Milking in a snake pit

In the midst of a wild storm that pelted the farm with hailstones the size of Maltesers, Wayne texted me a photo from the dairy. That was unusual. I only ever get texts from the dairy when there’s been a disaster.

The first of 14 rows

The first of 14 rows

It all looked okay on my phone’s tiny screen, so I literally shrugged my shoulders, put it down to a fit of boyish exuberance over the hail and turned my attention back to making dinner and the four-year-old yanking at my shirt.

It all became clearer when Wayne arrived home at half past eight.

W: Did you get my text?
M: Yeah, what a hail storm!

W: (Rolling of eyes) So, you didn’t look at it.
M: Yeah, we saw the hail up here too, the kids wanted to go out there and eat it!

W: (zooming into a section of the picture on his phone) Have a closer look…
M: Oh.

CopperheadMovingCloseLoRes

M: When did that happen?
W: (Look of pride) First row.

M: First row?! What did you do?
W: I had my face close to a cow, putting on the cups, when I felt something fall on the top of my boot. I just kicked it off without really thinking about it, expecting it to be a piece of rubber or something that had come loose. But when it didn’t feel stiff enough, I looked down and saw it f*@#&ing wriggle away.

For a minute, I just stood there frozen, then grabbed a bit of poly pipe and tried to whack it but the pipe got snagged in the gear above the pit. I hosed it up the other end of the pit and let it eat frogs. Every time it came too close, I hosed it again.

M: But how did you get rid of it?
W: I didn’t. It’ll probably find its own way out or Clarkie’ll find it in the morning. I’ve written a note on the whiteboard.

While Wayne was brought up in the city, Clarkie is a genuine bushman. I’ve seen him pick up a huntsman spider like it was a hamster and the man really can command a lasso and crack a stockwhip off the back of a horse. Wayne’s theory was Clarkie’d think nothing of milking cows in a snake pit.

M: (Incredulous) And what if he doesn’t read the whiteboard? And what if the thing winds itself around the stainless steel and gets him in the goolies? And what if he can’t see it at 6am and spends the whole milking semi-petrified wondering where it is? Clarkie’s good but, come on, Wayne!
W: Well, I’ll ring him now and let him know.

Obviously, Wayne and I have different OHS management styles.

While Wayne was phoning Clarkie (who apparently just laughed, whether that was hysterically or not, I can’t say), I was phoning a snake catcher.

About an hour and 20 minutes’ drive away, Jeff from VenomWise was the closest snake catcher I could find. The man was amazing. I told him I thought we had a copperhead in the dairy and that it had to be gone before 6am. It was already 9pm and all he said was: “I’ll leave right now but could you do me a favour and have someone keep an eye on him so I know where to find him?”

Since my mother was here for a rare one-night’s visit, Wayne insisted he would go on snake duty. So, taking a packet of cheezels, he pulled up a seat in the silent, empty milking platform to watch over his reptilian dairy hand.

This was the next text:

CopperheadCoilLoRes

I made a morale-boosting call.

M: Is he good company?
W: (Animated) Did you see where he is? I couldn’t see him when I came in, so I went down into the pit to have a look and thought he’d gone until I came back up to the steps. I’ve just walked over the bloody thing!
M: (Belly laugh) Just stay on the platform, eat your Cheezels and stay away from the fridge, for God’s sake!

This text came through a few minutes later:

CreepyJointSpiderLoRes

Another morale-boosting call was in order:

M: You’re getting freaked out by a huntsman?
W: I leant over the steps to have a closer look at the snake and as I held onto the banister, this bloody thing ran over my hand.
W: (Said with passion) This is a f*@$ing creepy joint!

Wayne’s lonely vigil finally came to a close at 10.30pm when, true to his word, Jeff from VenomWise arrived. Jeff suspected the metre-long snake probably fell from the rafters when the hail hit.

Wayne may not be a bushman but I’m proud of a man who milks for three hours in a snake pit and then misses dinner to sit with it for another hour and a half to make sure his mate’s safe in the morning.

A better snake trap for the Drover’s Wife

The twist of a tail was all it took to drive me and the kids indoors. Normally, prematurely extracting them from the sandpit is a big job but even an ebullient two-year-old can sense the importance of a “Don’t panic but…” message from his mum.

A snake (most likely a copper-head or tiger) had appeared at the bottom of Alex’s favourite climbing tree, just inches from the verandah and the children and I sat frozen in silence, listening to it swish through the dry leaves. And I am not Henry Lawson’s gutsy Drover’s Wife, for I am yellow to the core.

The drover’s wife makes the children stand together near the dog-house while she watches for the snake. She gets two small dishes of milk and sets them down near the wall to tempt it to come out; but an hour goes by and it does not show itself.

Instead, I send the kids scurrying indoors while I deploy my secret weapon: the Snake Trap. Purchased a couple of summers ago after another close encounter of the scaly kind, the trap has been waiting for just this moment.

She brings the children in, and makes them get on this table. They are two boys and two girls – mere babies. She gives some supper, and then, before it gets dark, she goes into house, and snatches up some pillows and bedclothes – expecting to see or lay or hand on the snake any minute. She makes a bed on the kitchen table for the children, and sits down beside it to watch all night.

