Some Exciting News

Shortly before the end of 2015 I received news that I had been awarded a regional project grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. My project is to create a series of collages depicting rare and endangered breeds of farm animals. The collages will be exhibited in numerous venues in the Haut-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec, and will also be compiled in a book. The title of the project is ‘Rare Beasts: A Bestiary of Rare and Endangered Farm animals’. I will be working on this project for the next eighteen months.

I have set up a separate website to house “Rare Beasts” . Click the link here if you would like to follow the progress of the project.

Bronze Turkey - pencil drawing

Bronze Turkey – pencil drawing

Horned Dorset Ram - charcoal and white chalk on grey paper.

Horned Dorset Ram – charcoal and white chalk on grey paper.

A note to subscribers of this blog. I have transferred The Chronicle of Wasted Time from its original home at alysonchamp.blogspot.ca and will eventually be deleting the blog at the old site. I hope you will continue to follow my studio news and farm goings-on here at this site. If you would like to receive this blog directly in your email, you will need to re-subscribe. Sorry about that, but there seems to be no way to import the subscribers with the blog. You will find the Sign Up button to the right of this post.

Have We Any Wool?

Yes, lots more than three bags full- probably more like twenty!

The lambs were shorn yesterday, and I got twelve pretty fleeces off them. Including the ones from when the ewes were shorn back in the spring, we have a lot of fleeces to clean and send off to be milled into roving.

The lambs all look pretty silly with their new haircuts, and the really funny thing is that they no longer recognize each other, so ever since the shearer left there has been a lot of baa-ing.

A couple of the lambs have figured out that minus their wool coats they can now squeeze through the space between the gate and the gatepost.   I found this guy on the lawn outside my studio.

Here is a selection of the raw fleece colours. I think they are lovely, and the raw wool is incredibly soft to the touch.

Black Border-Leicester- Blue Faced Leicester cross

Blue Faced Leicester – Jacob (and unknown) cross

Blue Faced Leicester
Hand spinning wool is the closet thing I have to a hobby. I like to work at my wheel in the winter when labour on the farm slows down a bit and it’s too cold to do much outdoors. At least, I liked to spin wool until a certain cat chewed up the drive band on my spinning wheel. Yes, I’m talking about you, Kevin. Oh, and by the way, Kevin is a girl…which is kind of a long story. I must remember to get that drive band replaced before winter!
Doesn’t she look pleased with herself?

Farmageddon

Dumb Dora in the Doorway- photo © the artist

“You know, ever since 2011 began, crazy stuff has been happening. Trouble on all levels: here on the farm, in the Middle East … a lot of unrest … must be something to do with the planets.” my friend Anna-Maria said to me recently. From the start of lambing back in February, bad things kept happening on her farm. There were stricken ewes, rejected lambs, surprise pregnancies gone horribly wrong, outbreaks of foot rot and orf: it was a litany of disaster.

“Well,” I said, trying to inject a little levity into the situation, “maybe you’re getting a jump on the whole 2012 thing. Maybe the end of the world really is coming- and it’s starting on your farm!”

Anna-Maria laughed. “Shh, don’t say that!,” she said, “you might bring it on. I mean, it’s not like I’m really worried about the apocalypse, but why toy with it?”

Not being an especially superstitious person, naturally I scoffed at the idea that you could bring on your own bad luck. Besides, nothing was wrong on our farm…

The first thing to go wrong on our farm happened almost immediately. An older ewe, always a little peculiar, began acting really strangely. Although she continued to eat well, I often found her lying alone in dark corners of the barn. When she did move about, she was slow, her gait awkward, her expression blank and staring. I combined these symptoms along with her pre-existing quirks- compulsive lip licking and a crazy sensitivity to having her back scratched – and the search engine result was always the same: SCRAPIE. I phoned the vet.

As luck would have it, my regular vet was on vacation. An eager, new veterinarian, fresh out of school, arrived at our farm. He examined the ewe and agreed that her gait and nibble reflex were odd. She also had pneumonia and he treated her for that. When I asked him if he had ever seen scrapie before he admitted he hadn’t, but was nevertheless fairly sure he would know it if he saw it. He agreed that, based on the ewe’s history and her current symptoms (pneumonia notwithstanding), she was indeed a suspicious case. I was horrified. The vet told me not to worry, that the risk of scrapie transmission to humans was “theoretical” at best.

“Besides,” he added in all seriousness, “the disease has been in circulation for at least four hundred years and if it were transmissible to humans then the Scots would all be crazy.”

I felt so much better.

