Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The year of the varmint

The most significant event that has happened since the last time I blogged was that it rained.  That event was most significant indeed.  Just like a good chunk of the Midwest, we have been lacking moisture in the form of either rain or snow since the beginning of the year.  We had some planting delays this year but most of it was more of a personal matter than a weather related matter.  With the warm dry spring, most farmers around us were well ahead of their normal planting schedule.  But a couple weeks ago, Mike and the crew were going full tilt getting the flats of vegetables planted.  And then things started looking desperate back in the fields.  The unplanted flats of vegetables by the barn were getting watered daily.  The newly planted vegetable plants in the field were withering from the heat and lack of rain.  The soil was getting drier and drier and we have no water source for irrigation.  The house water well was on the verge of giving out as well.  We were in severe water conservation mode.  The animals got first priority and the unplanted flats of vegetables got second.  I even took a trip to the laundromat instead of doing laundry at home and I was showering at work.  And then one week and a day ago it rained.  Blessed rain.  It rained slow and it rained all day.  At the end of 24 hours, we had 1.6 inches of rain.  Without it, those newly transplanted plants would have surely died.  In the nick of time is an understatement.

With disaster at least temporarily averted, the last week has been spent tending to other threats to the crops namely varmints.  My evolution into a varmint hunter has been an interesting journey but the scale of the damage these critters have caused this year is reaching epic proportions.  Sometimes necessity takes over.

There are all sorts of reasons why I should not be out in the fields with a gun chasing after small furry critters.  I grew up in a middle class suburb and was schooled in the ways of Bambi and Lassie.  I developed a strong love of animals and loved every encounter with every raccoon and squirrel and snake or whatever I would come across in my romps in the woods behind the house.  Then I harnessed that love of animals and became a veterinarian with years of training to keep animals alive and healthy.  But life is full of twists and turns and the desire for a rural lifestyle and marrying a farm boy brought me to living on this farm.   Along the way I came to embrace the thought that man is just as much as part of the natural world as any other living thing.  We must be careful to not take too much, but taking some from nature is, well, natural.

That brings us to varmints.  When I first started to hunt, I said I would never kill an animal that I didn't intend to eat.  However, all it took was a raccoon trying to break in and kill my chickens to change my views.  Mike grew up on a farm so shooting varmints that damaged crops is second nature to him.  It's not that he likes doing it, but it is necessary if to protect crops and make a living.  And now I have been absorbed into the farm lifestyle.  We enjoy wildlife watching immensely, but the line is drawn when they start causing damage.  Raccoons in the woods are fun to watch.  Raccoons in the chicken barn are unacceptable.  And as Mike and I learned late last week, raccoons in the blueberry patch are unacceptable too.  

The only critters that we have had to keep out of the blueberries are the birds and that has been easily accomplished with bird netting over the bushes.  That is until last week.  On July 4th I took a stroll past our early variety of blueberries to check progress.  Most of the berries were ripening and all was looking good for our first picking to go to Saturday's farmer's market.  On Friday evening, I was unloading bags of chicken feed and Mike walked back to the blueberries.  As I finished my job and pulled my car around into the driveway, I heard Mike screaming.  I looked back to see him standing by the berries.  I heard "bring a gun" and "raccoon".   I ran and got a gun and some ammo and hopped into my car and drove back to the blueberries.  Mike said when he got back there, a young raccoon had run out from under the bird netting but another young one was sitting still in the middle of one of the blueberry bushes.  Mike shot that one and then we set a trap for the other one which we ultimately caught and killed the following day.  The damage?  In the three days since I had last checked the blueberries, those raccoons had stripped all the early bushes of every bit of ripe fruit.  It was a total loss.  We have later varieties of blueberries that will mature in a few more weeks and we did what needed to be done to protect them.

That brings me to the garden.  Mike and the crew have planted broccoli in the rows that run along the fenceline with the neighbor's.  The neighbor's field on the opposite side of the fence from us is a hayfield.  We know there have always been some groundhogs living along the fenceline and for the most part, since they have not caused too much damage, we have left them alone.  However, with the super dry conditions, the hayfield has turned brown after it was cut for hay.  The groundhogs have been looking for better food and have found the broccoli.  The rabbits may be helping a little bit, but I have seen a groundhog carrying nearly an entire broccoli plant in its mouth and seeing is believing.  The groundhogs must go.

This is a picture of a row of cauliflower about 4 or 5 rows from the fenceline.

And here is a row of broccoli 2 rows closer to the fenceline.

And because of this I hunt the broccoli eating varmints.

I have not quite come to full terms with eating a groundhog however.  Oh, I have heard it tell they are quite tasty and they probably are.  But on the farm, there are others that need to feed their children and so I am more than happy to help them with a few handouts.  Nothing in nature ever goes to waste.