Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Tuscany; The Beauty and Brutality

Tuscany is, simply put, beautiful; a veritable fairy tale.  One could imagine a ginger house tucked gently into the woods.  But, just as in a fairy tale, Tuscany also has a dark underbelly; wild boars, porcupines, foxes and wolves.   

The wolves have been the bane of Chianti Cashmere.  On our first night in Tuscany, us tucked soundly in our beds, eleven goats were attacked in the yonder field.  Seven goats were killed outright (and only one eaten) while four others were severely injured.  

We only just found this out upon our return from Siena.  Nora, the owner of the goat farm, was devastated.  This attack represented a serious loss of income for her, as well as, loss of her beloved animals.

She has guard dogs; two for each herd but the dogs were recent additions and still too young to adequately protect.  At five months old they simply weren’t a match for a pack of wolves.

Now is the time I must confess I’d been pulled in by folk lore and Hollywood hype -- I couldn’t help but imagine werewolves roaming the Tuscan Fields, preying on wildlife and hapless humans.  Fortunately the moon wasn’t full and therefore did not lend to my wandering mind.

But back to Nora.  As we arrived at the farm she was in the process of moving the male goats from their larger pasture to a smaller, better barricaded pasture (i.e. one with barbed wire like you’d find around a prison).  She needed our help herding the goats from one pen to the other.
Our job was to keep the boys out of the flower beds and keep them from going up the road and out to the street.  This turned out to be an easy task -- Nora and her employee were leading the alpha male by the horns.  Everyone else followed suit.  

The dogs, too, followed the crowd, though they stopped to visit with us.  It took all our self control (and then some) not to pet them and love on them. You see they are meant to bond with the goats and not humans; thus making better guard dogs.   

Nora only had one barbed pen.  She couldn’t put the males in with the females as this would significantly disrupt her breeding schedule.  Thus she was stuck hoping the wolves wouldn’t return and/or her dogs would do their jobs.  

Now let me tell a little about the goats.  They are cashmere goats (as in cashmere sweater (i.e. expensive yarn) fame).  Once a year, in the spring, the cashmere (which is the soft undercoat) is gently harvested, by hand, by combing out each goat (talk about time consuming).  It takes anywhere from one to three hours to comb the cashmere from a goat.  

The goats are bred specifically for the quality and quantity of their cashmere, as well as, for the color (white, tan, hazelnut and cocoa).  

After combing, individual samples are taken from each goat and analyzed in a laboratory; testing for quality, softness and color. The cashmere is then sent to a local company that separates it from the coarser outer hair.  After that the cashmere is sent to another local company which turns it into roving.  Finally the roving is sent to a third company which spins it into yarn.  

No wonder cashmere is so expensive. And Nora’s yarn?  Oh you wouldn’t believe how soft.  

So, yes, when her goats are attacked she is devastated, financially and emotionally.  These are not "just goats."

While all this was going on I felt rather helpless.  As a veterinarian I wanted to jump in and fix things.  But I did not have any equipment or authority to practice medicine.  Nora used to be a vet but was longer practicing (though she keeps her licensing intact).  She, too, had limited medical supplies.

As an animal lover I wanted to cry.  Of course the wolves needed to eat and we were encroaching on their habitat.  But they didn't hunt solely for food; rather this hunt appeared to be more for sport.  

We did not keep the deaths hidden from the children.  I showed them one of the dead goats and we talked about what happened.  Now keep in mind my children are being raised with a veterinarian, an emergency veterinarian at that. Blood and guts and death and gore are a regular part of my life and this is something my children have often been exposed to.  

The good news is the four injured goats were making a miraculous recovery and were doing well by the time we left the farm. 

For my part I bought some of Nora’s yarn (which I would’ve done anyway).  I wanted to support her sustainable cashmere.  Now I have two skeins of very special yarn waiting for a project.  

Nora has a designer who is currently working on some exclusive patterns just for her.  She has promised to send me the designs once she receives them.  I can't wait to get my needles clacking. 

And for me?  Despite the brutality I am dreaming of a goat farm of my very own -- half cashmere and half milk goats -- right here in the states.  Oh how the wheels are turning.  

Next up? Day Eight -- The Land of Twigs and Berries (aka Florence).



Sherry said...

I love your blog --- thanks for allowing us along on your wonderful trip to Italy. On the sheep/goat front, I've heard llamas are an effective deterrent to predators ... does anyone in Italy use them to protect their flock?

Shalet said...

I did not see any Llamas in Italy though I, too, wondered about their use. Hopefully she gets something figured out soon.