Spring loaded

AKA: “Click go the shears”

What a difference 12 months can make – September 2022 was one of our coldest and wettest ever, followed by a very wet and cold October, yet fast forward a year and the opposite is the case – after an extremely dry August, we’ve just experienced the driest September on record. Thankfully all of the wonderful rain we had in autumn meant that the ground remained quite moist, and then with the heavens opening up in early October and delivering almost 2 inches of rain in the space of 24 hours, we should now be in a good position coming into what is predicted to be a very hot, dry summer.

One of the highlights of spring at Greatrakes is the display of ornamental pears along the driveway, although with a smell reminiscent of wok-fried shrimp paste, it’s a sight best viewed from afar.

Spring at Greatrakes is always a busy time of year, and with the weather having been so warm and sunny early, the grass (and weeds) got a head start. Of course, whenever the grass begins to grow, the ride-on mower decides to have issues. We always knew the original battery wasn’t great at holding a charge, but after swapping the battery over for a new one and finally getting some lawns mowed, the very next time I tried to start it, there was nothing again. After a discussion with the wonderful folks at Bendigo Outdoor Power Equipment, we determined that it was probably a sticking solenoid at the top of the starter motor. Sure enough, when my Dad came up for a visit, we managed to get the cover off the engine, and with a quick spray of WD40 and a very light tap with the knockometer (otherwise known as a hammer), she was back up and running in no time.

The temperamental beast that is our zero-turn mower.

This allowed me to get another round of mowing done, until right on the last pass along the fence out the front of the property, I managed to pop one of the tubeless front tyres off its rim during a particularly tight turn. No amount of manoeuvring would get it into a position where I could pump it back up again, so it was another trip down to the mower shop for a tube. Effectively, this wheel now matches the one on the other side which did pretty much the same thing for a friend last year while we were away overseas. All these delays meant that every time I eventually got the machine back up an running, I then had to contend with grass that had managed to grow knee high again. I swear, at the moment I’m having to mow the back lawn at least twice a week if I want to avoid having to rake up big clumps of cut grass at the end.

The back lawn freshly mowed, fertilised and giving the irrigation system a test run.

Still, there’s nothing quite like looking out over a freshly mowed lawn to the green pastures beyond, and with the rain at the start of October I’ve even had to cut a few strips around the inside of the paddocks so that we can get around without having to worry about stepping on a snake. Speaking of which, it’s looking like a bad year for the old murder-noodles as well, with several of our neighbours having close encounters with brown snakes in their gardens, and Vanessa even running over a black snake on the road in to Bendigo. So far we haven’t had any encounters here ourselves, although we have had one false alarm which involved a warm sunny day during which I was working in Melbourne, a neighbour answering Vanessa’s distress call and blasting a hole in the back lawn with a shotgun, and one very dead stick as a result.

A beautiful display of Ranunculi in the front garden.

Out the front of the house, Vanessa has been busy this year with her display of Ranunculi, which were supposed to be all yellow to match with the hanging basket display of pansies, but actually turned out to be a mix of colours – one of those “happy little accidents” that the artist Bob Ross used to always talk about. The pansies themselves have been a vibrant yellow right throughout August and September, and are showing no signs of letting up any time soon. It’s amazing how visible they are from far away – as soon as we turn into nearby O’Brien’s lane, you can see them glowing from across the paddocks.

A vibrant display of yellow pansies at the front of the house.
The bright yellow against the white backdrop of the house is visible from a long way away.

Elsewhere in the garden, we’ve made a start on our summer vegetables. There’s always a dilemma here in Central Victoria about when is the best time to plant tomatoes. The accepted gospel for many years has been to get them in around Melbourne Cup Day at the start of November, after the last frosts have been and gone. Looking back to last year though, with the cold, wet spring and lack of sunshine, it was the tomatoes that I planted before we went overseas in October that gave us the best returns by far – many of those that I planted upon our return in November didn’t start producing fruit until late January, and with the season turning cold again quickly after that, I ended up tossing out a lot of unripe tomatoes (because there’s only so much green tomato relish you can deal with at any one time).