CFIA phoned me straightaway and placed our farm under quarantine. They arrived shortly thereafter to inspect my deranged ewe. Preceded as they were by their sheep beheading reputation, I was fearful at what the future might hold for my sheep.

After observing the ewe and bearing witness to her Exorcist –like reaction to having her back touched, the CFIA vet agreed that the ewe was peculiar (no dissent on that particular question), but as she appeared to be in good condition generally -her pneumonia was clearing- they opted keep her in quarantine until she either turned out to be genotype resistant, or for three months. I welcomed the inconvenience if it meant I got to keep my sheep. Thankfully, the worst was behind me. Or so I thought.

No sooner had our scrapie scare been dealt with than another ewe became sick, this time it was Dumb Dora. After the scrapie episode, I developed a sense of foreboding and began stocking up on supplies that I might need in case of sheep related emergencies. In addition to the extra syringes, gloves and antibiotics, I picked up a gallon of glycol to treat toxaemia- just in case. So it was no surprise really when Dora began exhibiting symptoms of toxaemia two days later. I congratulated myself on the purchase of the glycol.

A day went by and Dora showed no signs of improvement. I knew my regular vet was in the area, so I asked her to stop in and have a look, just to be sure. The vet examined Dora, confirmed the toxaemia diagnosis, and left me with instructions to feed the animal whatever she was willing to eat, and also to increase the dose of glycol- which I did.

I was dismayed to see no improvement in Dora by the following morning. If anything, the ewe looked worse, and in addition to the jaundice, lethargy and anorexia , she now had a new symptom: black urine. Black! That couldn’t be good…

“No, that’s very weird.” the eager, young vet said when I phoned the clinic. Clearly this was not toxaemia. His scientific curiosity piqued, he came out to the farm to have a look at the ewe and phoned me later to tell me that blood samples he had taken revealed that Dora was having a haemolytic crisis.

“A haemo- what -now?” I asked, confused.

“Basically, all her red blood cells have exploded,” he said to me, “that’s why her urine looked black. You haven’t been feeding her onions, have you?”

“Onions?” I asked. What kind of weirdo did this guy think I was!

“Well, it can be caused by excessive consumption of onions. I felt compelled to ask.” he said, clearly assuming I was some sort of weirdo. “So, since we’ve ruled out the onions that leaves us with an autoimmune reaction or copper toxicity. Copper poisoning seems more likely. You haven’t been giving the sheep pig feed, have you?”

“Pig feed? “ I asked, alarmed. “No, we only feed our pigs onions.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said we don’t have any pigs.”

“Oh.”

The prognosis for copper poisoning was not good and the source of the copper was a mystery. I wracked my brain trying to remember everything I had fed the sheep, what they could have gotten into. Had they chewed on water pipes? Was my grain somehow contaminated, a mineral block mislabelled? None of the answers seemed especially realistic. Only one possible solution remained.

The previous fall I had raised twenty Guinea fowl for the freezer. They proved to be my most ill conceived and expensive farming idea to date. By the time they had reached a suitable table weight, the Guineas had cost at least $25 in feed per bird, all of this excluding the cost of slaughtering them, plus the time and general aggravation of keeping them- to which I could now add the extra cost of vet visits and copper antidote for sheep. Worst of all, the Guineas were inedible; stewed boots would have been more appetizing.

The reason for the poor feed conversion ratio of the Guineas only became obvious when I shovelled out the litter from their pen. In addition to the shavings, I also shovelled out at least twenty kilos of feed, maybe more. For the want of a better place to put it, I buried the feed laced litter in the manure pile and I covered it up, thinking to keep it out of reach of my dogs. I guess I should have been more concerned about keeping it out of the reach of my sheep.

Over the weekend Dora’s condition worsened and I fully expected her to die. Unable to find anyone willing to shoot her, I resolved to have my regular vet come out first thing Monday morning and euthanize her. Monday morning came, and Dora was still down…until the vet arrived.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to the vet as she got her equipment out of the van, “but that ewe must have heard me on the phone to you. Fifteen minutes ago she got up.”

Sure enough, when we got into the barn, there was Dumb Dora, dopey as ever, but looking quite healthy, happily munching away with her flock mates. She was no longer jaundiced, her urine was a normal colour, and she didn’t appear to have lost much body condition. You would never guess that anything had happened to her.

“She actually looks pretty good,” said the vet, completely puzzled, “ but if you want to confirm the diagnosis of copper poisoning, we would have to do a necropsy and send the liver to P.E.I. for analysis. What do you want to do?”

