Sand-pit coyotes

It’s so very frustrating to lose yet another sheep. Last evening, I was feeling confident about our fence mends and did not bring the sheep into the front pasture for the night. A costly mistake, as ewe #77 fell victim to a coyote attack. Costly for the landowner, deadly for the sheep, and, down the road, potentially catastrophic for the coyotes who only know how to hunt livestock.

Coyote. Photo by Rebecca Richardson

Coyote. Photo by Rebecca Richardson

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I heard them clearly tonight, the coyotes, singing to each other just over the hill in the sand pit. The chorus was well padded which indicates to me that the pups, now nearing adult size, are still hunting with their parents.

Clever and adaptive, Canis latrans is a survivor species which does exceedingly well in human-disturbed environments. Originally found in the western plains, it expanded its range through Canada  and down the eastern seaboard, only arriving in Connecticut in the 1950’s.

Our eastern coyote is larger than its western counterpart. Recent genetic studies show that the coyote population interbred with the Canadian gray wolf. Easterns range in weight from 30-50#. Small rodents such as mice, squirrels, rabbits and woodchucks make up the bulk of their natural diet, but packs can bring down deer. If food is scarce or if the source is too easy to pass up, they will also prey on domestic pets and livestock. Sheep are particularly vulnerable to coyote attacks.

Coyotes resemble small, lanky German Shepherds with bushy tails. As with wolves but unlike domestic dogs, mating pairs are monogamous and share in the raising of pups. Gestation is approximately 63 days, with the pups being born in April through mid-May. Litter size ranges from 1 to 14, but the average in Connecticut is 7. Pups begin foraging and hunting with their parents around 8-13 weeks, learning the hunting skills vital for survival. The family group generally breaks up in autumn or early winter, and the young adults disperse to carve out territories of their own.

For the pack on the sand pit, the sheep flock has proved a veritable banquet. With such an easy food source, both the adults and their pups are likely fit and fat. However, the presence of our flock is not year-round. Our pastures are located on a springtime floodplain. As the weather grows colder, the flock is moved to the higher ground of a farm about 10 miles north.  When that happens, it is likely the coyote breeding pair will slip back into their natural diet of mice, squirrels and other rodents. If their ground-hunting skills are good enough, they’ll survive through the winter and mate again. The flock will return next year about mid-May, just in time for the next whelping season. How convenient.

The pups, however, face a different fate. They have fattened using their sheep-hunting skills — sprinting, culling, death-grips to the throat. When the flock departs, when the youngsters leave their pack, when the winter snows arrive, will they have sufficient rodent-hunting skills to survive the winter? Some will face starvation. Others may be forced to prey on domestic animals including chickens and small-to-medium sized pets. My own 33# dogs will have to be closely supervised–they will be no match for a pair of starving 45# coyotes. Larger animals, even Rottweilers, can get pretty torn up; smaller pets such as cats do not survive coyote attacks.

Until this year, I had never given much thought to the farmer’s responsibility to nature. When I grew up here, our area was pretty much denuded of natural predators. Fences were primarily to keep the stock out of the road. Times have changed.

Next year, if we are so fortunate, we hope to receive a government grant to help re-fence our pastures and effectively separate our domesticated stock from the surrounding wildlife on the farm.  It will be better for everyone: sheep, property owners, and coyotes alike. Well, that is, everyone except the mice and woodchucks.  I can live with that.

For more information on Eastern Coyotes, visit http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/wildlife/pdf_files/outreach/fact_sheets/coyote.pdf.

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