Friday, November 02, 2007

Bie zoukai

That's Chinese for "don't leave," and it represents one of the most important, yet least talked about, aspects of raising livestock.

When you hear zany anecdotes about the difficulties of animal husbandry, they usually center around one thing: catching animals that have somehow worked their way out of the enclosure you keep them in.* There are sayings that go along with this: "Any fence that won't hold water won't hold a pig," farmers warn. Doing too little too late is described as "shutting the barn door after the horse is out."

Longtime readers will remember that we once acquired a pair of skittish Barbados ewes that got spooked by a vet's visit, leapt over our fence, and disappeared into the woods, never to be seen again. If we had had them longer, they might have developed a homing instinct...or maybe not. All we can tell you for sure is that they were extremely shy and fleet of foot.

What animal-care books rarely tell you is that there are some animals that are much easier to contain than others. There are two aspects of animal temperament that are of import: (1) being easily caught, and (2) not wanting to leave in the first place.

Chickens and turkeys possess the latter quality. If a chicken gets out, it will spend most of its time trying to get back in with the rest of the flock. (Unfortunately, they rarely can figure out how.) Once I found an escaped turkey roosting on top of the turkey tractor it had wiggled out of. It really, really wanted to hang out with its friends again.

Unfortunately, when chickens and turkeys see you coming, their instinct is to play keep-away. Your only hope is to act casual, corner them, and then make a flying tackle. (In the case of a chicken, a net helps immeasurably.) You have one chance before it gets really difficult--both types of animals can fly, and they get much flightier after you've missed your first grab. Additional difficulty: You need to grasp both legs at once or risk injuring the animal.

When a duck or goose gets loose, it's a completely different story. Ducks and geese possess both of the attractive qualities I listed above. They don't want to leave, and they're incredibly easy to corral. It is possible to catch three ducks with one arm.** They have a tendency to clump up in corners and quack frantically. Not very adaptive, but really useful from a human standpoint.

Geese, although harder to lay hands on, are easy to lead. This morning we found one of our geese on the outside of our portable electric fence.*** I turned off the fence, laid a section of it down, and herded the goose back in. Then I stuck the fencepost back into the ground and turned the fence back on. Thirty seconds, and it was done.

Coturnix quail are an interesting case. They seem to have a profound desire to find their way out of their bird netting, either by exploiting a gap or by tunneling out underneath. But then, having done so, they always remain in the general vicinity. We are always finding random quail in the garden area--sitting in the lawn, flushing out of the cabbages, pecking at our garden clogs. We simply pick the friendly little creatures up and place them back inside the pen.

Nobody tells you these things...but I think everyone who is interested in raising farm animals should know them.


* Indeed, when we came back from Las Vegas, our friend L2 shared a madcap story about an escaped Mille Fleur bantam. To her infinite credit, she managed to head him off before he flew away to roost in the woods.

** This information doesn't apply to Mallard and Muscovy ducks, both of which are excellent fliers. Why anyone would want to keep them is a mystery to me.

*** Believe it or not, a 4-foot-high electrified mesh is all you need to protect a flock of ducks and geese from the outside world. Your main interest is keeping dogs and other predators out. Keeping the birds in is the least of your worries.