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Podcast Episode 37 – Pests, Prey, & Predators

Once long ago, Irish, Scottish, and English families came to the Talbot Settlement to establish a new life here in Upper Canada. They would be faced with the vigorous task of clearing land, establishing shanties or log cabins, clearing way for a road, and cultivating their fields. Now the land 200 years ago looked vastly different from what we see today. Thick, dense forests stretched for miles, inside men were working hard felling trees to clear land, utilizing everything they could for their homes. Not far off lurking in the shadows, black bears wander the territory. Marking trees with their sharp claws, tearing up roots and stumps as they scavenge for berries, nuts, grass, fish, anything that’s available. BOOM the sound of trees falling yonder frightens the mammals, who are now climbing up the large trees. A wail of a human baby crying sounds off in the distance. Followed by deep growls, jaw snapping, and loud snorts. A young cub, feeling threatened by the arrival of the settlers, cries out to its mother. She answers its calls beckoning her baby to follow. On the ground a track can be spotted. A 5-by 5-inch impression left in the forest floor. 5 thick claw marks ingrained in the ground. Soon when the days become shorter and the temperature cooler, the black bears will begin to search for a denning site. A large enough space to accommodate for the bear when it’s curled up. Under a tree stump, overturned log, or in a hole in the side of a hill are all suitable.  

The waters of the area swarmed with fish, while wild ducks covered the ponds. In the thick forests of Elgin County various sounds would echo. The calls of wild turkey, the screeches of the wild cat, the hooting of owls, and the howling of a ravenous pack of wolves into the night air. In the early pioneer days, the plateau of the Thames, eastern and central parts of Dorchester and Delaware, were known as the pine district. The trees were known to the settlers as white pine. A heavy growth of hemlock, maple, oak, elm, and many hardwoods predominated the thick Canadian forests. Trees centuries old covered the grounds of the settlement. These trees in our county were so large that in March of 1879, a single white-wood tree was cut and yielded 6,000 feet of sawn lumber, the butt alone yielding 1,200 feet. This single tree brought in $120. That’s over $4,400 today. The forest housed many animals, some who posed a great challenge for arriving settlers.  

Occasionally in the early talbot settlement the black bears caused trouble to our settlers, preying on livestock, or upsetting beehives. Incidences like this are usually caused by one or more bear. Fear not, the problem was easily solved by adopting better farming practices, such as moving the apiary or livestock away from the forest. Hunting parties would often gather to decrease the number of predators preying on their livestock and eating their crops. March 6th, 1830, a bounty was placed on wolf scalps for twenty shillings. The first payment of this accord by London district was made to Charles Wellswater on July 17 for £1. The second payment was made to Justus Wilcox of £3, in October. In a single season in the 1800s, hunters eliminated 400 black bears in the area of Point Peele. Aside from the occasional stray, almost none of the large mammals that formerly roamed the Carolinian zone remain. Due to the rapid urbanization starting in the 1800s and the associated loss of forest habitat that has been converted to agricultural land or cleared for development, most of the large species extirpated the settlement. Extirpation, also known as local extinction, occurs when species, plants, or animals, cease to exist in certain geographical locations. The population or species relocates to a different area. In our case most large mammals headed north. Today in parts of southwestern Ontario, bears can be spotted far from their homes. Some sightings have been reported in the urban outskirts of London. By the beginning of the 20th century, the northern river otter, fisher, American marten, black bear, wolf, cougar, Canada lynx, and bobcat vanished from the region of southwestern Ontario. Moose and elk disappeared even earlier during the initial European settlement in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Want to hear more about the wolves of the area and their relation to our settlers? Check out episode 6, where we tell the tale of a brave individual who had a spine-chilling run in with wolves.  

The clearing of land was a daunting task. Prowling bears, wolves, foxes, rattlesnakes, and many more potentially dangerous wildlife roamed the settlement. Rattlesnakes were quite common to the area but were eventually pushed from the region once hogs were brought over by the settlers. Hogs have been known to stomp on the snakes as they come in their enclosure. The hogs 28 teeth and 4 tusks make killing the snake an easy task. The hogs simply stomp them to death then pick up the snake by their mouths and eat them, often before the snake can get a chance to bite back.  

Nicholas Carter Brown, a sheep farmer, recalled his wolf-proof pen when being interviewed for Sim’s History of Elgin County Volume. He had designed his fence with high logs, on one side the logs would reach 10 feet high. On the opposite, the logs were just high enough to reach the sheep’s backs. From this he slanted up a shanty roof until it went up ten feet high. This roof did not cover the whole pen only half or 3 quarters. This pen worked excellently; no wolf seemed to know how to get out. Although the wolves were in the enclosure with the sheep, they never seemed to attack any of them. “A wolf won’t attack when prisoner.” 

