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Monthly Archives: March 2015

farm-1

After I posted ‘Stubble’, a friend of mine sent me an article on the possible demise of industrial farming in the not-too-distant future. You can read the article if you want: http://reason.com/archives/2015/03/20/the-end-of-farming. In a nutshell, the author says advances in technology will let milk be produced in labs without the need for cows, potentially meaning millions of acres of land could be freed up from dairy farms, and allowed to revert back to natural pasture and forest land. The start-up company that aims to produce the perfect milk (including making it lactose free) is called . . . . .Muufri. I have to admit, that really cracked me up.  Dairy farms aren’t the only potential business to go under – apparently, laboratories have also already produced meat, although to date, taste tests on those products aren’t all that favourable.

It’s a compelling argument, although I can’t actually envision this happening in a big way. There is simply too much opposition, and distrust of corporations fiddling with food. Already, more and more of the space on supermarket shelves are taken up with ‘organic’ produce and there is a large portion of the population that has gone almost apoplectic on the use and production of genetically modified food, or GMO’s  (as an aside, I’ve never liked or really understood how the term organic has become so in-vogue; the ‘non-organic’ apple I ate today isn’t made out of granite, and is, in fact, organic, as is most food).

After reading the article, I think the chance of  farms,  going the way of the buggy-whip industry, at least any time soon, is slim to none. For one, any attempt to ‘hurt’ farming and farmers would be met with huge blowback, if only because of the might and power of  big agri-business,

In addition, a product like Muufri just seems a little too creepy to me. While reading the article, I couldn’t help but think about the 1973 classic movie “Soylent Green”, recalling that scene with Charlton Heston wailing away that “Soylent Green is people!”  I just can’t see people letting go of their passion for real food, real being food from traditional sources.

However, if the population of people continues to grow unabated and the future is a world with 100 billion or more of us, I suppose anything is possible.

 

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Sask-1

I heard some disturbing news this week about ‘farmer attitude’. Most of us hesitate to be overly critical of farmers or anything to do with farming, as farmers provide us with food, which all of us need. Farming is also what let us evolve from being simple hunters and gatherers, so farming is really the hallmark of modern civilization. We need farmers.

Still, there are problems and issues with respect to farmers and farming. For example, in Canada, there is virtually no original tall grass prairie left. Before the plough, though, Canada had millions of hectares of tall grass prairie; native tall grass prairie was so high, you apparently had to stand on a horse to see over it. Now it’s all wheat, canola, sunflower seeds and other crops. Further west, in the short grass prairies, there’s more rangeland – a lot of it’s too dry for crops – but it’s still mostly farms and ranches.

Of course, that’s not so much the fault of farmers, but government policy, which over the years encouraged every hectare to be ‘put to good use’. Along the way, tens of thousands of wetlands have also been drained. As a result, the Canadian prairies have more species Threatened and Endangered with extinction than any other biome in the country.

Despite the problems, there’s still a lot of wildlife in the prairies, and over the years I’ve been spent a lot of time there hunting big game, upland birds and waterfowl. During that time, I’ve watched landowners – farmers and ranchers – continue to drain wetlands and cut down patches of trees, shrubs and hedgerows to put more land into production.

One result was a bit of cowboy poetry. This one is called ‘Stubble Rap’. I wrote it years ago, and was reminded of it this week, so I thought I’d share.

Stubble Rap

When you’re living on the prairies and you see a slough
You’ve got to ditch it, drain it, burn it too
You can’t leave the prairies wild and free
It’s especially important
To remove every tree

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

Put away the tractor
A combine won’t do
It takes a backhoe to drain a slough
Then you plant some wheat
Some canola too

You fear the heavy rain but you don’t want drought
If the hoppers come you spray them out
And if you’re really lucky come the harvest moon
You’ll be another wealthy farmer
From a town like Saskatoon

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

You can ditch them, you can drain them, you can burn them black
But rain, sleet and snow will see the sloughs come back
Precipitation is the farmer’s foe
Always on the backhoe
Always on the go

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

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The spruce grouse is sometimes called the ‘fool hen’, because it isn’t much afraid of humans. Knowing what we now know about humans, I think such behaviour really is foolish, although it’s silly to blame the spruce grouse for its genetic disposition. Most wildlife that has little contact with humans aren’t too afraid of us, because for tens of thousands, often millions of years, we weren’t much of a threat. Only for a few thousand years, and sometimes only for the past couple of hundred years, have humans become something every living thing should fear. But in the evolutionary scheme of things, a thousand years is akin to the blink of an eye. Not a lot of time to adapt. Plenty of time to go extinct.

