There is one word that sends shivers through the heart of sheep ranchers besides wolves, eagles and bears. It is COYOTES!. People ask me if predators ever get our sheep. Mostly they are thinking timber wolves.

“Not that I know of, ” I tell them. “We have coyotes, and I heard that coyotes and wolves don’t occupy the same territories.”

“So having coyotes is a good thing?”

“Not exactly. They are smaller than wolves so they are less likely to kill a full grown sheep. But they can develop a taste for lamb especially in the spring when they are feeding their young.”

“So, what do you do?.”

“I lamb early and don’t let the lambs go out on pasture.”

I did have a serious problem one time with canines killing the sheep. I went out one morning to find a couple ewes in the barn lot that had been killed and some others that were torn up. It was horrible. It’s a helpless feeling because there isn’t anything you can do if you don’t catch the culprits in the act. The worst thing is the likelihood of their returning after they have tasted blood is pretty good.

At that time we had a family of geese on the farm. I am not crazy about geese because they do two annoying things. One, they sneak up behind kids and wives and “goose” them. If you have ever been pinched on the butt when you’re not expecting it, it’s not funny. Mrs. Ed has a pretty quick left hook, but that’s another story. The other bad thing about geese is they like to make themselves at home, like on the front door step and sidewalk. They leave little treats for you to step in.

Geese do have one redeeming quality. They are great at sounding alarms when something is out of the ordinary. That night I chased the family of geese in the barn and made a little pen for them. They weren’t happy because I corralled them before they left their treats. As anyone who has goose experience knows, adult geese are very protective of their young. They do a lot of honking and wing flapping if they think their goslings are in danger.

Dusk followed by darkness came. I went to bed with an uneasy feeling. Even though it was cold outside, I kept the bedroom window open. Half asleep, I kept my ear’s on high alert. The night nearly passed without incident. It was about the time when the first rooster announces the new day that the geese let loose. The instant uproar sent me straight up and out of bed. Flying downstairs to where I had readied my trusty shot gun. I pulled on my old coat, jumped in my boots and sped towards the barn. Even before I reached the door I knew something was seriously wrong. The commotion included sheep baaing, chickens cackling and geese honking and flapping their wings.

I carefully opened the door to the entryway. It was still dark in the barn. I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear I would give the killers a chance to escape. I crept in. The noise masked the squeak in the door hinges. I had the gun loaded and ready to fire. Then I saw them! The sheep, in full panic were piled up in a corner. Two ugly looking snarling dogs had them trapped. One bloody sheep lay sprawled out on the straw. Intent on stalking their next victim, the beasts didn’t even look at me when I raised the gun.

I don’t particularly like guns and I don’t like shooting animals. This is one time I did not hesitate, and I did not miss. Unfortunately for me, the second dog did not wait around. He disappeared into the dark cover of the nearby woods. He never returned. The dead dog had a collar but no identification. We called the police to let them know what happened and a little blurb appeared in the local paper. Hopefully whoever owned the dogs read it and tied the animal up.

This story has a lighter side. Faced with the possibility of predation, I consulted my trusty sheep books. There were three options. Get a guard dog, some European breed that lives with the sheep. The more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. It seems these dogs are very protective and in some cases, consider people intruders. Maybe a little too harsh, I thought. Might be harder to get a stranger to do chores. The second option was a guard llama. Ranchers in South Dakota had been using them for years. At that time there weren’t too many llamas around so that would have taken some time to find one.

The third option was a guard donkey. Hey, I thought, that sounds pretty good. Mrs. Ed wasn’t so easily convinced. “Are you sure donkeys will guard sheep?” “Of, course, it says so here in the book.”

Did I mention it was almost Christmas? Matt was a youngster. I bet if he asked Santa for a donkey mom would not have any reservations. Probably best not to trouble her with having to contact Santa and make the arrangements as she was busy trying to decide what to get for me.

To make a longer story shorter, Santa had a surplus donkey he was willing to part with for a small shipping and handling fee. Arrangements were made, Santa delivered Cracker Jack on Christmas morning with a big red bow around his neck. Smiles abounded.

Cracker Jack lived with the horses that winter, being he was of the equine persuasion. Spring came, lambs were born and fresh green grass sprouted in the pasture. The day came when it was time to release the flock unto greener pastures. It was time to unleash Cracker Jack, the guard donkey.

I had a pen outside the barn where the ewes with lambs went after the lambs were a week or two old. The lambs had grown well and some of the bigger ones had reached 40 pounds. I figured I’d put Cracker in with them before I opened the pasture gate. I did. I slipped around the corner to watch. Cracker was a curious fellow. He sniffed each ewe. He walked slowly and carefully up to the lambs. “So far, so good,” I thought. Then he did the unexpected. He reached down, grabbed a 40 pound lamb by the neck with his teeth and started shaking it. Coyotes are about 40 pounds. Donkeys take care of coyotes by grabbing and shaking them. It was a heck of a time to find out Cracker Jack, the guard donkey, didn’t know the difference between sheep and coyotes. I hollered at him. He dropped the lamb and immediately grabbed a full size sheep. I suppose he thought he was supposed to get the big ones.

As funny as it wasn’t, I wish I had a camera. A 400-pound Jerusalem donkey standing there with a 150 pound sheep hanging out of his mouth. I don’t know who was more surprised, the ewe or me.
Finally the wool gave way and the sheep dropped, hitting the ground at full stride. Cracker Jack stood there looking at me, a tuft of wool in his mouth as if to say,” I showed that coyote a thing or two.” He then proceeded to eat the wool.

Mrs Ed asked me later how things went. “Pretty good”, I said. “That donkey has guarding instincts for sure. Only one problem though.”

“What’s that?”

“I think he really misses the horses. I think he would be happier with them.”

Mrs. Ed is a very kind and sensitive person. “If you think so. But what are you going to do about the coyotes?”

“Interesting you ask, I located a llama ….”

Young Matt Nelson aboard Cracker Jack

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