Caged, free run, free range or just plain free. You may be familiar with the first three terms, but “just plain free”? Raising livestock and poultry on a farm can be done different ways, depending on the facilities available, the inclination of the farmer and the market demand. Codes of practice in raising livestock and poultry are currently being revised and would also influence how animals are to be raised. But sometimes the animals take matters into their own hands (or hooves or wings).
Last year we had a visitor fly into our farm. She was a lovely young Muscovy duck. Our two aged Muscovy drakes suddenly started to take better care of themselves, eating better, getting more exercise and grooming their feathers more. Their heads took on an Elvis Presley-style “pompadour” look.
The female Muscovy eventually gave in to their charms, and in the spring she began to take on the nesting look and sounds – a bouncy waddle, puffed-and-fluffed up feathers, and a “ping” to her voice. We didn't know where she was nesting, but my husband found out on Mother's Day. She had hatched out fifteen babies on the porch above our deck. Glenn carefully gathered up the babies and brought them down a ladder to the ground below. Each time he went up the ladder she was waiting for him, attacking his head as he gathered more babies. Finally, she joined them on the lawn below, mothering them. We grew concerned as each day she would show up with one baby missing. It seemed that either a wild cat, or raven, or mink was snatching her ducklings. Out of desperation and with some encouragement by us, she started to sleep at night by our door, her wings gathered around her young ones. Five young ones survived – three males and two females. For quite some time they stayed each night by the door until they were big enough to fend for themselves. One day another female flew in to join them, and another male as well. I don't know where they came from. That is where the “just plain free” comes in.
One of the challenges of “just plain free” is determining ownership. We did provide feed and protection to the ducks, but by the way they would go wherever they wanted I wasn't sure they belonged to us, or anyone. When the young ducks were big enough their mom spent a few weeks teaching them to fly. It was kind of a “OK, watch me do it, now you try” kind of trial and error. The mama duck would fly around the farm gracefully. Soon, the young ones would tentatively flap their wings and lift off for short runs, then longer ones. Sometimes they would fly over the ridge, sometimes into the neighbour's farm. One day I spotted a male and female looking lost on Port Washington Road. Somehow, this form of “just plain free” makes management a challenge. There are still three young ones that are by the door each morning, a bit hesitant about being so free. Some have been reported further down on Port Washington Road, hanging around at feeding time at one of the sheep farms. Yes, we could clip there wings, but should we? That would make them more vulnerable to predators.
The same problem happened last year with our turkeys. All spring and summer they would stay close to home, eating lots of blackberries and such. At one point the females move far away from the males, as the females nest and go about raising their young. As fall came on they would move further afield, becoming an annoyance to some neighbours. I ended up gathering them into the barn and sending a batch at a time to the poultry swap and sales. The heritage turkeys have a way of getting up into trees, onto fence posts, or will go high on a hill to give themselves more range to fly over. I have spoken with other heritage turkey producers who occasionally need to go to the neighbours and gather up their stray turkeys, walking them home. At least I am not the only one.
Even hooved animals can be in the category “just plain free”. A few years ago I took a healthy group of Border Cheviot sheep to a nearby farm of good size. That was my first mistake, because Border Cheviots have a wild nature. They settled into grazing, and as fall came it was quite a challenge to gather them and separate the lambs for market. The next year, it was impossible as a dog had chased and attacked them, so they would not be gathered by our Border Collie. I soon declared them “feral”, or back to wild sheep, and tried various ways to get them back to the home farm where I could use our corral to gather them up. As luck would have it, one evening the sheep decided to graze near the driveway, were spooked by a car on the driveway, ended up on the road, and the RCMP put them into our driveway and farm. Yes, the Mounties always get their lamb.