I sighed and thought for a moment. At this point, if anybody’s liver was going on holiday to Prince Edward Island, it ought to be mine. “Oh, forget it.” I said, “Just leave her.”

Maedi Visna, caseous lymphadenitis, Chlamydia psitacci. The more time I spent researching sheep diseases, the more anxious I became. We hadn’t even started lambing yet; what else was going to go wrong? I was too embarrassed to phone the vet any more, especially since the receptionist had started answering the phone with: “Hi Alyson. What is it this time?”

Eventually and against all odds, Dora did get better. Our scrapie case turned out not to be scrapie at all, but a combination of pneumonia, overgrown feet and excessive Googling. I wish I could say that this was the end of our bad luck, but it was really just the beginning. Out of a flock eight ewes – in addition scrapie scare and copper poisoning- we’ve had two abortions, two retained placentae, one barely averted prolapse, ring womb , breech lambs, one dead lamb, a foot abscess, entropion , inexplicable lameness and now lice. Who knows what plagues summer will bring?

So the moral of this story is…. I guess there really is no moral. I’m still not entirely convinced that you can bring disaster your way by merely taunting it. Sometimes bad luck just happens. You learn what you can from it, and then you move on. Now I have some tough decisions to make. I know farmers always say culling makes the herd, but if I were to cull all the trouble makers from my flock, I would be left raising chickens, which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea!

Sleepy in the Sun – photo © the artist

Boundary Issues

One evening last fall, my sheep came home to the barn with their fleeces a tangled mess of burrs and thistles. I noticed one ewe was also sporting a fringe of blackberry canes, another one had accessorized herself with a small tree. Now our pastures aren’t perfect, but I did find this odd considering I had gone to some pains to cut down, dig up, and burn as much of this sort of debris as possible. The next morning I went out to check the pastures and the fences and discovered that the back gate was open. The sheep had been out in the fallow no man’s land between out place and the neighbour’s woodlot, no doubt scrounging for crab apples. I cursed irresponsible teenaged ATV riders and closed the gate.

What I had hoped was a unique event began to look more like a pattern when the episode repeated itself the following week, except this time it had been raining. Not only were my beautiful, white, long-wool sheep covered with sticks, burrs and brambles again, but they wrre also WET. The first time had cost me hours of labour pulling out the burrs and disentangling the sticks; the second time I used the hand shears and gave the worst offenders “punk rock” haircuts. At least two of the sheep looked like they had been shorn by a blindfolded lunatic using a lawnmower.

Celeste with haircut. Photo by the artist.

Of course, that back gate was open again. This time, along with the requisite cursing, I also considered getting a padlock or at least putting up a sign asking whoever opened the gate to please shut it behind him (or her), thank you very much. As it turned out, I didn’t have to do either.

One Saturday morning as I was unloading groceries, a strange car pulled into our yard. A blond man in his early thirties got out and introduced himself as Sylvain, our neighbour. His house sits near the end of our long driveway, and although he had lived there for more than a year, this was our first real meeting. Casual observation of his behaviour from a distance had led me to conclude that Sylvain was both trigger happy, (he almost shot our other neighbour while out hunting deer the previous fall), and that he was quite possibly a pyromaniac, as he was always burning something in his yard, and had set fire to our ditch twice in a six month period. It was with some trepidation that I shook his hand.

“I was up here this morning, ” he said, “but no one was home, so I was watching through my scope for your car. Your sheep are loose out in the neighbour’s bush. I have permission to hunt there; I thought they were coyotes and I almost shot them.”

While I was annoyed that my gun wielding firebug of a neighbour could mistake a flock of Border Leicesters for a pack of coyotes, I was even more dismayed that this rather strange man had been using his scope to watch our house. My days of topless gardening were obviously at an end.

“Well, my sheep wouldn’t be loose if some idiot wasn’t always opening our back gate.” I answered.

“What gate?” he asked.

I explained the situation to him.

“Oh,” he said, “well where does your property end?”

And I explained that to him too.

“Oh.” he said, and paused as if contemplating something, then asked, ” Do you want help rounding them up? I could get my four-wheeler.”

I told him not to worry about it, that the sheep would come back on their own (which they did), if he would just please not shoot them in the meantime (which he didn’t).

This autumn I closed off the back pasture completely so the sheep no longer have access to it at all. Better safe than sorry, I figure. Throughout the year I have continued to check the back gate from time to time, just out of curiosity. I have never found it open since. Not once.

