So, we have a lot of coyotes around these parts. There’s lots of food for them. They eat a lot of berries and nuts and stuff, but they also eat lots of insects and little mammal critters when they can catch them, and they will eat a few fawns or a sick adult deer every year. Other than berries mostly they eat voles, moles, mice, and rabbits (rabbits are fast little suckers, though). Coyotes also like to eat lambs.
I knew when I put the sheep in the field that they are in that there are a lot of coyotes back there. I see piles of coyote poop all the time. I see paw prints everywhere too, but they are just as likely to be from monk as they are from a coyote. The poop though, is distinct. It is reddish colored, and full of seeds. So, yesterday, when I turned the corner through the hedgerow in the truck to bring the sheep their morning hay, I wasn’t all that surprised to find a coyote trapped in the electronet paddock with them.
He got in thinking he was going to get a tasty morsel, like a ten pound new born lamb. Instead, he found a flock of 175 pound ewes that would pound him to pulp if he forced them too (their preference would be to run for the hills, of course). I imagine that initially, when the coyote got into the paddock, things were pretty exciting, but by the time I came around the corner, the coyote and the sheep had brokered a truce. The sheep were ignoring him completely. Most were just lounging around near the feeder. A few were standing at the feeder eating.
When the coyote saw me coming, he went ape shit, sprinting from one end of the paddock to the next. It never occurred to him to jump the fence, and he really didn’t want to get shocked (again, it was very clear), so he didn’t try to go through it. He just sprinted from one end to the next, back and forth.
From inside the truck, I did a quick head count and all the sheep were present and accounted for, so, relieved, I then said to myself, “Son of a bitch. There’s a coyote in the paddock, and I need to get him out!” My next thought was, “Goddammit [apologies to the religious folks] I need a friggin’ gun already.” (I’ve been saying that since we moved here nearly six years ago and so far haven’t really needed one [nor did I need one yesterday]). I’ve never herded a coyote before, so I wasn’t sure how that was going to go. What if instead of running away from me, he felt cornered and ran at me? What is a boy to do? Be tough, that’s what! I might not have had a gun, but I was in my truck so that meant I had a tire iron. If he rushed me, I would smash his brain in.
So, I got out of the truck and went around to the passenger side and got the tire iron out of its little compartment, and stepped into the paddock. The coyote was on the far side. My plan was to open up the electronet on the side he was on and then get out of the way and hopefully have him run out. I was certainly not worried the sheep would follow him. Unfortunately, the fence was still on. I needed to walk over to his side in the corner on the side of the paddock that he was on to turn the fence off before I could (would) open it up.
When that coyote — he/she was beautiful, by the way — saw me walking its way, it went really, totally ape shit, and started a full-out gallop back and forth. He was covering 164 feet in about six strides. It was awesome. Then, feeling too much pressure, he said screw it and hit the netting. He pulled up just before slamming into it, so he didn’t hit it full force. As soon as he hit the netting and I saw he wasn’t going to take the netting down and he wasn’t going to get through, I got really nervous. What if he gets tangled?! Oh shit, don’t get tangled! If he got tangled I would have two choices, try to pin him down with my knees and one hand and bash his head with the tire iron until he was dead, or run up to the neighbor’s and rouse them out of bed to get their gun. I didn’t like either idea, but I definitely preferred the latter to the former. Regardless which choice I made, you can’t (shouldn’t) untangle a live coyote from electronet. So, “Oh shit, don’t get tangled!”
I had no choice, so I kept moving towards the corner where the charger is, which unfortunately was where the coyote was. Thankfully, the coyote backed up, backed up, yanked, pulled, and got him/herself free. It doesn’t take a lot to get totally tangled in electronet (don’t ask me how I know), so that was a good bit of luck. Then, once free, off s/he went towards the other end.
“Just jump the friggin’ fence, you fool!” I said in my head as I kept making my way toward the corner while watching the coyote. But, alas, no, it slammed right back into the fence on the other side. This time, however, he hit the fence exactly at the corner, where two fiberglass rod end posts of two separate sections of electornetting came together. Fiberglass gets brittle when it is cold, and yesterday morning was cold. When I heard one of the posts break, the popping sound it made sounded exactly like the electric pop when the fence shocks something, like the nose of a wet canine, really good, so I wasn’t sure what happened. The only thing I was sure of was that the coyote had gotten out. Within a few seconds it was at the other end of the field and had disappeared into the woods.