So, like last year, I have started my tomatoes off this year indoors in Jiffy pots, and they’ve spent the last few weeks soaking up the morning sunshine on the front veranda. I’ve struck plenty of different varieties again, and I’ve made sure that I have plenty of spare pots of each. This way I have been able to plant some out already, while holding some aside to either grow on in pots in the glasshouse, or to plant out as replacements should we get a heavy frost.

A pergola that will hopefully be covered in tomatoes by late summer.

One of the varieties I’ve managed to grow from seed this year is “Giant Tree”, a potato-leaf variety that is supposed to grow up to 6-8 foot tall, allowing it to be trained over a pergola. Unfortunately with this one I was only able to obtain a handful of seeds, so I’m trying to nurse them through any potential frosts with the addition of some cut-off Coke bottles to act as a shield until they get established. We’ve repeated our use of straw bales for the tomatoes this year, as they did well last year once we eventually worked out a proper watering regime. This year however, we’ll be sticking to deep rooted plants (like tomatoes), and thus avoid the mistake of last year in trying to grow shallow-rooted crops like beans and basil.

Musqee de Provence, a large French variety of pumpkin, with dog-resistant guards in place.

I’ve repeated the same early planting process with my cucurbits this year, but given that these go directly into the ground, I’ve also had to shield them with industrial-strength garden stakes, in order to protect them from rampaging puppies. I’m trialling a number of new varieties (for me, anyway), including several different types of pumpkins, zucchinis, cucumbers, watermelons and rockmelons.

A full bed of garlic, four different varieties and hopefully enough crowns to keep us going over summer.

Our garlic and onion crops that have been growing through winter are nearing maturity, and this year we have made sure to plant a lot more than we did last year, with a whole bed devoted to different varieties of garlic, as well as plenty of red, brown and white onions. There’s even a full bed of eschallots that should be ready to pick in early December. We’ve already harvested a bumper crop of beetroot, some of which we’ve roasted, and many more we’ve bottled up in anticipation of many summer barbecues.

A bed of mixed red, brown and white onions nearing maturity.
Another bed of garlic, with red onions and loose-leaf lettuce in the background.

The last major project for this spring will be the planting up of the annual display in the driveway. We missed the boat a little with this, in that we weren’t able to get the weeding and preparation of the bed finished before the crop of Sweet Williams I’d been growing in the glasshouse got too spindly, so we’ll probably end up making a dash to a local nursery in the next couple of weeks to pick up some established seedlings.

The annual bed dug over and ready for planting.

Of course, it being spring, shearing season is well underway, a task a lot more onerous this year since our numbers have risen to 21 (down from 22 as we sadly lost one of our little lambs a few weeks ago to an underlying heart defect). We managed to get the services of “Shane the Shearer” again this year, one of the few shearers around who is not only happy to offer his services to hobby farms, but is also set up to shear alpacas.

Shearing time.

Since our last post, we’ve changed the make-up of our alpaca herd slightly. Unfortunately, Queenie, the black-fleeced alpaca, still had some hormonal issues that had stemmed from her being surrounded by pregnant females while she herself hadn’t fallen pregnant. This manifested in her being quite domineering towards Rosie and High Class, as well as behaving aggressively towards some of the lambs, so after consultation with the breeders, they agreed to swap her over for Pandora, a fawn-coloured female similar to High Class. Apparently she and High Class had been best friends back at their original home, and she’s certainly proven to be a much better fit for Rosie as well.

Pandora, prior to being shorn.

Pandora has an amazing, milk-chocolate coloured mark on her neck that’s reminiscent of a love heart – it’s quite visible as a darker mark on her fleece, but it really stands out once she’s been shorn!

Pandora’s love-heart is highly visible after shearing.