What’s on the easel

The Hemmingford Studio Tour takes place this week end (Oct. 2&3, 2010) from 10 am – 5 pm, both Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be at Petch Orchards flogging my wares. If you are in the area, stop in and introduce yourself.

Here are a couple of new sheep collages which will be on display during the tour exhibition.

I give you Miss Juliet,

10×8 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Fabulous Fionna,

9×12 painted paper collage on mdf panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

and of course… Celeste!

9×12 pencil drawing on paper ©2010 Alyson Champ

How to Pick Up Chicks

If you have been lured to this blog by what you perceive to be a promise of dating advice, you are bound to be disappointed. Sorry, but these chicks are of the small, peeping, fluffy variety, not the thong wearing bar hags you may have been expecting. So if this is the case, by all means, go elsewhere. Please!

Chicken Tuesday

Last Tuesday we got our thirty broiler chicks and twelve Guinea keets from the Co op. The decision was made in the spring to raise these meat birds organically and on pasture as much as possible. Pasture is no problem; we have that in abundance. Organic grain? That was a whole different bag of mash. Although we have some local organic grain producers in the area and one organic mill, I could not find anyone who could supply us with smaller quantities of bagged feed. It was half a ton or nothing. In the end we had to order the grain from a mill in Berwick, Ontario. Not that I have anything against the town of Berwick, but it would be nice to be able to get locally sourced feed and not have the added carbon footprint of all those extra kilometres. A girl can dream…

Chicks and keets Photo © the artist

In spite of a few mishaps and a couple of untimely deaths, the birds now appear to be thriving. Originally the keets and the chicks were supposed to be separated by a fence. As you can see by the above photo, the chicks and keets had other ideas. We gave up on the fence and are letting them eat out of the same feeder. And boy do they like to eat!

So, how do you pick up chicks? “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” isn’t likely to work on them. I suggest you scoop them up gently using both hands….

What’s on the Easel

I wonder if being obsessed with sheep is a classifiable psychiatric disorder? If so, I may very well have it. To be fair, I have recently completed some landscape collages, but I just can’t seem to shake this fascination with sheep. This morning I finished my newest painted paper collage. The subject is yet again my friend Anna-Maria’s beautiful purebred Border Leicester ram, Julius Caesar.

Pencil drawing for “All Hail Caesar©2010 Alyson Champ

Above is the preparatory drawing to work out the basic composition. Below is my work table with the work in progress.

At least it looks like I’m working hard. Photo ©the artist

And the finished collage: All hail Caesar!


All Hail Caesar – 8×10 painted paper collage on board © 2010 Alyson Champ

Going Ovine

I’m not exactly sure what it is about sheep that is so appealing, but I’m happy to know that I’m not the only artist to find myself visually hooked on them. I have recently come across a collection of drawings by British sculptor Henry Moore depicting the sheep he saw outside the window of his studio. He too was fascinated by their beauty, their solid shape, and their behavior. Several of the drawings show the interactions of lambs and ewes, which bring to mind some of Moore’s maternally themed sculptures.

Photo © Alyson Champ

While we are on the subject of sheep and maternity, and with lambing nearly upon us, I can’t help but think back to last year’s experience with lambing. It was the first time we had bred our ewes, and as much as it was exciting, it was also nerve-racking and exhausting. Lambs, much like human babies, prefer to arrive in the middle of the night or the wee small hours of the morning. I spent a number of long nights out in the barn, waiting and watching and acting as midwife. The birth of our first lamb, however, I did not witness as she came as a total surprise. She was a few days early, and the ewe, a first time mother, didn’t really show much sign of going into labour. I got quite a shock when I went out to the barn early one morning to feed the sheep and heard a little voice calling out, “Baaa”. I looked around but could see nothing in the pen, just my sheep standing at the feeder waiting to be fed. I went into the pen with an armful of hay and again, “Baaaa”. There at my feet, in the bottom of the hay rack, was a beautiful little white lamb, still wet, and shivering with cold. Her mother had given birth to her and then, not knowing what to do, abandoned her. The baby had crawled into the hay to keep warm. Ewe and lamb had to be forcibly reunited and the ewe needed to be restrained in order to allow the lamb to nurse. It took the better part of a day before mother and child actually bonded, but they did, and the ewe proved to be an excellent mother, if initially a reluctant one.

Photo © Alyson Champ

What’s on the Easel
My collage exhibition is drawing to a close. The last day is April 4th. I’m delighted that my sheep collages have proved to be popular and I have sold several of them. I guess people just like sheep!