Next, we’re going to talk about a story of the Zavitz family who resided in Yarmouth Township. Daughter Mary was interviewed for Sim’s History of Elgin County Volume 3 and recalls what the wildlife of the Talbot Settlement was like.  When Mary’s father, Jacob Zavitz finished his cabin, he went to London on horseback to secure window glass and a door. While Mr. Zavitz was away, his wife tacked a quilt over the doorway and windows and remained awake all night as wolves howled about their cabin. Mrs. Zavitz kept a bright fire burning in the fireplace during the night to frighten off the animals. These incidents occurred before Mary was born, but she recalled her parents talking of them while she was a child. It is said that deer were plentiful in south Yarmouth at the time and that on many occasions men would simply step out of their cabins and shoot a deer with their musket before breakfast. 

Not only would the settlers have large mammals to be cautious of, but small insects posed a great threat. Pests disrupted their progress and their livestock. Swarms of biting insects, ranging in size from gadflies to horseflies terrorized both animals and settlers alike. To combat the pests, farmers wore netted headgear, layers of grease, and used smoke, which all served as makeshift bug repellant.  

Many settlers in the area, like Andrew Backus, kept sheep on their farms. Their wool was utilized for a variety of purposes including clothing and textiles. Pests roamed the area affecting the sheep and their wool. Sheep ked are tick like insects that feed off blood. The ked causes pruritus (itchy skin) over much of the host’s body. When affected by the ked, sheep bite, scratch, and rub themselves, to relieve the itch, thus damaging the wool. The settlers created a tobacco mixture that was rubbed on the sheep before they sheered. This mixture killed the pests and would ensure the wool would be free of bugs.  

Crops were also commonly attacked by pests. Long ago, local farmers were once threatened with an invasion of the Colorado potato beetle. The settlement was visited by a very smooth-talking man who appeared at all the farmers gatherings and local general stores. This man offered the settlers a remedy to the pesky bugs that were killing their crop. His remedy would only cost a few dollars. The settlers were warned by the mysterious man TO NOT OPEN THE PACKAGES UNTIL THEY NEEDED TO. The man explained that the remedy would lose its strength if opened too soon and the beetles would ruin the potatoes. Farmers kept their word and did not open the packages until needed. When the potatoes were threatened the farmers retrieved their sacks and went to their fields to open them. To their surprise, upon looking into the bag, they found 2 blocks of wood with the instructions to place the bug on one of the blocks and smash it with the other block. In an interview, James Doan recalls the shock of finding out he had been cheated “I tell you; it took me a long time to get over the shock of being taken for a fool and then I realized that I was not alone and with a loud oath followed by a loud laugh, I could see the humor of it all.” 

Settlers grew almost all their food. In the early days of the settlement, there were no general stores close by. People walked by foot since the roads were in the beginning stages of development. The closest town could be many miles away, therefore they would not make this trip often. Growing their own vegetables and raising livestock was a practice almost everyone in the early settlement participated in. Garden vegetables were often threatened by animals and bugs alike. Fences were built around the gardens to keep rabbits and other animals from eating the crop. But fences could not get rid of insects. Settlers used home remedies for insects attacking their vegetables. They found that planting summer savoury with their beans repelled bean beetles and improved the overall growth. Marigolds also encouraged growth and discouraged pests. In the 1600s, tobacco infusions, herbs and arsenic were discovered as affective against insects. They became widely used as major materials for insect pest control during the 1800s. Wind Winnowing is an example of how farmers rid their crops of bugs. Winnowing is an agricultural method developed by ancient cultures for separating grain from chaff. It is also used to remove weevils or other pests from the stored grain, allowing for a clean, chaff and bug free product. This practice was done by throwing the mixture into the air, allowing the wind to blow away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grain falls back into the basket. In June of 1877, a peculiar happening with bugs affected the community. A multitude of caterpillars crowded the tracks of Port Stanley and Sarnia Railroad, preventing the sticking of the wheels to the rails. This incident was so disruptive that in Port Stanley the line cars had to be left at Glanworth to allow the locomotive to haul the train to London. 

Farm dogs were just as popular in the olden days as they are today. Back then, dogs were not only man’s best friend, but exterminators, business partners, and security guards. Dogs have been used by man for over 10,000 years. In the late 19th century, a man in Scotland combined several dog breeds to create the “ideal” herding dog. The dog was ideal for handling sheep in the hills and rocky borders of Scotland and England. Hence the name – border collie. Canines have helped us figure out how to domesticate, herd, and protect large numbers of livestock. Over time humans have bred dogs to bring forth characteristics suited for specific tasks. For example, collies are excellent at corralling, dachshund’s short, slender bodies are perfect for tunneling prey like badgers, great Pyrenees were bred to scare off sheep against attacks, and so on. 

The Talbot Settlement has seen many pests, prey, and predators come and go. In addition to the challenges of building a new life, settlers had to face the wildlife that roamed the water, air, and ground. Upon arrival, the natural system of the area was disrupted and in turn created some tricky situations for the settlers.  

Thanks so much for reading! Catch us again in two weeks for another episode!