unpleasant way possible with little warning. Then they wonder why their clients' reactions to them tend to be consistently negative. Someone should sit them down one day and explain. But it isn't going to be me. I have enough to do with uncooperative lambs. A whole government Dept. is more than I want to handle.

September was a busy month. It began with a fine spell in which temperatures, possibly celebrating the official beginning of Spring, rose up and warmed everything. So I stopped using the fire. Wood remained out in the wood shed and I enjoyed not hauling stacks of it inside each day.

Unfortunately something else also enjoyed that in an indirect sort of way. Starlings! With no smoke rising from the flue, a couple of young ones felt that my flue-top might make a suitable nest site. And of course as always happens, they fell down the flue. I knew they had, but sometimes they manage to scrabble their way back up and out again. Not this pair. They scrabbled in there for a couple of days... while the weather turned cold again and I wanted to relight the fire. Being an animal lover and having an all too vivid imagination, I couldn't do that. But I couldn't persuade the idiots to get out either even by banging on the flue and yelling.

So I howled for Dean, who climbed onto the roof, removed the flue cap and yelled down the flue. The starlings promptly fell all the way to the bottom in fright. You can remove the top of the fire by tilting a plate within and lifting it out. That I presume is for the benefit of the chimney sweep. But in this case it should benefit idiot starlings as well. Dean tramped inside, removed the plate and groped within. An expression of triumph spread over his face and he withdrew his hand clutching a screaming young starling. That, when tossed out the door, was last seen streaking for the hills as if the devil was behind him.

Dean went to leave and from the fireplace came further scrabbling. He sighed and went back to open the door on the fireplace. This starling didn't wait to be caught. He rocketed out of the fireplace door, hurtled the length of the house and vanished into the bathroom with Dean in hot pursuit. Tiger, who'd suddenly woken up to the possibilities, was right behind him. And me, wailing not to let Tiger catch the bird, bringing up in the rear. Dean snatched the starling out of the air a second before Tiger did and evicted that bird too.

But, because by the time I'd been able to lay hands on Dean to help and we'd successfully removed both birds, it was now four o'clock, evening chore time. The cows were suggesting hay, the hens were mentioning henfood, and if I did plan to light the fire I'd better haul firewood first. Once all that was done, hampered also by a phone call, it was after five in the evening and not that cold. I'd leave lighting the fire again until morning.

I woke early, around 6. Now, I thought, would be a good time to light the fire. I could get it going, go back to bed and read an hour while the house warmed, then get up and start work. At this hour, the flue should be clear of birds intent on nesting. I was quite wrong.

I opened the fire door to begin putting in wood and a sooty and hysterical starling came past me. Tiger woke up. I fell backwards off the very low stool I use to sit on to stoke the fire, and Tiger vaulted over my prostrate form, Dancer appeared from the woodwork and joined in. While I strugged to get to my feet again, the whole circus passed me clockwise several times. I reeled up in the end and cornered everyone in the bathroom. With the cats grabbed and shut out, the starling panting up by the roof, I opened the bathroom window and shoo'd.

Birdbrain finally got the idea and shot through the opening. I shut the window again, heaved a sigh and went to explain to the cats. However, they now have the idea the flue is a starling trap and should be watched closely. It's too bad they're right.

Why starlings have decided this year to fall down it in increasing numbers, I have no idea. But I've quickly evolved a stragegy: I hear the initial scrabbling, shut the cats in my bedroom, then open all the outside doors before opening the fireplace and taking out the top plate if necessary. A bird goes by at high velocity, finds a door and departs. I put things back together and release the cats again.

It's annoying me and annoying the cats; what the starlings think about it all, none are pausing to discuss. Just so long as they stay out while the fire is going I don't mind that much. So far it always happens the morning after the fire has been left to go out the previous night, so the fire is cold. But it is something of a nuisance. I can't wire-netting the flue top as it blocks up too quickly. And as I write, we've had another warm spell, I let the fire go out again and something is scrabbling in the flue once more. I'll be back shutting out cats and opening doors when I've finished this.

You can read more of Lyn's farming stories here.

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