Ian and Blanche




3.2.2 Named Animals

Ian wept twice in his adult life. First, upon the death of Diana, the old black mare whose last regular job was to haul Alexander and Sarah to church and back on Sundays. Ian was overcome when he had just come back from burying Diana’s remains and the radio happened to play the sentimental ditty of which the words were (at least, according to Ian):

There’s a bridle

Hanging on the wall.

Tum de dummmm

Beside the empty stall.

The second occasion for tears was the accidental poisoning death of a Border Collie sheepdog, Ben. Ian’s sorrow was mixed with remorse, because he felt he might have saved the dog if he had acted differently. Ian had placed strychnine on the carcass of a sheep and had left it in the open to attract foxes.82  Ben took the bait, went into convulsions and died before Ian realized that he could have rammed tobacco into the dog’s throat to induce vomiting. In his panic, all he could think of was a bag of salt in a shed half a mile away, when the ideal emetic was in his own pocket.

Gwyneth and Blanche with a litter of Border Collie pupsIan saw Ben almost as much as a child—when Ben broke his left foreleg Ian took him to the family doctor83  rather than to a vet—and indeed Ben seemed to regard himself as part of the family. For example: Blanche had the habit of taking her three children to paddle in a small pool near the house, called the Horse Pool because the farm’s horses often drank there. Ben often came along for a short swim and a snooze on the sandy bank. One day Blanche stayed home, having decided that oldest child was able to take care of the other two. But when Ben saw the younger children going into the Horse Pool without adult supervision, he dashed into the water and tried to push them back to shore.

Ben was one in a line of the family’s Border Collies, half working dogs and half pets, starting with Alexander’s Wallace and ending with Jock; as a pup, Jock lost an eye in a contretemps with a cow but grew up to be a good worker—with sheep only.

All Border Collies on the farm had a strong herding instinct, but none showed it earlier than Ben’s successor, Tip. On one occasion when he was still a pup, Tip seemed to be acting strangely, running here and there with his nose to the ground. He was herding ants.

Tip at work -- herding sheep, not antsTip’s curiosity sometimes got him into trouble. One day he took a break from work for a close-up look at a sleepy lizard. The reptile suddenly opened its mouth to reveal its blue tongue and its alarming array of tiny teeth, and when Tip whirled around in alarm the lizard’s jaws clamped on his bushy tail. He made two circuits of a 60-acre paddock84  before Ian managed to detach the lizard with an axe.

It is not clear why Tommy the carthorse merited a name. Unlike the gentle Diana, he had an unpleasant disposition. He hated to work and had a talent for disappearing just as he was needed between the shafts. As Ian remarked, when asked about the merits of a truck over a horse and cart, "with a truck you don’t have the chase the engine all over the auction before you start." But Tommy had one virtue—once caught and hooked up to the cart, he could haul it at a smart trot for a long time without tiring.

Mother Cat neither herded nor hauled, but by hunting rabbits on a sand dune in view from the house she provided what was in pre-radio days a rarer service, namely entertainment. The hunt had all the elements of drama: the fluctuations of tension as the prey edged close to the cat’s hiding place, or sensing danger, backed away; the sudden bound, the brief squeal and fatal scuffle; the triumphant return of Mother Cat to her inevitable kittens with her bloody trophy clamped in her jaws.

Mother Cat once served in a capacity more substantial than mere entertainment. When the mouse-proof shed became infested with mice, Ian locked her inside and she was obliged to take care of the problem in obscurity.

The pet85  lambs John and Maud became as devoted to each other as their human namesakes, and this led to a problem. When the time came for the pets to be put in separate paddocks, they cried out to each other and led their respective mobs to neglect their proper business—feeding and growing wool—to cluster and press against the fence that separated them. In the end Ian brought John back to live at the house. John moped at first, but later on he made friends with another lonely animal, a playful white pig named Snowball, and the two animals went about together in apparent contentment.

Until one day John began to act strangely, staggering around in circles and falling over. These were the signs of copper deficiency, Ian and Blanche realized. They fed John copper sulfate, and he was soon back on his feet again.

Continue reading: 3.2.3 Farm Routines

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3.2 Vignettes of Life on Gilella

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3.2.3 Farm Routines

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82. Like rabbits, foxes were introduced into Australia for purposes of sport. In the absence of natural controls, foxes proliferated and became a menace to sheep, particularly at lambing.

83. Dr. Caldwell of Katanning.

84. US field.

85. Motherless lambs, hand-fed from a bottle and trained to come when called, are known as "pets."