I went out to feed the other day, and Martin — the llama in with the majority of our ewes — came over to let me know that there had been a threat to the flock in my absence. Our language barrier being what it is, the transfer of this information relied heavily on his nervous humming and constant looks toward the west, where I had to assume the threat originated. As I looked in that direction, I saw nothing of note. All seemed quiet, but it was obvious that Martin was not happy; something had stirred his protective instinct, and he was wary of the sheep venturing from the barn. He acted very much as though one of our herding dogs had entered the field without permission — but they were all accounted for in a down-stay on the lawn. What was bothering Martin? I continued my chores and essentially forgot this detail as I interacted with the flock.
A day or two later, I was feeding the high-nutrition group when our llama Howie ran to the barn where I was working. As with Martin, details were scarce because of the language barrier, but Howie was there to let me know that he had encountered an unfamiliar dog. His humming, constant nervous glances afield, and overall behavior made it clear that some dog (or coyote — or wolf, I suppose, but we luckily don’t see many of those!) had its eye on our flock. Whether this canine was actually within our fencing or running just outside of it on the road, it was impossible to say, but Howie needed me to know that some type of canine was threatening the flock. Since this “conversation” with Howie reminded me of Martin’s report earlier, I began to watch the flock more closely. I began to wonder whether one of our dogs had decided to break the rules when they went out to potty, entering into the pastures without me. I was puzzled; none of it made sense.
In the days that followed, not only did Howie and Martin continue to let me know that there was a canine threat to the flock, but they both also agreed that it was coming from the Timber. This ruled out our own dogs (who, if they were the culprits, would enter from the lawn into any of the fields around the barns). When I fed the rams at the ridge of our acreage, our llamas Summer and Orbit also began to station themselves to the west in their paddocks. It became obvious that all of our llamas had recognized something new in our neighborhood, something that worried them. But what was it? What had my guardians seen that I had not?
This past weekend, we burned the remnants of the trees taken down by last year’s tornado through the Timber. I figured that this was a good time to take a look around as we waited for all those big trunks and root balls to finish burning. Although I looked for tracks in the Timber Pasture’s muddier places, I found nothing to indicate a return of the coyotes that used to run through that area or any sign of random dog tracks from our neighbors’ big dogs who, many years ago, used to run free in our Timber. All seemed calm and quiet — nothing to worry about.
Yet the fact that all of our guards were on alert stuck with me. It doesn’t take much at this time of year to scare the flock enough to cause abortions. And a single domesticated dog with a high prey drive can kill off nearly an entire flock in one night, given the right circumstances. The sheep were staying closer to the barns, and when they did venture out, they flocked around the llama for protection. There was obviously something amiss; I just didn’t know what.
Yesterday we went out to catch a movie with my brother, who is visiting from out of state. Instead of taking our usual route into town, heading north away from our acreage, we set out via the road to the west, which runs past our many pastures. As we crested the hill at the southwest corner of our acreage, I suddenly saw exactly what our llamas had been reporting all along: our neighbors were running a new border collie across their fields — adjacent to our Timber! No wonder our llamas had been so confused. They are used to working with black-and-white border collies, allowing our dogs in with me to move the sheep. But this one was new, and I had not brought it into the flock as one of mine! Was it threat? Was it safe and allowed in to move sheep? They had no idea what to do with this new dog in town. Now, it was finally clear to me!
I don’t know whether this dog is a permanent addition to the neighborhood or if it belongs to holiday visitors who will leave in a week or two. In any case, the flock has decided to graze closer to the barns for the time being — which is a relief not only to me but, I suspect, to our guardian llamas as well. We’ll play this day by day, waiting to see whether this new neighbor is one we will have to work around long-term. Only time will tell.