Friday, January 12, 2007

"Winter" musings

With winter upon us, my mind, like our garden, seems to be dormant.

Though strangely, other than the lack of sunshine, it doesn't feel much like winter here. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, we had about a quarter of an inch of snow, but it's been only rain ever since. Our son doesn't believe that it's really winter, and thinks Christmas hasn't really happened yet, since there isn't any snow in sight. Nary a snowflake in December, nor January so far. It's The Winter that Wasn't.

But then, neither my mind nor the garden are completely dormant. The brussels sprouts, which have been well frosted several times, are still growing, even as we approach mid-January. The rosemary, planted against the south foundation of our house, doesn't seem to realize that it's not hardy here. Even the goats and the donkey continue to graze, or at least pretend to graze (though you wouldn't know it by our hay supply).

Meanwhile, my semi-dormant mind has thinking a lot about our garage. Odd, I know, but since we have no other outbuildings yet, our winter hay and straw are being stored in the garage. We also sift the corn for our heat stove in the garage, to get out the larger bits of cob and stalk, as well as some of the dust and "bee's wings".

If you've watched the "Backyard Habitat" program on Animal Planet, or visited the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat web site, you'll know that for wildlife habitat, you need four things: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. Between the hay, the straw, the corn detritus, the enclosed space, and the nearby spigot used to get water for the goats and donkey, we've created a very attractive habitat for rodents in our garage. It's a rat bed-and-breakfast!

Well, the good thing about the rats is that at least they drove out the mice.

The bad thing about driving out the mice is that the mice have started chewing the bark around the base of my fruit trees (hardware cloth to the rescue!) and trying to nest in the nooks and crannies of our beleaguered vehicles. The other bad thing is that the rats chewed through the side of the worm bin. Luckily it is a layered structure, and only one of the four sections was cleaned out. There were no fresh kitchen scraps, so I can only assume they were after the worms themselves. The worm bin has relocated to the basement for the time being.

[An interesting side note: In researching the rat problem, I learned that because of a large eradication program, Alberta, Canada is one of the few places in the world that is essentially rat-free.]

I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy, but mice, and especially rats, are carriers for way too many human pathogens to get free room and board in our dwelling place. We've taken some short-term steps, but to really solve the problem and get the rats out of the garage, we need to do two things: Get rid of the habitat, and introduce some population controls.

I'm not a big fan of rodent traps or poisons, since neither may be effective when there's food already to be had. Besides, dealing with trapped rodents is unpleasant, and introducing poisons into the food chain isn't exactly a heartwarming strategy either. Besides, rats are notoriously hard to poison. They tend to take small bites of unfamiliar food sources, and wait a day or two before going back for more.

Too bad we haven't been able to convince any of the various cats passing through that we have a perfect habitat for them as well. I have a hard time actually obtaining a cat solely for rodent control, because feral cats can become a nuisance, and even a spayed or neutered cat living outdoors can have a devastating impact on local songbird populations (not to mention the potential "litter box" problem). Our own cat is too old (18?) and pampered to be put on rodent patrol, though I do occasionally feel like there's something amiss when we're buying both cat food and rodent traps at the same time. We considered getting some kind of terrier (a rat terrier, perhaps?), but fear that between the digging and chasing instincts, it might not be entirely compatible with gardening or poultry.

Clearly we have some sort of predators about though, since we've found one killed rat in the driveway. I don't know if foxes or coyotes prey on rats. Perhaps it was one of the hawks we occasionally see hunting over our pastures. Or maybe we have a feral cat and don't even know it.

We've got quite a few moles and voles around the garden and pastures too. Thank you to them for aerating our soil, as long as they stay away from the veggies.

So eventually I came to the idea of making (or perhaps buying) some barn owl boxes or screech owl boxes to help with rodent control.

But a higher priority at this point is to eliminate the habitat attached to our house. We're looking into a very basic outbuilding for storing hay, straw, grains, tools and equipment, and possibly animals. We are trying to plan for a small pole barn, complete with a wide, south-facing roof, so that someday maybe we can have some solar panels. Short of that, it at least gives me the opportunity for some kind of passive solar heating project, and a perfect spot for an attached greenhouse/chicken playpen.

Gosh, and here I thought my mind was dormant...



At 1/13/2007 10:49 AM, Blogger Liz said...

Getting a terrier just for the sake of taking care of your rat problem sounds a lot like the woman who swallowed a fly. ;)

We had a pretty big rat problem when we moved here in mid-Sept. The last people fed their chickens cracked corn and were very messy (the shed had corn strewn about EVERYWHERE). We didn't realize there were rats about at first. Total greenhorns, when we caught a glimpse of one, we thought they were just really big mice. Ahem.

Anyway, it wasn't until February that we realized the extent of the situation. I took some stuff out to the compost pile, and by the time I got back in the house, the stuff was literally disappearing... being dragged deep in the pile. The rats had run out of their corn hoard, and were starving, so eating our kitchen scraps.

We trapped quite a few, and the rest perished through in-fighting and (presumably) owls. I'm also quite certain that coyotes are major predators of all rodents (contrary to popular belief that they prey on deer and cows). Now that we have ducks, I keep all their feed in metal cans and don't spill any on the floor, just to be safe. We haven't seen a rat in three years.

The corn sounds like the biggest issue... does it really need to be sifted? Because even if you do get an outbuilding up, it sounds like the corn will still be stored in the garage. I don't know how much corn you keep on hand, or how you store it, but that would be my first line of defense... cutting off the food supply.

Your outbuilding plan sounds shockingly similar to ours (including the solar panels and an attached greenhouse/chicken playpen). We finally agreed on a location.

(sorry this was so long!)

At 1/13/2007 11:25 AM, Anonymous hannah said...

I think owls are a wonderful idea. Just having them around even without the rat problem is great. I love to hear them at night and when they take flight it is beautiful if you can catch a glimpse. Sounds like you definitely need a quick solution now though before it gets out of hand. It is really nice to see someone trying to deal with nature on its terms rather than just throwing poison or other modern conventions at the problem. Good luck!

At 1/14/2007 9:42 AM, Blogger e4 said...

Liz - Yeah, the terrier idea has passed, but the thought of a dog or two around was already in our minds. (Or three dogs and two cats as my son insists.)

Yes, I think the corn is a big issue. There are several possible solutions we're considering: 1) Switch to pellets. With all the ethanol brouhaha, the price difference has evaporated, and we're not in a position to grow our own quite yet; 2) Build a better corn sifter; I saw a great plan online that would be much better than the one I have now (the sifting cuts down on ash); 3) Do all the sifting in the pole barn. Not as convenient, but rats in the outbuilding is far preferable to rats in the house. The goal, obviously, would be to avoid or eliminate that too. Baby steps for us greenhorns!

Hannah - Yep, that's what I've been trying to learn to do on many fronts. I'd rather let Mother Nature share the workload wherever possible. It's a long learning process, but the payoff seems worth it. (And thanks for dropping by!)

At 1/15/2007 8:19 AM, Blogger Madcap said...

It's true. I swear, I'm not pulling your leg here, we have a Rat Posse that investigates sightings and swoops in to eradicate. It's one of the reasons that Alberta's a pretty fine place to live in spite of the cold - that and you have to look pretty hard for poisonous snakes. Not much for cockroaches this far north, either. Or poisonous spiders.

We have tonnes of coyotes here, and yes, rodents are their staple. They're not very big animals themselves, taking on a cow or deer is a precarious undertaking. Maybe a calf or fawn, more likely. And only if mama wasn't too close at hand.


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