Yesterday morning I arrived at the farm to find all the sheep out of their fencing and bunched together, their heads high and nervous. As I drove down the dirt driveway the entire flock ran to my truck, bleating. My sheep are not very tame but they were obviously frightened — and any port in a storm.
For the past few weeks I have fenced them at night on Allen’s peninsula and my future backyard behind the garage. As I have had to feed hay anyway, I thought I might as well clear this gravelly area of weeds and simultaneously fertilize it. Every morning I turned the flock into the south pasture; every evening I brought them in to this near paddock. The system had worked perfectly.
But now the electric netting for the night enclosure was down, major sections in two places at opposite ends of the large paddock lying on the ground. Something had run right through the fence. Twice.
My first thought was a bear. People in the area have reported them.
Then I found the above canine paw print in the mud.
So: it was either a large coyote or the neighbor’s dog, half Siberian Husky, half wolf. I chased that dog away from the end of the farm driveway only a week ago, and telephoned the neighbors. But they had apologized and promised they had now repaired the dog’s shock collar.
I’ve seen several coyotes in recent months. Two have been small. One was at the far end of the back pasture, trotting into the field from state land and then melting back into the woods when he saw me. The other was in the north pasture, repeatedly scavenging for drops under my apple tree. My major concern both times was that the sightings were in broad daylight. In the case of the apple tree, I watched the coyote over the heads of my oblivious geese, who were grazing and gabbling in the grass only a couple hundred yards closer to the barn. Again, however, when I was spotted, the coyote ran away.
So I was unprepared for the boldness of the coyote I saw in late August. It was just after lunch. I was at the south edge of the back field, sweating to unload a pile of rocks from my stone boat. I was slightly hidden behind a spit of land and the wind was blowing in my direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a large brown shape cantering across the pasture above me. “A deer in the daylight!” I thought, and took a step out from behind the spit for a better look.
It was not a deer. It was a very, very large coyote — the largest I had ever seen — cantering lazily across the open field. At my movement the big coyote swiveled his head to gaze in my direction, dark ears pricked, but did not hesitate or change his course. In a moment he had passed me and vanished into the forest on the far side.
I was so startled I immediately fished out my phone and texted to DH, “Just saw a giant coyote in the back field!”
“Get a picture?” he texted back.
No — but that was the day my dear barn cat Freddie disappeared.
In talking to neighbors and friends over the following week I learned that several had seen this huge, wolf-sized coyote. Dave, a teacher at school, had been hiking with his Labrador Retriever when he met the coyote on the trail. The animal was so bold and fearless — so completely unfazed by either human or dog — that it suddenly occurred to Dave that the big coyote might be trailing him. He stooped and picked up two chunky rocks, with the vague idea of clapping them into the coyote’s skull in the case of an attack.
Yesterday I could find no prints on the dry gravel to read the story of what had happened to scare the flock — but the large lengths of downed fence told their own tale. The sheep themselves must have run through the electric netting. First in one direction, then the other.
The enclosure was large enough that to panic them to such an extent the coyote must have been inside the fencing — perhaps he had leapt down from Allen’s high stone retaining wall, which (very foolishly, I now realized) I had run a section of the netting alongside. I was very lucky that none of the sheep were hurt.
I try not to resent predators; they’re just animals trying to make a living. I always remind myself that I’m the one with the college education — I ought to be able to figure out a way to outsmart a coyote. Still, I am aware that with the long drought all our predators are more desperate for food. In early summer we had at least half a dozen woodchucks living on the farm. By September they had all been picked off. Last week, for the first time ever, a raccoon raided my barn. In nearby Old Forge, NY, this summer, a hungry bear ripped through a wall of a candy store — not a door or window, but straight through a sidewall — in search of a meal.
From now through the winter my sheep will be locked safe in the barn at night.