RD Editorial January 2018

Small ruminants, great drama

    We’ve had a visiting buck goat in the barn for the last little while, to spend some quality time with a doe who failed to get bred last year because she was entirely too discreet about letting her desires be known. This guy is so fragrant, she started showing signs of heat before we’d finished unloading him from the truck. We could hear her tail flicking rhythmically against the side of the stall, and we knew it was a match made in heaven.
    There’s another doe in the barn who is not being given the opportunity to breed, because she has partial paralysis in her back end due to a bout with Meningeal worm (Paralaphostrongylus tenius), an internal parasite that migrates into the nervous system. (The meninges are membranes that are supposed to protect the brain and the spinal cord.) Sometimes known as deerworm or brainworm, this insidious little bug is shed by White-tailed deer, which are mostly unaffected. Grazing animals pick it up via slugs and snails. 
    Research from 25 years ago found Meningeal worm to be present in the cranial cavities of deer at a rate of more than 50 percent in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. According to a bulletin from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, the worms lay eggs in the venous system, which provides access to the lungs, where the eggs are incorporated into fibrous nodules. Eventually the first-stage larvae are coughed up and swallowed by the deer, then excreted in the mucous coat on the feces – and once on the ground, if conditions are favourable, they penetrate the foot of terrestrial gastropods. Isn’t that a humdinger of an evolutionary strategy?
    White-tails, which were introduced to Nova Scotia, helped to wipe out the caribou and most of the moose, thanks to Meningeal worm. Cattle seem to be able to tolerate it, but sheep and goats are highly susceptible. You can’t test for it with a fecal, and once you spot an animal dragging a hind leg, you’re in trouble. The recommended treatment involves mega-doses of wormer, and injections of an anti-inflammatory drug to prevent damage to the spinal column, but full recovery is a long shot. We managed to save our doe, but now she walks funny, and almost falls over when she pees. Sustaining the rigours of reproduction is out of the question.
    With any luck, our other doe will freshen in summer. Based on past experience, we may forgo pasturing in favour of confinement feeding – except when the weather is very dry. A friend of ours, who keeps his tiny herd mostly under cover, recently gave us some outstanding surface-ripened cheese he had made. We used to make a lot of cheese, but never anything of that calibre. Instead of feeling inspired to do better, I think maybe I should just continue to ingratiate myself to this master fromager. He says the goat we sold him a few years ago has proved to be stellar. He calls her Zsa Zsa – presumably after the Hungarian-American actress who was married nine times and died just a year ago, a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday. (“I am a marvelous housekeeper,” she allegedly quipped. “Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.”)

    From spring to fall, a period of weeks may go by when I do not consume any form of audio-visual entertainment, but in deepest winter I enjoy a decent movie. Until recently, we didn’t have the technology to watch television programs, and it was one of those deprivations that can be counted as a blessing. Cable has never been available in this community, and although we could have bolted a satellite dish to the gable and subscribed to whatever was being beamed down, I suspected very little of it was worth paying for. Given the amount of advertising, I felt they ought to be paying us to watch it, rather than the other way around. Quebec has it right, banning all advertising directed at children under 13. Even if it hasn’t actually been proven to make kids fat and stupid, it’s a form of exploitation that shouldn’t be tolerated – except in family-friendly media outlets like Rural Delivery, of course. (Hey boys and girls, pester your parents to buy this magazine! It’s super-fun and super-cool!)
    What I like about radio is the fact that it allows for multi-tasking. I don’t mind tackling a backlog of dirty dishes on Sunday morning if I can listen to Michael Enright. When chopping and stacking firewood with the kids, I’m not averse to a little Zeppelin or CCR at high volume. (But we should be wary of exposing children to high doses of second-hand classic rock. Future generations may judge us harshly.) 
    Now the whole idea of broadcasting seems rather quaint. The Internet allows you to choose the flavour of cultural content and news reporting that suits your taste. The ideological distance between people with opposing political views is continually expanding, because they are seeing entirely different versions of the world. 
    To get our film fix, we used to subscribe to a mail-order service that sent us DVDs of our choosing. (Every time we mailed one back, they sent us another one – and their catalogue was vast.) That company has gone the way of the flip-phone. Now, when our spotty Internet service allows it, we can choose from the relatively limited offerings on Netflix.
    As an antidote to some particularly snotty winter weather, I recently watched the 2015 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd. Set in the wildly scenic countryside of Dorset, in southwestern England, it’s the story of an independent-minded woman named Bathsheba Everdene, whose life changes suddenly when she inherits the farm – or what we would consider an estate – where she has been working. In the 1967 version, this role was played by Julie Christie; in the new movie, it’s Carey Mulligan (who played Daisy Buchanan in the 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby). The male lead – a neighbouring farmer named Gabriel Oak, whose fortune turns in the opposite direction – is played by Matthias Schoenaerts (who was in 2012’s “Rust and Bone,” and 2015’s “A Bigger Splash” – both excellent). 
    Farming is rarely portrayed in popular culture, except for the purpose of signaling some vague notion of authenticity or simplicity or ruggedness. In “Far from the Madding Crowd,” agriculture is fundamental to the plot, and the viewer is immersed in this milieu. A Border Collie with terrible herding instincts figures prominently, resulting in Oak’s financial downfall. Later, when Everdene’s sheep escape their paddock and gorge on fresh clover, Oak is the only one who can save the bloated animals, skillfully sticking them between the ribs. (I believe a trocar and cannula would be preferred, but he appears to use some more primitive veterinary instrument.) Another one of Everdene’s suitors, the socially awkward William Boldwood, utters the following pick-up line: “I have some interesting pigs.” 
    There is a degree of melodrama, which is not surprising, since the story was originally published serially in a magazine (like much of Dickens’ work, earlier in the 19th century). But it hangs together remarkably well as an exploration of fate and pride and marriage and class. (Okay, maybe I’m not doing a very good job of selling it. Did I mention that this film is suffused with sexual tension?)
    If you favour something more contemporary, I would highly recommend the 2015 film called “Rams” (“Hrútar,” in Icelandic). It’s about two bachelor brothers, long estranged, who raise sheep on adjoining farms, and what happens when 21st-century biosecurity protocols disrupt their lives. The film is understated, and highly attentive to detail. It has a wryly-comical documentary tone, but there is heartbreak at its core. The casting is short on eye candy and long on realism, with most of the supporting characters played by actual farmers. The landscapes of Iceland are striking, as are the sheep themselves – and the herding dog puts in an outstanding performance. The story has a biblical quality that will make it linger in your mind. It’s not much of an escape from winter, but it is strangely life affirming – a reminder that we are bound by biology, for better and for worse. DL