Grit Blogs > Musings From Maine

Animal Olympics

Mitch LittlefieldOne of the more subtle things I liked to watch while growing up on the three farms my family operated was the “community” that existed between the various breeds of animals, and the even clearer relationship between animals of a common breed. It was interesting to see how the sheep would interact with the cows, or how the horses and ducks got along. To the casual observer, the larger animals went where they wanted and the smaller breeds would move out of their way, otherwise they would tend to ignore each other.

Not always the case. 

The pecking order on the farm was not necessarily breed specific, although sometimes it was. 

For example, horses were the kings of the pasture. They were the largest, strongest, fastest, and one of the more intelligent of the animals. The cows intermingled easily enough with the horses as they offered no aggression towards the horses, or anything or anyone else either. In fact, the horses would typically look after the cows and would alert them to the fact something was askew, such as someone walking through the pasture on his way to the creek with a fishing pole over his shoulder. The horses would watch intently, while the cows seemed not to notice. They would be contentedly chewing away at the green grass. However, if the horses felt encroached upon or nervous and started moving away from the stranger in the pasture, the cows would dutifully follow them to another section. 

livestock | Fotolia/acceleratorharris

Photo: Fotolia/acceleratorharris

If a bull in season was added to the mix, the horses basically figured the cows were on their own and stayed far away. It’s kinda funny, 11 months of the year, most of the bulls we had were as docile and, frankly, as stupid as the cows, but when they were in season, they became highly combative and were to be avoided. I remember one day when I was a teenager. I was at Unc Gene’s farm, and I decided to climb a golden delicious apple tree inside the pasture about 30 feet from the road. My intent was to snag a few of those delicious apples. As it happened, this bull we called ol' Blue took offense to the fact I was in his crib. He decided to express his displeasure by head-butting the tree I was in, and then he decided to wait me out, pawing and snorting at the base of the tree. 

Cousin Genie and Unc Gene thought this was highly entertaining as they were watching from the porch and laughing it up. 

I figured I wouldn’t starve at least, the apples were really really good. Ironically, I was in this predicament because I figured it would score me some brownie points with Unc Gene, as these were his favorite apples, and I had intended to take him a few of the more pristine ones. 

The two of them did attempt to be helpful however as Genie hollered over, “Jump down on his back and ride him.” 

I recall that I dropped a fantastically perfect apple accidentally when I gave Cuz the ol' one finger salute at this suggestion.

The apple, in fact, bounced off the head of Ole Blue, which was akin to throwing a cotton ball at a rock. It did, however, give me an idea. I figured maybe I could entice the bull to chase after a few apples and forget about me, I didn’t need much, it was only 30 feet to the gate. 

Life lesson No. 9989: Bulls don’t eat apples or chase them. 

Life lesson No. 9990: One should never start throwing a bunch of Unc’s favorite apples all over the pasture. 

At least Unc stopped laughing at me and made Genie send his dog, Rex, into the pasture to yap and drive Ole Blue back to the herd of cows some 300 feet away in the lower end of the pasture. 

None of the animals messed with the dog. The dog was the uber drill sergeant of the farmyard. And, I didn’t mess with Unc Gene. I had to retrieve all the apples I threw … all the while keeping a wary eye on Blue. 

It’s important to note here that my family also operated a farm we dubbed the “Other Farm,” which abutted Unc Gene’s farm. The Other Farm was where most of the livestock were kept, and the animals could easily be moved from one pasture or one farm to another. These two farms totaled about 350 acres of pasture, hayfields, a couple of farm ponds, a fantastic trout stream, and about 100 acres of forest, or as we say here in Maine, “woods.” It remains, to this day, the most beautiful land in this county. 

Anyway, watching the sheep was another interesting slice of barnyard culture. The sheep typically stayed together in a scattered cluster but off to themselves. Sheep are one of the most defenseless animals I’ve ever known, and so they tend to stay away from all other animals, which is somewhat of a paradox. They would be much safer if they stayed among the other animals. This became an ever-increasing problem as the coyote population here in Maine continued to grow through the 1970s. 

sheep | Fotolia/marilyn barbone

Photo: Fotolia/marilyn barbone

Coyotes terrorized the sheep, on occasion, killing several in a night. To further complicate the problem, coyotes are incredibly resourceful, very intelligent, and almost impossible to stop. They are too smart to be trapped, poisoning them was out of the question, and hunting them was almost laughable. The only real option was to let them come to you, which meant spending many nights sitting in the old ‘49 Willy’s jeep, hidden in bushes, on the edge of the pasture, with high-powered rifles, hoping for enough moonlight to pick one up in the scope. Coyotes hunt at night, another sign of their cleverness. They usually hunted in packs of three or four, but sometimes there would be only one. They are very fast, ruthless and fearless. Typically, they would make the kill quickly, eat the organs – the heart, lungs and liver – and then escape to the woods to hunt another night. They would come in cycles, never staying in the same patch of woods or feasting off the same farm for more than a few nights – very clever animals.

