The pastures started growing about three weeks ago, when the soil finally warmed up after the spring thaw. The grass is only a few inches long, but in the mild temperatures of May the cool season grasses will grow almost impossibly fast. When conditions are right, it seems that you can sit and watch the grass grow. Except for a couple of hay fields that are not grazed or mowed, until it is time to cut them for hay, nearly all of our pasture land, on the home farm and on the leased farm across the street, is grazed by horses, sheep or pigs. Nevertheless, the pastures need to be mowed, because the grass grows so fast that it gets ahead of the animals or (as is the case with horses, who are "spot grazers" that focus their attention on particular areas of the pastures and eat them down to the ground while ignoring other areas) parts of the pastures grow tall. The primary reason for mowing is to maintain the quality of the pastures. Left unchecked, the ever-present weeds can get the upper hand and quickly turn a high quality pasture rich in grasses, clover, chicory, dandelion and broad-leafed plantain into a weedy mess of bedstraw, knapweed, bindweed, burdock and thistle.
There are still a few more weeks to go before I need to start mowing, but since it has been raining too much to do any planting, I took the opportunity to service the six-foot rotary mower (also known as a bush hog) yesterday so that I would be ready when mowing season begins. I greased the universal joints on the drive shaft, topped off the gear box oil, made sure that all of the nuts and bolts were tight and checked the blades, which didn't need to be sharpened (unlike lawn mower blades, bush hog blades work best when they are rather dull).
While I was servicing the mower, I got to thinking about how I dread the early part of mowing season because it happens to correspond with the height of deer fawn season. As their mothers graze, fawns hide nearby, lying silent and still in the tall grass. Because there are a lot of deer on our hill, there are a lot of fawns.
When I first started farming about ten years ago, one time in early June I was mowing a very tall pasture when I suddenly heard a loud squealing sound coming from the bush hog. The high-pitched squeal sounded like a mechanical problem, so I quickly raised the mower, shut down power to it and idled the tractor while looking over my shoulder. What I saw, much to my dismay, was a tiny little fawn go tumbling out from underneath the mower, as the tractor rolled forward before stopping. "Oh, fuck," I thought, "fuck. Fuck. Fuck." The squealing had been the fawn screaming as it was torn and battered by the heavy mower blades rotating at 540 rpm.
My relationship with death, now well-established and occasionally banal, had barely begun at the time. I didn't want to get off the tractor. I didn't want to see what I knew could only be gruesome. But, I had no choice, so I stepped down off the tractor and walked back to where the fawn was lying in the grass. Again to my dismay, I saw a bloody speckled fawn that couldn't have been more than a week old (I could not have made that estimate then). My dismay, however, was less about how beaten up the fawn was and more about the fact that the fawn was still alive. It lay on its side breathing heavily, but slowly. Blood oozed from its nose. I repeated my F-bomb mantra, this time out loud, as if it would make some sort of difference.
What to do? I won't go into the more horrible details of what I saw, but it was obvious even to me that the fawn was beyond help. It had to be put out of its misery, but how? I had no gun. I had no knife. I had nothing. I stood there paralyzed, welling up with empathetic emotion. Finally, I decided to go get my neighbor, who I knew had a .22 that we could use to put the fawn down. Then, just as I was about to walk away, I noticed that the fawn had stopped breathing. I waited a moment. No more breaths. I bent down and leaned closer. Nothing. Its mouth was open. Its tongue was hanging limply out. I looked at its eyes. They were fixed and glassy. I waited again. Nothing. I was certain. The fawn was dead.
So now what? What does one do with a dead fawn? I decided that I wasn't going to go to the trouble of burying it. I was down near the edge of the woods, so I picked it up and walked over to the woods, which is at the very edge of a steep hill, and after steeling myself I unceremoniously tossed the fawn into the woods. I heard it tumble down the hill a bit and then stop. The coyotes would find it and be nourished by it. The thing I remember the most about carrying the fawn is how soft its fur was. It might have been the softest thing I have ever touched.
Leap forward about five years to me mowing tall pastures, again at the height of fawn season.
After reaching the bottom of the pasture I was mowing, I made a turn and started back up the other side. I noticed a shape in the next pasture out of the corner of my eye, so I looked over. I was immediately struck with dread. The shape was a lone doe deer, grazing. A lone doe means only one thing. Somewhere, very near, there was a fawn lying motionless, nestled deep in the tall grass.
By that time I had become a reluctant, uncertain partner with death, having committed to being a meat animal livestock farmer. Nevertheless, the gruesome, violent, painful death of a tiny baby deer was not something I wanted to be a part of ever again, so when I saw that doe all sorts of alarms started going off in my head.
