Monday, February 20, 2012

Predator and prey

Yesterday, while spreading hay in the pasture, Dave found a footprint in the crusty snow. It wasn’t a hoof print, we see them so often that we don’t notice them any more. It was a large, rounded print with four pads and what could be indentations of claws.

“Have you brought Newton out here I asked?” Dave shook his head.
“Coyote or big cat? Bob cat?”

We glanced around At least four perimeter pastures opened into this pasture. All their gates were open. I headed to the house for the camera, a ruler, and the Field Guide to Animal Tracks, and Dave set off across the pasture to close gates.

The tracks were 2” front to back, and 2.5” wide. Red fox. Foxes ate mice and shrews; not even in the coldest, most snowbound winter would they take down a baby lamb, and this had been a mild, open winter. We relaxed.

Just as coyotes and bobcats act like predators, the sheep behave like prey. When Dave checked the sheep that evening he could hear coyotes yipping in the far distance. All the sheep were in the barn and Kaylie, the alpaca, was standing guard just outside the barn door. Dave closed the gate to the feeding pasture so that the animals were confined to the barnyard, our most secure space.

When I went out at 11 PM, 56 and her twins were out in the barnyard, but not together. The lambs were both baaing, their voices high and vulnerable sounding. They were within twenty feet of their mother, but she ignored them and concentrated on eating. and they were too young to have learned to walk around the feeder to find her.

I fed and watered the ewes in the jugs and checked to make sure that their lambs stretched, a sure sign that they were getting enough milk. 56’s lambs’ baas followed me as I walked toward the house, their voices clear and piercing in the quiet night. ‘Those baas will carry a long way,’ I thought, ‘perhaps as far as the coyotes.’ I returned to the barnyard and herded the lambs gently around a feeder until they found their mother and quiet descended on the flock.

As I walked back to the house, I listened carefully for the yip of a coyote. Silence, that deep night country silence not disturbed by the sound of cars or even of dogs barking, surrounded me. I shut the night and its silence outside, dropped my coveralls on the floor beside my boots, and climbed the stairs with Newton’s toenails clicking on each step behind me. I snuggled into bed next to Dave and breathed the prayer of all shepherds everywhere. ‘May I be the only predator my flock knows.’

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