I was out finishing up my chores this morning and throwing the Frisbee for the dogs when I came upon a troubling find in the lush grass of the East Pasture. This particular field lies between our Storage Barn where the non-lactating ewes are housed, the Ram Shelter where the rams are living, and our road on its eastern border. As I walked with my canine buddy Chance, he happened to show exceptional interest in something lying in the tall grass. Now, you should know that Chance is one of those dogs who is always hungry – always! It doesn’t matter what it is, if he can chew it, he considers it food.
With Chance so very happy with his find in the grass, I thought I would take a closer look – he was way too happy for it to be his typical find of sheep manure or, more commonly this time of year, broken egg shells from hatching birds. As I approached, I immediately called him off of it as I recognized that it was the leg of some previously living creature. It was old and dried up, but Chance obviously thought it was the best thing he could possibly have found; I was particularly happy that all of our dogs are well trained to “leave it” upon command in this type of situation.
This type of find is quite troubling to me as a shepherd. The animal from which it came is obviously bigger than a sheep. I have no idea whether this was cow or deer, but it was big; if it was killed, whatever took it down could easily also take a sheep. I have no idea how it died, but something dragged this remnant of life into our field and worked on devouring it there; I could see the marks of teeth on bone.
As I stood there inspecting Chance’s find, my mind flashed over the possibilities. It would not be the first time that hunters had disposed of a deer carcass in the ditch of our road, so I couldn’t be sure that this animal had been killed by a predator other than human. Even if it was a cow or calf, it could have been left in a field to rot; when we purchased our acreage many years ago, it was a cattle grazing area and we found quite a number of old bleached out bones lying in our fields. The raccoon that we chased out of the barns could easily be living nearby and found this free meal lying about and dragged it into our field to devour. We also have two fox dens within about forty feet of this discovery, and fox also dine on carrion. Finally – and worst of all – it was possible that one of the local coyotes had dragged it in, feasting on this free meal.
It was this last possibility that made me catch my breath. We hear the local coyotes each night now, howling and yapping, announcing their presence. We can hear their pups yipping in the night, and we know they must feed their young – but hopefully not with lamb. We have always understood that coyotes and fox do not share territory – that if foxes are present, the coyotes are not. When coyotes move in, we’ve been told, they chase the foxes out, so if you have foxes, you are safe from the predatory behavior of the nearby coyotes.
It was for this reason that we began to encourage the foxes in the area to stay years ago. We’ve allowed them to feast on the dropped fruit in the orchard rather than picking it up for the sheep. We’ve left their dens undisturbed and even set up temporary panels around the den openings to prevent the sheep from bothering them in their homes. I even occasionally leave a cracked egg lying in our orchard for a quick fox meal – they can’t get to the chickens in the chicken yard, but that is no reason to deny them an occasional broken egg!
Over the last few years, we’ve been quite successful in attracting foxes to live in the immediate area – we now have two functioning dens on our acreage and another just across the street in the roadside bank. I’m expecting to see this year’s pups at any time, playing roadside and beginning to discover the world around their homes. A fox is little threat to our sheep, and our lambs are protected inside until they are too big for the much smaller foxes. We’ve been happy to live side-by-side, knowing that the foxes are evidence that the much bigger and more dangerous coyotes still hunt far from our farm and sheep.
Yet, this disturbing find made me seriously consider whether my mental image of life on our farm was merely a figment of my imagination. Had the coyotes moved in without my knowledge? Were they literally eating their midnight snack only feet from my rams and ewes? The cold fear that comes with such a thought gripped at my heart and my pulse began to accelerate with a tinge of panic. I scoured the surrounding earth looking for footprints. Would I find the small familiar prints of the fox or the much larger prints of the dreaded coyote? Unfortunately, I found neither since Chance had obliterated anything in what little dirt was exposed with his own footprints in his excitement.
I guess now we wait and see what happens. Our lambs and their mothers go out into the Timber Pasture on Sunday or Monday, where they will have no shelter. I am usually a bit apprehensive when they first go out, but this year, it might be a bit worse. As their shepherdess, I cannot help but worry.