As I continued driving forward as I mowed, I did two things. I started scanning as deeply into the grass ahead of me as best I could, and I started thinking, trying to calm myself: "The doe is over there. You are over here. The fawn is probably over there with her. But, what if it isn't? What if it is over here? You'll never see it through the grass. That's what the spots are for. You're going to run it over. But, it's probably over there with the doe." On and on I went as I very nervously drove up the pasture past the doe.
I came back down the other side and made the turn again. "Dammit!" I thought when I looked over at the doe. The doe was standing at the pasture fence looking very intently into my pasture. She was nervous too. Her ears and tail were twitching. That clinched it. The fawn was definitely in my pasture.
I had probably two acres left to mow. That's a lot of tall grass. I couldn't walk it all - well, of course I could, but I wasn't going to. I would just continue to vigilantly scan the grass and take my chances.
Just as I was coming up parallel with the doe, I noticed as I stared through the grass as if I had x-ray vision a line of trampled grass coming up just ahead and to the right of the tractor. I realized that the trampled grass was most likely the doe's path away from last night's bed. I looked further up the pasture, and about ten feet up, at the start of the path, there was a depression in the grass.
I immediately stopped the tractor and shut down the mower. I climbed off the tractor and walked over towards the bed. The doe, probably only twenty feet away from me was starting to stamp her front feet. Her head was high. Her eyes were wide open. Her ears were pricked forward. Just as I reached the bed, the fawn leaped to its feet and darted out of the tall grass into the open mowed section. It ran in the open area for about ten feet, but feeling vulnerable, I suppose, hopped back into the tall grass and immediately laid down.
I had to get it far away from where I was mowing, so I moved into the tall grass and approached the fawn. The doe had become frantic. She ran away from the fence. She ran back toward the fence. She stamped. She stared. I could see the fawn. Just as I was about to reach down and snag it by a hind leg, it hopped up again and started bounding through the tall grass, but the fawn was too young and the grass too tall. It kept getting hung up, which let me keep up with it, but I still hadn't had a chance to catch it. Then all of a sudden it just gave up and stopped bounding. Mid-bound, it just quit, either out of energy or out of hope. It fell face first into the grass, its hind end sticking up. It cried out once, very loudly and then was still.
Curious, I looked up to see how the doe responded to the cry because it was the first sound that the fawn had made. Quite frankly, she flipped out. In a single bound, from a standing position, she exploded over the five foot fence and then started tearing around my pasture. First running towards us and then running away. She had an instinctive fear of me, but at the same time she was driven by an incredibly strong maternal bond that drove her to want to make her baby safe. I was mildly concerned that she might attack me.
Not wanting to miss my opportunity, I quickly reached down and grabbed the fawn around the belly. It screamed. The doe charged at me, but fear got the best of her and she turned and ran away. I picked the fawn up and tucked it under my arm just as I would carry one of my lambs. Just like that dead fawn from before, it might have been the softest thing I had ever carried. The fur was silky smooth and plush. As I walked I looked at the fawn's delicately featured face, at its large eyes and little, damp button nose -- so cute.
I was walking towards the mother away from where I was mowing, over to another pasture. The doe bounded away as if she were going to flee for good, but then, irresistibly controlled by her maternal bond to her fawn, she stopped and ran back towards us. Then she freaked out and ran away again. As we approached the other fence line, the doe again effortlessly leaped over the five foot fence. As I walked the fawn screamed out every now and then.
When I got to the fence, I placed the fawn on the other side of it, in the tall grass, about fifteen feet from where the doe was standing. I backed away, watching. After about two seconds, the fawn hopped up and quickly snaked its way through the tall grass directly to the doe. There was no way the fawn could have seen her through the grass. I hadn't heard the doe make any sound -- perhaps couldn't because it was in a frequency outside of my own hearing -- but she had clearly called out in some manner to the fawn.
The doe put her nose down to sniff the fawn and then looked up at me, still anxious, but visibly more relaxed.
I couldn't see the fawn through the tall grass, but if fawns are anything like lambs, that little fawn darted between its mother's legs as soon as it got to her and went straight for the udder. For lambs, and I imagine for fawns too, there is nothing like a warm drink of milk to soothe rattled nerves.
I watched for a minute to make sure they weren't going to come back into my pasture. Then, confident that they weren't, I walked back to the tractor, started it up and got the mower going again.
That time there had been no blood, no gore and I had gotten to carry the cutest, softest little baby deer you can imagine. I have been lucky for the past few years. I have had no more fawn encounters. I hope the fawns' and my luck continues.
(Photo by Zach Phillips)