Celeste – 9×12, painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Julius the Magnificent- 12×12 painted paper collage on panel, ©2010 Alyson Champ
Fabulous Fionna- 9×12 painted paper collage on panel, ©2010 Alyson Champ

Sheep Go to Heaven

Pinceau, aka The Goat

I never fully understood the connection between goats and the devil until I owned a goat, and then it all became clear. It’s not their horns or their weird eyes that make them seem evil. It’s their personalities.
Sheep will test your fences, get into your garden, run when you don’t want them to, or refuse to move when you most need them to, but what sheep seem to lack, and what goats possess in abundance, isn’t so much intelligence as it is a creative imagination: the capacity to posit the big “what if “, as in

“What if I turn the key in the tractor ignition?”

“Suppose I eat this bucket handle?”

“I wonder what would happen if I picked up this handsaw and
ran away with it?”

Sheep just don’t think this way.

The Goat never ceased trying to find new ways to amuse himself- amuse himself and torment us. Ever the nimble escape artist, he broke, jumped, or climbed his way out of every stall, pen, or paddock he was put in. From his point of view, a fence wasn’t so much an enclosure as it was a suggestion: “You probably should stay in here and eat this grass…but then again, you might prefer to be out there eating those currant bushes. Really, it’s entirely up to you.”

He ate through electrical wiring in the barn, pulled insulation out of the walls, broke windows, collapsed feeders, and destroyed the slop sink by standing in it. With lips as quick as the Artful Dodger’s fingers, The Goat could go through your pockets and grab your wallet, a pen, a utility knife, a syringe full of penicillin, a pair of hoof shears, or just about anything else you’d care to mention, and be off with it in a flash . You wouldn’t even know something was missing until you found yourself patting your pockets, saying, “Now where the heck did I put that….”
Too many times my tool belt clad husband would go out to the barn to repair some goat-related damage and come back with half his screw drivers missing. Or his tape-measure. Or his pliers.
And that myth about goats eating anything and everything? Well, that’s not a myth. They really will eat anything. I didn’t believe it either until I witnessed The Goat cheerfully scarfing down a plastic bag with a side order of latex glove.

In the end it wasn’t his appetite for destruction that ended The Goat’s tenure here as much as it was simply his appetite. One day The Goat got out into the yard and ate my husband’s plantation of cherry trees. And that was that.

Now, The Goat lives at my friend Anna-Maria’s place. No, it wasn’t an act of revenge for those horrible (but ultimately tasty) Muscovy ducks that she gave me. As crazy as it sounds, she really wanted The Goat. Honest!

Julius Caesar, Border Leicester Ram

What’s on the Easel

I have almost finished all the collages for my upcoming exhibition, and yes, many of these new collages feature my sweet, beautiful sheep. I promise to have all the photography done for the next post so that those of you who can’t get to the show itself will at least be able to see a virtual version of it. Until then I’m happy to share with you some of the reference photos which serve as the inspiration for my work. And no, there won’t be any goat collages!


Fabulous Fionna, Border Leicester ewe

Vive le vent d’hiver!

Alright I confess. I love winter. I suppose this puts me firmly in the minority among my fellow countrymen and women, but there you have it. You might think that in a country where we have winter for at least four and a half months of the year people would get used to the weather and learn to enjoy it. Sadly this is not the case. To confess to loving winter is a bit like saying you love paying taxes: people generally look at you like you’re out of your mind. These are things to be endured, not enjoyed and, whenever possible, to be avoided completely. And yet, strangely enough, when you ask Canadians what makes them Canadian as opposed to American (or something else) the answer is almost always: a) our insanely cold, snowy weather, b) a love of hockey, and c) our social programs. There you have it folks: Winter, a winter sport played on ice, and taxes. Welcome to Canada!

I think it’s a Norwegian saying that goes: There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I’m in full agreement. If you’re properly dressed, you don’t feel the cold. My sheep don’t seem to mind the cold one bit and will go out in almost any weather. Nature has kindly equipped them with water resistant wool coats to keep them warm and dry. I have been busy knitting their wool into useful woolen hats, socks and mittens for us to use. Bye-bye cold ears, toes, and fingers!
What’s on the Easel

During the holidays I find it almost impossible to get any serious artwork done. Most of my creative energy goes into baking. For the past couple of weeks my mornings, evenings and afternoons have been measured out not in coffee spoons, but in cookie and bread dough. If I’m not producing any artistic masterpieces, at least we are well fed.

Here is a winter landscape from last year. This one is entitled “Bush Road”, 24X20 oil on canvas.

© 2008 Alyson Champ

Happy New Year!