A lowly beast finds glory as protector of the meek

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

August 19, 1992|By Michael E. Ruane | Michael E. Ruane,Knight-Ridder News Service

GRANVILLE SUMMIT, Pa. -- Up on Fairview Hill, shaded from the noonday sun by the walnut and ash trees, and right near the salt lick, the dark-eyed knight guards his jittery children.

With swiveling, foot-long ears and hairy, peach-size nostrils, he scans the fields and wood lots almost to distant Barclay Mountain for hint of the approaching killers.

Before this knight came several weeks ago, the killers had their way -- slaughtering 130 of the sheep he now helps protect in just about a month. They were coyotes. The shepherds knew, by the way their long jaws had crushed the lambs' skulls. But little could be done.

The Allen family, the Bradford County shepherds who have lived in this rolling country for six generations, tried plenty on the predators: dogs, bells, bait, traps.

They tried guarding the flocks themselves at night, but they couldn't be everywhere. They brought in a sharpshooter from Watsontown. He was supposed to be deadly at 1,000 yards. But the coyotes were too cagey.

Then someone suggested donkeys.

Nature works in odd ways. On Fairview Hill these days and at other places on the Allens' 1,000-acre spread 60 miles west of Scranton, the flocks are being watched over by the braying sentinels.

It seems to get a laugh everywhere, especially since one of the animals is retired from the donkey basketball leagues, in which people play ball while riding donkeys.

But Charles Allen, 50, the family patriarch, doesn't laugh long. The coyotes cost him $10,000 worth of hardy Montadale sheep, or about a quarter of the income his 600-odd sheep generate annually.

During one stretch in late April and early May, he was finding 14 or more slain sheep a day, their carcasses often marked by turkey buzzards. It was something that had to stop.

The Allens have been raising sheep since Charles' father introduced the animals to the family farm 80 years ago. They were excellent for terrain too steep for farm machinery and land too remote for dairy cows.

Coyotes have been around Pennsylvania almost as long. Bill Bower, the local wildlife conservation officer, said that while not native to Pennsylvania, coyotes, or coy-dogs, as they were first called here, began to appear in the early 1900s.

Mr. Bower said coyotes were believed to have migrated from the West, through Canada, where they bred with wolves and then moved south through New York state.

From the contact with wolves, the Eastern coyote is about 20 pounds bigger than its Western cousin. And years of government eradication efforts out West have probably led to the survival of the smartest and most cunning of the breed.

After the attacks began in April, the Allens stood guard themselves, but got only glimpses of the quarry when their herds exploded in fear.

The family put out the farm dogs, a German shepherd and a hunting hound. But Mr. Allen feared that friends might mistake the dogs for intruders and shoot them.

Belling some sheep seemed to work, but only briefly. Trapping nabbed only one coyote. And despite using a tape-recorded lamb's bleat as a lure, the varmints never gave the marksman much to shoot at.

A game expert had said that llamas were used successfully out West to ward off coyotes. A local man owned one and agreed to lend it. But it got excited one day and jumped the fence. Mr. Allen had visions of the thing getting hit by a car, and sent it back after four days.

About three weeks into the attacks, a woman called and said she had heard donkeys might help. She happened to have one for sale. Nothing else had worked and Mr. Allen was desperate.

The donkey was fetched. Seeking reinforcements, he also called a local donkey basketball league and acquired a veteran about to be retired. This was to be Big Red, the hero of Fairview Hill.

When a third donkey was lent by a neighbor, Mr. Allen was ready.

Results were instant and amazing. "Every time we'd put a donkey in, why, we wouldn't get any more kills," Mr. Allen said. He said the donkeys proved to be aggressive, chasing local dogs and probably chasing the coyotes, too.

Last week, as anxious sheep bleated, Big Red sidled from the shade to greet some visitors.

"He likes people," Mr. Allen said. But coyotes beware. In the sad eyes and long brown eyelashes, there seems to flicker resolve and devotion to duty.

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