Face to face

Since it is my habit to check on each of the sub-flocks of sheep each day (lambs, ewes, and rams), I am currently making my way out every afternoon to check on the ewes in the Timber where they are grazing. Unlike other, smaller pastures, when I check on the sheep there, I must at least enter the pasture – there is no good external viewing point from which I can see the entire field or the sheep in it.

Some visits, I bring graham crackers to encourage the ewes to crowd around me, reducing the distance I need to walk to see each of the girls. On other visits, I walk among them, making my way around the entire field, and giving my friends a scratch or pat as I go by. The goal of each visit is to lay eyes on each girl, checking to see whether any of them are injured, exhibit evidence of parasite overload or illness. The typical visit lasts about ten or fifteen minutes and requires nothing on my part but a bit of friendly banter and a casual stroll around a park-like setting – it is one of the highlights of my day.

On Thursday afternoon last week, I was on my way out to visit my ovine friends and came to the gate between the Fire Circle Pasture and the Timber, through which I must walk to get to join the ewes. As I opened the gate, I noticed the ewes all lying about beneath the clump of trees in the center of the pasture. It was a warm and sunny day, and the ewes had spent much of the morning grazing – they were now lounging and working on digesting what they had found, cudding in the dense shade. Honestly, as the gate closed behind me, I wondered to myself whether any of them would come to greet me – they all looked so very comfortable in the cool shade, enjoying the day and the comfort of their nearby flockmates.

I took only a few steps into the pasture when suddenly, I saw movement downhill to my right – rapid movement. At first, I wasn’t sure what I saw, but from instinct, I paused – the sudden activity to my right signaled to me that something had panicked with my arrival and I didn’t want to disturb the flock. I froze in place as I suddenly realized that our resident fox had been resting near the water tank in the same pasture, just a bit removed from the flock. Obviously, a truce had been reached between the fox and the llamas in that field (Martin and Howie) – it was not so long ago that I had been watching them chase the poor creature back and forth across various pastures. Now, it had been resting within fifty feet of the ewe flock!

The fox ran up to the top of the hill where I stood and then suddenly stopped only about thirty feet in front of me, turning to meet my gaze. I stood frozen, afraid to startle the fox. It stood there, looking at me for some time. It no longer seemed particularly concerned about my presence – perhaps the fact that the sheep and llamas were unconcerned and still unmoving gave this creature confidence that I meant no harm.

We stood like that, only feet between us, looking each other over. This fox was beautiful – I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one so near. The red coat was surprisingly thick-looking for summer, and glistened in the sun. The white areas were surprisingly white – I remember thinking that if my dogs lived outside 24/7 like this fox, there was no way their white areas would be as clean-looking. I could see its whiskers twitch and its nose sniffing at the air, trying to pick up my scent. After several minutes of this face-to-face encounter, the fox turned and looked at the flock, still resting in the shade, but now watching us to see what would happen. The fox turned to look toward the roadside ditch on the other side of the south fence and then slowly moved away, disappearing between the wires of the fence.

As soon as the fox was out of sight, my good friends among the ewe flock began to get up and stretch, ambling over to greet me upon my entry to their pasture as usual. As they got their scratches and rubs, more of the ewes stood up and came forward. The spell that had held us all in place had been broken, but for a moment, I had stood face-to-face with a beautiful, wild creature that I typically only see from afar. It is not an experience I will soon forget.

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