Just like with the tomato planting, knowing just when to shear the alpacas is a bit of a gamble – too soon and you risk exposing them to frosts and cold, windy weather, but too late and they can overheat on hot days. Last year we didn’t get them done until late November (although that was in part due to the fact that we hadn’t been able to find a reliable shearer, and partly due to my falling ill with Legionnaire’s disease). This year however, with predictions of an El Nino and a early start to summer, we decided to bring the shearing forward a bit. Despite a couple of frosty nights, there have already been a couple of warm, sunny days this spring, and I’m sure the girls will be thankful that they aren’t having to walk around in their woollen jackets during the day. We’ve also reopened the lambing paddock that had been shut off since August, so not only do they have access to plenty of fresh grass, they can also take shelter down among the red gums if the weather turns too hot or cold.

The three girls make their way out into the main paddock.
High Class enjoying some fresh grass in the lambing paddock.
Pandora discovered a head-high patch of rushes to wander through.
A couple of the new lambs, enjoying being back in the lush grass of the lambing paddock again.

So as we head into summer, we luckily have lots of green grass in the paddocks, full water tanks, and plenty of moisture in the soil. The long range predictions all look good at this stage for this to be a short-lived El Nino, with a return to wetter conditions by late December. Fingers (and toes) crossed. In the meantime, we have a group of local volunteers about to come on to the property to plant over 400 native trees and shrubs down by the creek, as part of a project to restore habitat along Axe Creek between Strathfieldsaye and its confluence with the Campaspe River a kilometre or so downstream from us. More on that next post.

Looking across the main paddock, with the tree line of Axe Creek in the distance.

Lambing season

Although there were a couple of lambs here at Greatrakes that were born last year in the days and weeks after we first moved in, this year is our first proper lambing season, or at least the first one where we’ve been able to witness the whole process from conception to birth. Thanks to a wet spring in 2022, with bumper crops of pasture, we have managed to turn our little flock of nine ewes and one wether into twenty-two, following the birth of twelve lambs. Our amazing returns this year included five sets of twins, and a couple of singles, from seven pregnancies, with only two of the ewes failing to fall pregnant. The Isle de France ram that we had on loan (who we nicknamed Pierre), certainly had the good stuff going.

Cute as a button

Pierre was with us for almost three months during late spring and summer, and with the gestation period being around 150 days, we started to look forward to our first lambs a few weeks after Easter. With absolutely no prior experience, we didn’t really know what to expect, but luckily we’ve become acquainted with some absolutely wonderful sheep farmers nearby, who have been able to answer every stupid question we’ve thrown their way.

Big Mumma and her two boys

The first confirmation we had that we were about to have some lambs was in early May, when the belly and udders on one of the ewes started to swell. We, and even those with a lot more expertise than us, were convinced that a birth was imminent, but for the next two weeks she just continued to grow and grow. This was a ewe who had lost a baby the previous year, and her udders had never really returned to normal size, but by the Saturday morning when she finally walked away from the rest of the flock and started pawing at the ground, “Big Mumma”, as we dubbed her, was absolutely huge. We headed out for lunch that day, and neither of us was surprised when we returned to see two little boys sitting beside her in the paddock.

The first set of twins
Just look at the size of those udders!

Three days later, and the next ewe to go was one we’d nicknamed “One-horn” on account of a little stub of horn she has. Unlike Big Mumma, One-horn didn’t show any obvious signs of pregnancy for most of the time up until around the weekend that Big Mumma was giving birth, when we noticed her udders had started to swell as well. One-horn gave us two little girls, evening up the numbers nicely.

One-horn and her twins
In for a feed

A week and a half later we had another set of twins (one of each), however we still hadn’t managed to be around when they decided to arrive. Finally, one Wednesday when I was working from home and Vanessa had gone down to Melbourne for the day, I stepped out on to the veranda late in the afternoon and noticed one of the ewes on her own in among the red gums. I kept checking on her periodically as the afternoon wore on, and just before dark she gave birth to a little boy. Vanessa arrived home too late to see it, so we went out to check on it at first light and were surprised to see that a little girl had joined it some time after dark.

