A snow cover is more than a thing of beauty, more than a blanket-like cover protecting the plants beneath it from killing freezes, more than a reservoir storing and gradually releasing much needed moisture to our depleted water table; a snow cover is also a detailed record of the wild animal life that nightly takes over our farm.
Without a good snow fall we would be largely unaware of all of this activity. We would not know that a doe and her fawn are coming nightly breaching our deer fence defenses and stripping our evergreens of needles and our shrubberies of buds. We would not know that more deer are leaping the gate on Old Saw Mill Road, and gathering in the sheep pastures in search of grazing and a way into the deer fenced garden compound.
We would not know that coyotes are prowling the perimeters of our deer fences, gathering at one of the gates leading into the house compound apparently searching for a way to reach the south side of the barn where the ewes sleep with their lambs. We regularly hear a pack of coyotes howling at night but this is usually at a distance. Without the record of their tracks in the snow we would assume that they remain safely far away.
When we see what looks like isolated dog tracks we are assuming that these are evidence of a fox casing the farm perimeter fences in search of our poultry. Or perhaps some of these tracks we see in the vicinity of the chicken coop signal the return of the fisher a very large relative of the weasel, which we have learned to our great cost is monkey-like in its agility, enabling it to scale high fences, and strong enough to force open chicken coop doors. This we learned to our great dismay several winters ago when a fisher managed to force its way into the chicken coop and slaughtered over a third of our Rhode Island Reds, leaving their decapitated corpses behind. Some of these tracks we see in the snow seem to confirm the report of a near neighbor who has seen a fisher on her property and heard the human-like screams of its call.
Assorted tiny tracks in the snow near our back stoop reveal that there are regular visits of possums, raccoons, and skunks. While helter skelter type tracks all over the lawns are evidence of rabbits and squirrels.
We seem to live in a nocturnal Noah’s arc filled with critters that parasitically live on our gardens and livestock. We fight back as best as we can. We have caught in our live traps numerous raccoons, skunks, possums, and squirrels, which Kyle, our farm helper, drives to distant remote spots and releases. And we have bombed, gassed, and had removed what probably would amount to a herd? a passel? a flock? a pack? of groundhogs. Two springs ago a pest remover we hired trapped 38 groundhogs that were dug in conveniently around the house and vegetable garden. We have given out hunting privileges to several deer hunters and a coyote trapper. We have equipped our farm helpers with an air rifle to take out rabbits invading the vegetable garden and now have a farm helper who brings his own pistol for that purpose.
We have not, as you can see, been passive about all of this. But nevertheless the snow provides a nightly record of how far we have yet to go.
It was not always so. When we first began farming here 16 years ago our property had not had livestock or vegetable gardens for at least twenty years. With the exception of a neighbor who raised a few chickens and had a small vegetable garden no one in our immediate corner of Germantown raised anything that would have attracted the kind of varmints that are now overwhelming us. We had few, if any, problems then. So what we have to assume is that as we got chickens, sheep, turkeys, geese, ducks, pigs, and cows, and began cultivating a vegetable garden, that the word has gradually gotten out: “There is this new delicious free food bank in town called Turkana Farms.” Well, to paraphrase an old saying: If you build a better food bank they will come.”
But there is something else that has happened that explains our dilemma, and that is a steep decline in rural culture, a culture in which hunting, fishing, and trapping were once an integral aspect of life, a serious way to supplement the food larder, and a sideline to supplement farm income.
I can remember that when I was acting as my own general contractor 16 years ago managing the crews of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, and landscapers that were getting Turkana Farms back into functioning order that if the deer hunting season was beginning or the shad were running on the river that most work seemed to stop as the guys returned to their old ways.
This was not all that long ago but nevertheless hunting and fishing as local preoccupations have, from what I can see, gone into steep decline. These days there may be some enthusiasm for hunting on the first day of the season but this seems to evaporate quickly. And those that are hunting are not focused on what would help to cull the herds, that is going for the does, but instead save their shots for that “great rack,” that is, a nice set of antlers — a trophy rather than food. Very few hunters and trappers are left who are seriously going after furs. And, I’ve met only a few old timers who remember eating groundhog, wild rabbit, wild turkey or squirrel as part of their regular diet.
Now if I knew more people with these tastes, maybe I’d just pack in our current livestock menagerie and fill our weekly bulletin instead with freshly killed venison, pasture raised groundhog, free range wild rabbit, local wild turkey, and organic squirrel. And start a Turkana line of locally produced fur coats of fisher, fox, muskrat, coyote, rabbit, and squirrel. Now this would be a line of agriculture that, from all the tracks I see in the snow, would be very sustainable.