Fortunately, the spruce grouse is in no way threatened with extinction, although it hasn’t yet adapted to the threat of humans, unlike most of the members of the grouse family. What’s saved it is the fact it is found across a huge swath of North America, preferring northern conifer dominated forests where human populations are low and thinly distributed. Plus, it’s not a colonial bird, not the best tasting and has a reasonably high reproductive rate. All in all, spruce grouse populations are healthy. They are included with ruffed grouse in Ontario insofar as daily and possession bag limits for hunters are concerned (5/day; 15 in possession).

Interestingly, while it’s called the spruce grouse, it is actually much more closely associated with jack pines. During the winter, the needles of jack pine are the staple diet.

I haven’t seen any near our house for a couple of years now. I haven’t shot them, and that’s about all I know. Our property is not the best spruce grouse habitat, though, as it’s mostly young mixed woods with a prominent poplar component, habitat more suitable for ruffed grouse.

Dr. Kandyd Szuba, who studied spruce grouse in eastern Ontario for her MSc., found that in northeastern Ontario, there could be as many as 80 spruce grouse per square kilometer– before the nesting season! This was in prime jack pine habitat – in mature, lowland black spruce, there were seldom more than 10 birds/km2 before nesting season. Still, that’s quite a few.

Apparently, egg eating red squirrels seem to be the biggest threat to nesting spruce grouse, with northern goshawks being the biggest predatory threat to juveniles and adult birds. There are a lot – I repeat, a lot – of red squirrels on our property. Plus I do see goshawks on occasion. Usually I see them swooping after Lil’s pigeons. Some years the goshawks have taken quite a few pigeons. Maybe they took some spruce grouse, too.

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I was going through some journals and magazines the other day when I came across an article on the benefits California condors have reaped from a lead-reduction program. It confirmed a vague recollection of mine about a widespread ban on lead ammunition. It was California that passed a statewide ban on lead ammunition in October of 2013. Some in the gun rights lobby weren’t pleased, which given American politics around guns, isn’t surprising.

There’s a large body of science on lead, a natural compound made up of four stable isotopes, and its harmful effects on both humans and wildlife. Notably, lead poisoning in ancient Roman, Greek and Chinese dynasties has been well documented. First in the United States (1991) and later in Canada (1999), the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl was banned specifically because it was believed there were just too many ducks and geese dying of lead poisoning each year, and the culprit was hunters spewing lead shot. Most waterfowl research types, managers and many hunters continue to be supportive of the ban and it’s believed far fewer ducks and geese are dying today because of it (annually, the estimate is 1 million plus). But like any number, there are critics, and disputes about the nature, implementation and effectiveness of the ban are likely to continue for some time.

Although the shift to non-toxic result had a rocky start, I think the end result is much better shot shell ammunition than existed in the era of lead. Better shells for the hunter and better for the environment. I like it.

In the article I was reading, one of the main points trying to be made was that it was possible to get favourable end results (in this case, less use of lead ammo) by use of voluntary instead of legislated measures, if certain protocols were followed. Namely, if the agencies responsible for wildlife management were trustworthy and provided correct information, were respectful and provided their clients with the ‘tools’ they needed, great strides in conservation could be made. They detailed how well a voluntary ban on the use of lead bullets for big game hunts in Arizona’s core California condor range was working. Between 70-75% of big game hunters had switched to non-lead ammo, and over 20% of the hunters who still used lead were packing out their gut piles. Condors were still dying of lead poisoning in both California (legislated ban) and Arizona (voluntary ban), but deaths rates were similar. Obviously the lead problem wasn’t ‘solved’, but at least one potential impact was being mitigated, and the general consensus was things were moving in the right direction.

I’ve observed that when I’m hunting on my favourite stomping grounds within a couple of hours driving distance of my home, the crows, ravens and eagles keep a close watch on me. Other hunters I’ve spoken to have made similar observations.  These smart birds recognize hunters, and know hunters often (hopefully!) take them to gut piles. Invariable, some of these birds ingest lead fragments and get sick. Some die. I know this, as my spouse Lil is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and some of her wards are lead poisoned bald eagles.

I think the less lead we put into the environment the better. However, I’m not supportive of banning use of lead everywhere – it’s partly that ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ thing.  Do we really have to worry about gut piles at the gun range?

I don’t know of any other alarming widespread die-offs of birds or animals occurring from ingestion of lead ammunition used by big game, small game and varmint hunters (waterfowl and possibly California condors exempted). But lead is toxic, and by all accounts, less is best. Some studies even suggest there is a danger to pregnant women and young children from eating wild game harvested with conventional lead bullets, but then again, people have been eating wild game taken with lead ammo for centuries with no obvious, discernible, negative effects.  There’s a lot of important information on lead that all hunters need to know.

I’m slowly switching to non-lead ammo for use in all my rifles and shotguns as I try to reduce my personal use of lead. Someday, there may be, and will likely be, more bans on things made with lead. In the interim, I think we should all be trying to at least reduce our use of lead. I think it’s the right thing to do.