The first birth I got to see, albeit through a telephoto lens and obscured by trees
Unbeknownst to us at the time, this little boy was about to be joined by his sister

The next arrival was a couple of days later, and completely out of the blue, another set of twins that were born to a ewe that was showing no real signs of pregnancy, although upon closer inspection her udders were well hidden by a thick belly of wool. Then a couple of days later and after a run of four lots of twins, we finally had our first single – a little girl.

Our first single birthed lamb

By this stage the boys from Big Mumma and the girls from One-horn were growing rapidly, and had begun to play together, running and jumping around the paddock at high speed, and looking quite comical at times.

The lambs will often just spontaneously start jumping
They can actually jump quite high off the ground
An exceptionally comical sight

Since the October floods, we’d had no fencing along the lower half of our main paddock, so all of the sheep (and Rosie the Alpaca) had been confined to the side paddock we’d now designated as “the lambing paddock”. Despite the ample food and shelter in there, I knew that eventually we would need to move them, if only for the fact that the shearing pen was in the paddock on the far side of the property. I had earlier run a temporary electric fence across the paddock, just above the dam, and this had worked well in confining them to the fenced section prior to the lambing season, however one weekend they had all managed to get out after the local kangaroo population brought a section of the fence down overnight, so back to the safety of the lambing paddock they went. Now with the addition of nine lambs who had never ventured beyond the gates of that paddock, I felt the time was ripe to start working on a permanent fencing solution.

The local roo population played havoc with our temporary fencing

Over the course of the next few weekends, I binge-watched as many farm fencing videos on YouTube that I could find, and by mid June my very first sheep-mesh fence had been assembled, complete with steel end stays and a gate at one end to allow vehicle access down to the creek. It probably won’t win any awards, but it’s tight, sturdy and just what was needed to allow us to open up the side gates and let the flock roam freely between both sides of the property.

My first sheep mesh fence
Anti-fox light installed on one of the posts to help deter predators (and discourage roos)

It was great to be able to watch all of the ewes and their new lambs wandering around the fresh paddocks again, and to see the lambs playing “king of the castle” on the haystack that was left in the main paddock from the summer. With five of our nine ewes having now given birth, our focus turned to the remaining four, and whether or not they would also become mums. The difficulty is that while most of the girls look extremely fat, that’s as much to do with the abundant grass they’ve had to feed on – the only real give away is when the udders start to swell, and even then that’s not always obvious until after the event. Nonetheless, we were happy in the knowledge that we had almost doubled our flock, with a total of four boys and five girls that we took great delight in watching every chance we got.

The lambs absolutely love running to the top of the hay bale
It’s a long way up (and down) for a little lamb

Then finally, on the last Saturday in June, we got to witness another birth, as the ewe we call “Dotty” began to scratch at the ground right in the middle of the main paddock, in clear line of sight from our kitchen window. When she finally went into labour, I grabbed my telephoto lens and managed to get the entire procedure on camera. It was actually over very quickly, and as darkness descended, we were quite glad that she’d chosen a spot right in front of the fox deterrent light we’d installed along the new fence the previous weekend, as we’d noticed a couple of foxes around in days prior.

Dotty sitting on her own in the paddock, showing obvious signs of labour
The first fluid sack appears
Down for one big push
The first sign of a leg
Almost there
One last push
A brief, anxious moment as the new baby lies motionless on the ground
Mum comes over and it slowly raises its head
Welcome to the world, little one
Mum starts to clean it
The first attempt to stand
Took a couple of goes, but we got there in the end
Bubs is desperate to feed, but mum wants to give it a bit more of a clean first
Finally the time arrives for that first hit of colostrum
Bubs has a good feed

Dotty was one out of the four that we’d pencilled in as “possibly” pregnant, however we’d had our doubts because earlier in the summer she’d been attacked by a neighbour’s dog that had gotten into the paddock, and for a few days there we weren’t even sure if she was going to make it. We were so excited when she wandered off on her own that afternoon, and it was such a wonderful opportunity for us to finally watch one of the lambs being born up close, even if it was through a telephoto lens.

