This is a bit of a long one.
Smallholding has its ups and downs. It’s highs (home grown food, births, wildlife spotting, summer days) and it’s lows (pests, mud, frozen water, deaths). On Wednesday we reached our lowest low.
I went to bed at about midnight the night before and all was peaceful. I woke up at about 8, late for the day and heard a goose calling out. It kept calling intermittently and we thought the gosling was running through the fence again, as it often does. It wasn’t a panicked call, more a ‘where are you’ call. We rushed about to do the morning things, I took Chi off to one of her groups and Sam did the letting animals out before a morning meeting.
On the way back home Sam called me. The geese had escaped sheep field 1 and were in the veg patch *sigh*, but one of the geese and the gosling were missing. He thought it was likely April (the more mothering one) taking shelter from the rain. He searched for 30 minutes but couldn’t find her. Not too unusual, she she would happily sit with the gosling under her without making undue sound. I asked about feathers but there were no clumps of feathers indicating an attack.
When I got home I changed and set about looking for them. I checked the back garden first, then the orchard (where the geese normally are). The triangle was next as it has a few sheltered spots then a quick look around the fruit and veg patch. Then I got to where Sam had penned the geese up, I then saw that it wasn’t April that was missing. It was Athos. My heart sunk a bit. If I had walked past where Athos had the gosling he would have charged me, he wouldn’t have sat idly by. So no chance that he was anywhere I had already been. I checked polytunnel way, listening for his hiss. Then I heard the geese calling again. I ran back in case they had spotted him but they were just standing in the middle of the area. And that is when I heard it. Silence. Athos is a pain but he is a good gander. If his girls called to him he would always respond. Silence meant he couldn’t reply. I prepared myself to find a body.
I checked sheep field 2, which they had to go through to get to the veg patch, expecting to see him in a bush dead or dying. No sign. I went into sheep field 1, where they had been, stepping over the fence that they had knocked down. I saw some feathers, but not may, could have just been a fight between the girls, as they do, or the start of a moult. In the very corner of the field, along the road and the side boundary of the land (where a dry ditch runs) I found him. He was pointing towards the fence and his head and neck were missing.
My thought was that they were sleeping there, they have been known to, and a predator went past, maybe a dog, fox or badger. Athos went into protective mode, and stuck his head through the fence, which he always did, and the predator got hold of his neck. At some point the gosling went through the fence and was taken too. The girls, in their panic, ran away and knocked down the fence in the process. We wondered why the others were still alive and figured that it must have been a dog or badger, too big to get through the fence. That assumption cost us dearly.
We went to bed at around midnight/1am and again all was peaceful, except Abigail’s occasional calls to Athos, she had been doing that all day. When we woke, again at about 8, there was silence. I thought maybe she had given up calling. I got Chi ready and Sam went to do the morning run. He came back in and just said to me ‘it got them all’.
Barbara was in the middle of the area, intact but her neck had been bitten. Abigail had been dragged towards the fence that borders the road, her head and neck gone. April was deep in the dog rose bush and I had to get to her from the road side. She was missing a head and neck and had been partially skinned.
I have all kinds of regrets, as you do with any preventable death. I should have realised it was a fox and it could get in, I should have taken extra precautions, I should have locked the geese away that night, I should have locked the geese away every night. We had our reasons for leaving the geese out overnight. Neither of the people we got the geese from, both local, locked away. Abigail was incredibly mean, she would attack April if she got too close and I was worried she would do her damage if locked together. We bought Barbara to give April company but April in turn attacked Barbara in the same way Abigail attacked April. Athos tried to keep the peace but confining them over night seemed like a recipe for trouble. When we lost Athos I spent the afternoon looking at goose houses and finding ads for trailer bases so we could get to work building a portable secure shelter for the geese. Too little too late it would seem.
Aside from my recriminations, and the lessons we have learnt, I have been struck by how this has affected me. Anyone who has talked to us about the geese know that they are not our pets. We may not cull as quickly as some smallholders or farmers but Abigail was on probation because she hadn’t laid eggs this year and Athos was frequently eyed for sausages in the breeding season, his only redemption being how good he was with the girls, and his respect for us most of the time. If he stepped over a line where we felt safety was a concern he would have been gone for meat and I would have thoroughly enjoyed eating him.
Despite the fact that we are perfectly happy killing and eating our animals we were devastated by these attacks. It wasn’t just the loss of the gosling (who was set to be Christmas dinner), or the loss of 3 egg layers, it was the manner of their deaths. The fear and panic they will have gone through. The brutality of it. I am a pagan and a biologist. I understand Tooth and Claw. I understand the need for survival. But still these attacks still shook me.
We came to smallholding to know where our food comes from. Not just our veggies but also our meat. We are moving towards buying the meat we cannot produce ourselves from other smallholders. It matters to me where my meat comes from, the life and death it had. And I think that is the root of my upset. I do everything I can to make sure the animals in my care have good lives, with all their needs met, safe, happy and healthy. I name them all and know them individually. When the time comes for their end, I ensure that it is unexpected, quick and painless. My poor geese were given none of these and they deserved better.
I guess that is what sets humans apart from the world of Tooth and Claw. In Tooth and Claw there is no deserving better. Life is a battle to stay alive and your end is met through disease or a predator. It is only my sentience that can allow me to stand apart from that and wish for a peaceful end, not just for humans but for the animals around me.
Night before last we set about working on our defences. We haven’t arranged to have the fox shot. Looking at the time of year it is likely a vixen with cubs to feed. She is looking for food for them and saw an easy meal in a gosling, that was likely more than she bargained for when Athos came into the picture. She won though, came back for the rest of the meat and found 3 defenceless geese. We wanted to make sure she doesn’t get a third free meal. I understand and respect Tooth and Claw but that doesn’t mean I can’t tip the scales in favour of my animals.
We moved the sheep out of the field that borders the dry ditch and has long grass, into the Triangle with shorter grass. We bottled up some human pee, apparently it has to be male, and sprinkled that around the edge. Radio 4 is being played in the polytunnel where the light has also been left on. The automatic pop hole has been disabled on the chickens (it shut away at dusk and let out at dawn) so that we can let them out later in the morning. A motion sensor light is over the chicks (our most vulnerable housing) and we will set to work on a secure pen on Saturday. The pullets were literally barricaded into their house. The fox passed us by. Maybe because our efforts made it too risky or maybe because she and her cubs have full bellies. I am writing this at 4am (more about that in another post) so I am hoping we make it through tonight ok.
Our geese weren’t pets but 3 of them were part of our first livestock and we had come to care for them. RIP Athos, Abigail, April, Barbara and gosling. We’ll miss you