Thursday, May 24, 2007


Spring Lambs

Two weeks ago I learned that cougar tracks don't show claws. Think of your cat's muddy paw prints on the windshield. No claw marks. Seems cats walk on the soft pads as they stalk their prey. Everything I learned about cougars reminded me of Bubba's killing techniques for the local small fauna around our house, except cougars go after larger prey, like lambs. Four lambs to be exact.

If you have ever tried to count lambs, it takes two people and about five tries each until the numbers jibe. I hadn't been in the habit of counting our 23 lambs because I didn't realize we had a problem. I had thought the biggest problem was going to be the birthing part this year. Were the lambs coming out forward, or backward, or stuck, too big, too small, rejected by their mothers? ...problems like that.

On reflection, the lambs were probably picked off one at a time. On further reflection, the ewe, as wide as a house one day and seemly not pregnant the next, probably had her lambs snatched as soon as she gave birth under the old cedar in the back field. These lambs weren't even part of the count of four.

I'm not sure I would have noticed the trouble we were in, even with four missing, except for the lamb hobbling in from the field as we came back from our walk. Allen saw him first. Just a week earlier we had had another injured lamb, but I had chalked that up to playground antics with her siblings twice her size. We had actually named Bambi at birth because she stood out from her coal black brother and sister. She was small, but fiesty, having to scavenge milk from unsuspecting ewes because her brother and sister hogged all the teats at her own table, so to speak. And, then one day, she couldn't put any weight on her back leg and she lived in the barn for a week until she could, and she took the place of Snickers for awhile.

Now we had a large, white lamb hopping on three legs, following behind his mom. Again, Karen and Allen were there to help me. Always seems they are around when I most need them. Even so, it took all three of us to catch the injured lamb. Amazing how nimble he was on just three legs! We made a soft bed of hay for him and his mother in the same stall Bambi had left just days ago.

I couldn't tell what was wrong with the leg, except it was horribly swollen, especially around the knee. Lambs don't wince or cry out so I could only guess. Broken? Sprained? Was I even looking at the right place? It was when I checked the chart, I realized there should have been two lambs with this ewe, not one. Allen was looking out at the sheep herded around the mangers. He asked how many babies I was supposed to have because I seemed short. That's when we started counting and counting and re-counting.

We spent several hours hiking the property looking for signs of lost lambs, maybe caught in a culvert or lost up a trail. There was absolutely no sign of them. I think I was still hopeful when I went out again in the afternoon. Maybe we had just missed them. Annie and I saddled the horses for a different view of the woods. The trails were slick, the leaves filling in the forest and making it hard to see ahead. Our dogs came with us and, at one point, Cisco disappeared into a dense thicket. Not a place we could follow on the horses, or really even on foot. Full of blackberries, thimbleberries and snags hidden under years of leaves and rotten brush. In hindsight, we might have had an answer sooner if we had followed him. In hindsight, we should have been carrying a gun.

It took me several days to figure out which lambs were gone. Mostly, I looked for ewes with singles, tried to get a look at the number on the ear tags, tried to figure if there were lambs with identifying markings that were gone. I tallied my sheet: two females and two males; two were woolies, two were Katahdins. I closed the gates and kept the sheep near the house day and night, until the grass was short and we hadn't lost any more lambs. Then I started to let them out in the daylight, hoping the cougar only worked at night.

Several days ago, while walking in the woods looking for downed trees to bring in for wood next winter, our neighbor Dave lost his dog Tyke into the very thicket where Cisco had disappeared. Dave dove in after his dog and soon called to Annie, "You better get over here." She crawled in far enough to see patches of wool and a leg bone. It was enough. She's a tender-hearted girl when it comes to the lambs.

As cougars don't usually eat their prey all at once,this was a perfect spot, with dense foliage above and a den-like understory below, protected from the visual and olfactory senses of our resident vultures. For lambs and humans it was spooky and hard to get to. Also hard to get away, if one needed. My lesson on cougars had included their technique of killing - taking the quarry by surprise from behind, snapping the neck for an instant kill, dragging it out of the open and into the woods. Maybe Annie wasn't just being tender-hearted. She knew when to back out of a lion's den.

It's happened again. After two weeks of counting lambs morning and night, I came up one short yesterday. I counted and re-counted; I walked around the barn and looked in all the lamb hiding places; I made the sheep walk single file past me at the gate. Always the number was 19, not 20. Today, I finally tallied the lambs I had and the lambs I was missing. This last was a Katahdin again, a male. Funnily enough he was white, just like the others. Are the white ones easier to see and, therefore, easier to catch?

I can't rest easy now until we have a solution, since we can't sit around and let the lambs get picked off one by one. Will it be dogs or traps or snares? Does anyone even care to trap this cat alive? What a waste of a beautiful animal. For now, the radio will play rap music at the barn (because I can't get the classical station to tune in) and we will keep a light on at night. I've rounded the sheep up as close to humankind as possible. Our neighbor's llama has been suggested as a defender. Another friend has a Great Pyrenees, but the dog is 10 years old and past her prime.

None of the solutions seem ideal. But, I can't keep losing lambs. We are at that point where the 'rubber hits the road', or in this instance, where the cougar needs to hit the road, because the alternative is sad and gruesome for either the lambs or the cat, and there can be no happy ending to this farm story. be continued...

These two lambs were born after the first cougar attack in the loafing shed. We kept them in the barn for two weeks just to be safe. Lucky for them, they are brown!

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