The predators move ever closer. I have seen more bears this year than all my years living here put together. Coyotes howl on the ridge tops and we shepherds anxiously count our sheep each morning. We’ve lost 16 this year, another neighbor has lost 15, and yet another 13. There are bones scattered in every meadow and pasture. The local trapper announced at a recent meeting that these wily canines and hungry ursines are here to stay and we will just have to find a way to coexist. Some farmers are penning their sheep every night, others are using llamas and Great Pyrenees dogs as sentries in their flocks and others are just giving up.
Coyotes are cruel hunters. They kill by biting the ewe or lamb in the neck and then hanging on until the animal suffocates. I don’t think I would mind it so much, if they would just eat what they kill, but often they eat a chunk or two and then move on. At least bears drag the lambs off and bury them for future meals.
My neighbor, Cindy, has been penning her lambs each night in a small lot with snares set in the areas where a coyote might creep through the fence, but the coyotes are avoiding those holes and digging new ones to get to the sheep. She was in tears the other day as she told me about the loss of her five year old daughter’s pet lamb. Cindy hasn’t broken the news to her, yet. Instead, she went and bought a guard llama. The llama comes with a guarantee. If a coyote succeeds in getting past its hooves and head then the vet who sold it to Cindy will replace it with another or refund her money. This is a serious business. But Cindy’s daughter is interested in her new and strange looking pet because it is cute. The llama stands a whole sheep taller than the ewes it guards. His neck rises above them like a periscope and he is constantly turning his head and flicking his ears as he scans for danger. His name is Charlie and although he lost a lamb the first night, he has since bonded with the flock and fought off all predators. Cindy told me that the first time Charlie saw a black Angus cow, he charged it. Her guess is that the cow looked too much like a bear for Charlie’s taste. The sheep follow along behind Charlie in a single file line. When he moves to greener pastures, they parade behind as he leads them safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
The sheep have come to trust the llama and it seems their trust is well placed. So, another of my neighbors may stay in business after all. In a community that seems constantly under threat from a spiraling economy and an ever-encroaching predator population, that is good news indeed.