Thursday, February 24, 2011

All the Sheep Were Lost

In the summer when the grass has dried and gone brown, we have had cases of disappearing sheep because our fields are not fenced against the mountain. So, it was with some surprise to realize we had lost sheep on this winter day.

When I went to feed in the early evening it appeared only half the herd had shown up at the barn. There's a regular routine of fields to rotate through, back to the barn for a siesta, more fields to graze in the afternoon, then back for a dinner of last summer's hay and a quiet, safe bed-down for the night.

It's called a routine for a reason. There are certain expectations for all concerned. Today only half the sheep seemed to remember my concerns: predators in the woods versus a restful night's sleep for the shepherdess. Okay, and I had also left feeding until later than usual!

With the daylight of spring still far off, dusk was rushing in and, by my count, we were missing 18 ewes, all of them pregnant. Do the math and we could be talking an additional 30 potential lambs. As I stomped from field to field whistling, clapping my hands, and grumbling under my breath, I saw no sign of moving bodies, even bodies bedded down for the night. The sun seemed to drop precipitously behind the mountains and our valley was full of shadows.

I walked from the end of our lowest field clear up through the underbrush to our neighbor's property and then farther to the next. No sounds, no movement, no flashlight. I returned to the house for one and solicited our daughter, Annie's, help. She took off in her car in one direction. Our neighbors, who had now been called to be on the look-out, hopped into their truck to check out some of the logging roads at the back of our properties. This is where country neighbors really rock and neighbors who know the back roads are the best!

Since walking up in our woods can get a little scary in the dark, and Greg had just returned home from work, he offered to change and come out with me. Had I checked up the hill in the clear cut? Well, I had made it up part-way but turned back figuring they wouldn't have gone that far. Hmmm, Greg was not convinced and started up the Mule so we could drive. Forget the hiking. This was taking too long.

We four-wheeled it to a fallen tree. We looked with flashlights. We whistled. We started hiking up the hill. I went ahead and then turned back. But, "Had I checked in the clear-cut?"

"Well, not exactly."

I turned around with Greg behind me as we tripped over fallen branches and squeezed around road blocks. As we shined our flashlights up the hill, all of a sudden there were dozens of eyes reflected in the light. A herd of deer? A large band of raccoons? Something more sinister - weren't cougars loners? The mind goes wild in dark woods. Was this our missing band of sheep?

The dog took off after them, pushing them up the hill away from us instead of back down to the trail. I yelled before we lost the sheep again. Thus began a tripping, falling, scramble to move the sheep through the woods, over the dead fall, and back to the barn.

At one point the flock divided into two groups. We yelled. We clapped our hands. We hoped the groups had figured out how to join-up, but sheep in the night are worse than sheep in the day - unpredictably dull-witted.

We drove the skittish animals off the mountain as best we could and returned most to the light of the barn, dry digs, and a hay dinner. The few that were left in the dense underbrush were just going to have to keep their heads down for the night and hide silently as they had done from us.

The good news is that the stragglers appeared in the morning outside the gates and begged back in. The shepherdess had learned her lesson about the lack of forage in the fields and opened up the planted pasture earlier than planned but with fences on all sides.

Other lessons learned or re-learned: the light fails fast in winter, sheep will go just about anywhere for food especially if there are no fences, sheep bed down at dusk no matter where they are, reflecting eyes in the dark are really cool but best if they are sheep and not a herd of cougars (as if!)!

Photos: daylight reflection (red-eye) sheep make them look as scary as anything else in the woods. Imagine this magnified in the dark!

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2011 Scottie Jones

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