A little girl with her ear tag

The following weekend we had a number of friends over to give us a hand to mark and tag the new lambs. This always stirs up a bit of controversy, but marking basically involves applying a tight fitting rubber ring around the tails which stops the flow of blood below it, with that portion of the tail eventually withering and dropping off. It sounds cruel, but the lambs only show discomfort for an hour or two, after which time they get used to it and start playing as usual. What it does do though is prevents the sheep’s poo from building up and becoming fly-blown, a discomfort far worse and far more dangerous to the sheep. Some of our ewes had had their tails completely docked, but that exposes their nether regions to the sun and can lead to sunburns and cancer. In our case we prefer to leave a short stump that’s long enough to protect their private parts, but still short enough to prevent any build up of faeces.

A few hours after marking the tail

All sheep in Victoria are required to be tagged with electronic ear-tags, and I had already received my order of this season’s tags, so we did that at the same time. This year’s tags are sky blue in colour, and our friends informed us of a simple yet brilliant way of tagging them so that we could tell them apart – the boys were all tagged in the left ear, and the girls were all tagged in the right ear (because as everyone knows, girls are always right).

Big Mumma’s two boys
A little girl

The final thing to do was to desex all of the boys, as the last thing you want on a small farm like ours is to have a bunch of randy boys running around the paddocks trying to mate with their mums and sisters. This is also done using the same bands as used on the tails, and while a friend and I lifted the boys up and held their legs so they wouldn’t kick, Vanessa had the unenviable task of lifting up the little woolly purse, popping the two testicles into it, and securing it with a band. As a bloke, this was really uncomfortable to watch, and it certainly looked unpleasant for the little guys as they rolled around in the grass for the next few hours, but by the following day they were showing no signs of even noticing it, and were back to playing on their haystack castle with gay abandon.

Despite the rings on their tails and testes, the boys soon start to play again

The little boy who had been born the previous weekend (who we’ve nicknamed “Blackbeard” on account of the black spots around his mouth) had started to play with the others and we had him in the pen that day with everyone else, however when we lifted him up we found it was too hard to get both of his testicles up into the pouch, so we decided to leave the marking and tagging of him for another day. This turned out to be quite fortuitous, as the next morning while all of the newly tagged lambs (and Blackbeard) were at play, we noticed that one of the three remaining ewes had given birth to twins overnight. Of course this meant that the ear tags that I had ordered (which come in batches of ten), were no longer going to be enough for all of the new arrivals, so I jumped online and ordered another batch from the departmental website.

The last set of twins
In for a feed
Room for two

This last pair consisted of a boy and a girl, bringing our total now to an even six of each. Both were born quite healthy and both fed well during the first few days, however we’ve noticed that the little girl has been growing at a much faster rate than her brother, who often seems to get distracted and wanders off when he should be feeding. Several times we’ve had to intervene and usher him back to his mum when he’s dawdled off somewhere and found a tree to sleep under or a rush plant to play with, while his mother and sister have gone off to another paddock with the rest of the flock. “Curious George” we’ve named him, and although we were worried about him at first, these last few days it seems he’s finally built up the strength to keep up with mum and run after her when he does get side-tracked.

Rosie keeping an eye on the latest arrivals
Curious George is very interested in meeting Rosie

One really heart-warming thing to watch has been the way that Rosie has looked over all of the lambs, especially Curious George. In fact, one weekday while I was out trying to snap a few shots of the lambs at play in the late afternoon sun, I looked over into the lambing paddock to see Rosie checking on the new babies, and Curious George went right up to her for a little nose-boop.


Speaking of Rosie, we’ve been chatting to a local alpaca breeder about purchasing a couple more girls to keep her company, and I’m happy to say that by the end of this month, our little family should have increased by another two – stay tuned! That’s assuming of course that the two remaining ewes don’t surprise us and give birth within the last window of opportunity, given that we’re almost five months now from the day that the wonderful Pierre finally left our pastures to go and make babies elsewhere.