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...