I checked the fence, cursed that the rod was broken (I can buy a replacement), and then put my tough man tire iron back in the truck and fed the sheep. While they were eating I circled slowly around them, looking them up and down. Nobody was injured. All was well.
Off I went to do the rest of my chores.
So, now what?
Jen suspects that the experience was unpleasant enough that the coyote will not be back. I am hopeful that that is true. I also think that the coyote food bank is still pretty full, so s/he probably isn’t hungry enough to try again. However, if more than one coyote had gotten into the paddock, they could have brought down one of the ewe lambs (about 100 pounds) easy enough. At the very least more than one would have attempted to bring one down, meaning I would have had a very badly injured sheep on my hands.
After a lot of deliberation, I decided not to move the sheep back over to the home farm where there is less coyote pressure, but where I would run the risk of rams taking down the electronet because I wouldn’t be able to keep the breeding groups far enough apart.
I hope I didn’t make the wrong decision, and writing this up has made me want to go make sure there isn’t a coyote in the paddock with the sheep, but it is only 4:30, so there are still two hours until daylight, which means that even if I go over now, a coyote, or a whole pack, might get in between now and dawn, which as I understand it, is one of their preferred hunting times.
What if I had had a gun? Should I have shot the coyote? I have written about this on the blog before, but only briefly, so I will state my position again. I am reluctant, from an ecological standpoint, to kill animals at the top of the food chain, unless those animals are being particularly troublesome. As we all know, the shape of the food “chain” is actually a pyramid. There are lots and lots and lots of critters at the bottom of the chain, but very few, population-wise, at the top. Killing even one of those at the top can tip the balance of the entire micro-ecology (the backside of the mountain and surrounding fields of the farm). For example, what if that coyote was a pack leader and I killed it? The pack dynamics would change. What if the new leader really liked trying to eat sheep, but had had this desire kept in check by the now displaced (because dead) pack leader? What if the pack leader was a tough SOB and was the sole reason that that particular pack had been controlling the turf of the fields on which I have had livestock, including tasty little baby pigs, with no trouble at all, even yesterday when a coyote actually got into the sheep paddock? What if one of the rival packs displaced the dead coyote’s pack because that tough SOB was dead and the rival pack had a penchant for eating little pigs and working as a pack to bring down adult sheep?
The reality is that in spite of what happened yesterday, the farm is in good ecological balance. The predator population respects, generally-speaking, my electronet, or, it has no interest in what is inside of it because there is plenty outside of it. Of course, if I go out there today and there is a dead or injured sheep or that coyote is in the paddock again, or there is evidence that it tried to get in, then I have a problem. But, even then, my response will not be to trap and/or kill the coyote. It will be to move the sheep, and wait and see what happens next season.
Keep in mind when dealing with top of the food chain critters that killing even one can change the whole ecological dynamics of your farm. If you are not really having any problems that is because the resident group is not causing any problems, so if you see a random coyote in the field, or even inside the fence, leave it be. Just because the coyote is inside the fence does not mean that all of a sudden you are going to have a rash of sheep predation. Look what happened yesterday. The coyote got in, realized it had made a mistake, and then stayed so far away from the sheep that the sheep, which are extremely anxious critters, were totally disinterested in it; they were acting as if it weren’t even there.
If on the other hand, your resident coyotes are aggressive livestock hunters, then by all means kill them and wait to see what the behavior of the pack that moves in to replace them is like (and there will be a next pack). You might end up in a vicious series of aggressive packs, or, the pack that moves in might not be interested in your sheep or little pigs or chickens, or whatever, and an ecological balance that works for farmer and wildlife will be established.
In spite of the length of time before dawn, my imagination has got the best of me, and I am going to check on the sheep. I still don’t have a gun, and a tire iron is awfully short, so I think I am going to throw my Rogue hoe field hoe in the truck. The handle is six feet long and the head is sharp as an axe and weighs about three pounds. I hate even the idea of it, but, never forget, those sheep, while cute and fluffy and all of that are actually little bundles — big bundles! — of money, and while I will do my best to work with my predators, those bundles of money come first.
[Note: I am back from checking on the sheep. The sheep all looked and stared at me, vacantly. In other words, all is well.]