Unc Gene discovered a way to tell if his sheep were going to be attacked that night, which I have always thought epitomizes the term “good ol' Yankee ingenuity.” He came to realize that vultures would begin to flock to the farm and perch on the fences at the edge of the woods just before dark. Unc understood that the vultures followed the coyotes and would feast on the remains of the kill once the coyotes had their fill and had run off into the woods.

Unc Gene and Cousin Genie were both excellent marksmen and shot many coyotes over the course of time. Some of us other men in the family would take our turns from time to time and join them in the all-night vigil of protecting the herd. We were basically there to just offer company. The real responsibility of sitting there, night after long night, always fell on their shoulders. Still, they would be on the farm the next day, working side by side with the others. 

The only time the sheep would naturally intermingle with the other animals was during winter months when they couldn’t graze. Then they were forced to eat from the common piles of hay we tossed out from the barn each morning and night. The sheep had a very noticeable community within the flock. I always marveled at how a mother sheep and her lambs could distinguish each other's bleats from the cacophony of hundreds of such bleats in this cluster of over 400 head. I also found it very heart-warming when a mother sheep would accept a lamb, whose mother had not survived, as her own. That didn’t always happen. In fact, it was not common, but it happened enough to appreciate the community of these sheep. More often, one of us youngsters would become the surrogate mother to a little lamb who had lost its mother, bottle feeding it until it was grown enough to fend for itself. 

It was the lambs that were such a joy to watch. Sheep typically have twins, sometimes a single lamb, and occasionally triplets, but most often, it is twins. When the lambs are very young they stay very close to Mom, and the brother/sister tandems become inseparable. They tend to chase each other around, work their head butting skills on each other, vie for Mom’s attention and her milk, and generally seem to be getting a big kick out of life. They even appear to be smiling joyfully as they bleat and jump, kicking up their heels and wiggling their tails. 

sheep 

In the eastern-most pasture beside the road at the Other Farm was an old manure pile. This pile had been there for years, and over the course of time it had thousands of hooves compact it to a 4 foot knoll in the middle of that pasture. It was about 30 feet in diameter, and the surrounding ground was very flat, so it was a landmark of sorts. 

Just before dark, in the late spring of the year, all the lambs would gather in a big circle around this pile. The lambs were about 2 months old by this time and had become very agile and incredibly playful. These lambs would circle this knoll and then it would start. 

Games of tag.

Two or three of the lambs would rush at each other over the top of the pile and then run back to their place in the circle. Then another two or three would do the same, and so on. This game they played was incredibly orderly. They seemed to be showing off for each other, to see who could jump the highest and click his hooves together or who could wiggle his tail the most vigorously. Sometimes they would jump over each other and chase each other in circles around one of the pear trees, all the while bleating happily. The ewes would stand back 20 feet or so from the circle to oversee the affair and watch their young ‘uns play. Then as darkness fell over the barnyard, the mama and her lambs would find each other and look for a hollow or an alcove of bushes, or that prime property in behind the old hay conveyor for the night's lodging accommodations. They would lie snuggled up with each other in a circle, and the farmyard would become almost silent as the little ones first nursed and then drifted off to sleep, dreaming the dreams of baby lambs. 

Watching this animal Olympics never failed to validate, for me, all that is pure and naturally beautiful in life. It made me feel good to be alive and always made me realize how fortunate I was to be part of this farm and this family. It still remains one of the sweetest memories of my youth. 

It actually became quite a pastime for a lot of folks around here. On many early evenings the driveway leading into the Other Farm would have several vehicles sitting there with a family inside, eating ice cream cones and watching the lambs play their bedtime games. 

I believe that if all of us had the opportunity to take a half hour at the end of the day and spend it with our family, friends and neighbors watching those lambs rejoice in the simple beauty of life, we would appreciate our own lives more.