Like a large corflute pizza box, the Snake Trap has a little trap door that leads to an internal spiral wall, which guides the snake in pursuit of an imaginary rodent evidenced by a trail of scenting media (mice and rat detritis).

Inside the Snake Safe Snake Trap

Inside the Snake Safe Snake Trap

Check the trigger, the trap door and deploy.

She has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal. She has brought the dog into the room.

It’s sitting there now, nestled in the leaves by the sandpit.

Graeme, the man behind the Snake Trap, reckons I will be lucky to catch my snake. They’re generally just passing through, he says, and the idea of the Snake Trap is to set it up at the start of snake season to waylay any casual unwelcome visitors. But I’m watching that trap door and time spent in the sand pit is a little less carefree than it was.

It must be near daylight now. The room is very close and hot because of the fire. Alligator still watches the wall from time to time. Suddenly he becomes greatly interested; he draws himself a few inches nearer the partition, and a thrill runs though his body. The hair on the back of neck begins to bristle, and the battle-light is in his yellow eyes. She knows what this means, and lays her hand on the stick. The lower end of one of the partition slabs has a large crack on both sides. An evil pair of small, bright bead-like eyes glisten at one of these holes. The snake – a black one – comes slowly out, about a foot, and moves its head up and down. The dog lies still, and the woman sits as one fascinated. The snake comes out a foot further. She lifts her stick, and the reptile, as though suddenly aware of danger, sticks his head in through the crack on the other side of the slab, and hurries to get his tail round after him. Alligator springs, and his jaws come together with a snap. He misses, for his nose is large, and the snake’s body close down on the angle formed by the slabs and the floor. He snaps again as the tail comes round. He has the snake now, and tugs it out eighteen inches. Thud, thud. Alligator gives another pull and he has the snake out – a black brute, five feet long. The head rises to dart about, but the dog has the enemy close to the neck. He is a big, heavy dog, but quick as a terrier. He shakes the snake as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind. The eldest boy wakes up, seizes his stick, and tries to get out of bed, but his mother forces him back with a grip of iron. Thud, thud – the snake’s back is broken in several places. Thud, thud – it’s head is crushed, and Alligator’s nose skinned again.

She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in; then piles on the wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and the dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the fierce, angry light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quieted, and presently go to sleep. The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, throwing his arms around her neck exclaims:

“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’ blarst me if I do!”

And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over bush.

SnakePit

A shocking day

Yesterday was a shocker.

After getting Zoe off to school, it was time to do the annual “spring clean” of the fences. The event is triggered by the influx of youngsters into the herd. Every bit as adventurous and bullet-proof as your teenage son, these first-time calvers are new to the dairy side of the farm and love to explore far beyond the allocated paddock of the day.

The result: chaos. Sure, it only lasts a few weeks but, in that time, I could face divorce from a frustrated hubby sick and tired of chasing newbies around the farm. With all that in mind, I head off with the tester to gird the fences against the onslaught.

First stop is the all-important fence around the effluent pond. Nothing. “Not another #@$% battery.” Much muttering.

I’ve broken the farm’s electric fence system up into cells using a cadre of solar-powered energisers so that a single fault cannot bring the whole place to its knees and what I’ve discovered is that the batteries only last a season or two.

I wriggle the connections and ZAP! Well, at least I know it’s working. Test the blasted thing: 9 point bloody 6. No wonder I didn’t enjoy it. Pick up the clamp to attach it to the fence.

ZAP!

“AAAARGH”

“Need…new…clamp”

“What doing, Mama?” asks the little fellow in the Bobcat. “Never mind, Little Man”.

After a bit more spring cleaning, I discover a major fault down by the gully. Investigations reveal a blessed wombat has dug a perfectly good post right out of the ground, collapsing the fence and quite literally earthing it. A steel picket does the job nicely. And we’re up!

Job done, I roar the Bobcat through the gates, leap off and in a few paces find myself shrieking and dancing over a writhing red-bellied black snake.

Fellow dairy farmer, Nick Renyard (@farmer_nick_au) later described this snake as “pretty” but with ashen face, thumping heart and jellied limbs, that was not what sprang to mind a few moments later when the silence was again broken by Little Man.

“What doing, Mama?”

Back on the job and with a paddock selected, it’s time to bring the heavily pregnant youngsters across the road. We crossed that road a total of eight times (four return trips) over the course of an hour before conceding defeat. Young stock like to be driven by pedestrians rather than UTVs but I was tethered close to the machine by Little Man who understandably wanted to be part of the action.

We decided to take a breather (did I mention that low-stress stock handling techniques do not involve inter-spousal shouting sequences?) and let them settle for a couple of hours while we had a think.

In the end, it was Wayne’s brain-wave that saved the day: “Why not just let them run up the road?”.

A cunning plan indeed. Refusing to take the orthodox route along the track past the dairy, the rotters duly ran straight up the road and “escaped” through the road gate into the house paddock. Not there yet but across the road, yesssss!

There was much running, shouting and frantic arm-waving to get the mob of 50 trainees to run under the hot wire into their new home. All done wearing heavy rubber boots through deep mud. This morning, with aching hammies, I think of Cliff Young and marvel at not just the stamina but the ingenuity of the Legend.