Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Night Shift

Daytime is idyllic here. The sun shines, the hummingbirds swoop under the eave of the backporch mobbing their feeder, the chickens happily scratch around, eating greens and bugs off the flowers and lawns and I marvel at the color palate and textures we have to experience in this world as my eyes scan the grey and craggy rock wall, the velvety green lawn, the towering yellow sunflowers, the petunias in varying shades of pink spilling out of their trough by the iron arbor.

The pups loll around, sleeping most of the time, greeting me when I come out. I laugh as the 6-week-old layer chicks flit around the yard like roadrunners, streamlined and rapid, quickly disappearing behind plants as if I had only imagined them. The 6-week-old meaties lumber past in their big breasted, heavy bodies, looking for a handout and enjoying the freedom to stretch their fat, thick, not so powerful and not so rapid legs.  I find my first small egg in the run where the 5 month old layers reside. Life seems quiet, safe, serene and simple.

It’s still morning. I wander through the gate and across 2 pastures looking for the cows and calves. They haven’t come up this morning, it was their first night in a long while, all together, including the new leppie calf. Mo and CWilly came in without him last nite. You know how kids are when there are 3. They nursed and gorged themselves so I let everyone out, knowing the cows would find ‘stepchild’ and feed him.

The sheep follow us down and the Maremmas stay close by us. I ask Cletus
“Where are my cows?”
He heads off on his own, as if he understood me. I continue down through the tall thistle, being scratched and pricked with nearly every step as I follow the little cow trail to the shade tree they like to sleep under. No one is there. As I head out the other side, I see Cletus over to the south…standing in front of Dolly. He DID understand what I said!

The cows say hello, Dolly steps into the ditch for a drink. One of the lambs follows suit and Dolly tries to push her in. She is not a morning person, much like myself. Bruno stands between her and the lamb, as a barrier, even though he knows Dolly will deliver him a painful head-butt without due cause. He stands his ground, neither challenging Dolly, nor backing down, but faithfully guarding his lamb from a cow he also considers one of his charges. It’s an interesting dichotomy to me. He handles it graciously and fearlessly.

Seeing that the cows have been adequately nursed and in no need for milk, I head back. Cletus follows me, the lambs follow him single file and Bruno brings up the rear. 

I don’t know how they work out the details but they always seem to have an agreement about who will be where and do what job. They are truly amazing dogs. They pass me except Bruno, who remains behind me with the older ewe who is dilly-dallying along. He won’t leave her, as she is separate from the group now. When I get up by the alley between pastures, I see that Cletus has stopped to wait and the lambs are grazing around him. Once we get there, they all continue on to the house pasture again. The dogs have things all under control and although they remain flexible on my account, I am just along for the ride. They are pretty clearly the ones in charge.

Dolly and Emma come up a few minutes later, moo-ing to let me know they are ready for their grain. I oblige them and they gratefully finish and head back out to the back pasture.

I spend my days doing various things, milking my cows and moving them from pasture to pasture, making soap, or cheese, changing water, hoping for eggs from my two older hens who are only 5 months and had not, until this morning, begun laying.

When daytime ends, life on the ranch takes on a different face. Predators come forth from their hiding places, moving stealthily, looking for victims. Owls take to the sky, swooping down on smaller creatures, sometimes not so small. Chickens are not immune to the razor sharp talons of owls and hawks. I have seen Great Horned owls pick up cats and fly off.  Coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and cougars, all move across the landscape in search of sustenance, be it a hapless deer, a newborn calf, a barn-cat, or bounty from the garden and orchard. Nighttimes the ranch can be a dangerous place. Before the Maremmas came, it was often even dangerous by day. There were several kills by the houses in the daytime. Once, a cougar drug a huge ewe up into a tree. These are not animals to be taken lightly.
 The goats and sheep band together more closely, alternating between sleep and wakefulness, their scent wafting on the breeze tantalizing those in the darkness.

We snuggle down under the comforter, warm and safe. With Cider at my feet, I ease into sleep.

Hours later, I awoke to hear Cletus sounding his alarm bark. It’s not unusual to hear the dogs once or twice a night, calling out a warning to opportunists from the sky or out in the tall grass, but it rarely lasts long. Last nite I could hear his voice trailing out across the sheep’s pasture and far away. He was in pursuit of something. It continued on for a time then I could hear Bruno take up the barking. It had been several minutes and was a different sounding bark than the usual “don’t come near, these are MY charges”. It was more of a “Leave or DIE”.

I decided to go see what was going on. I assumed it was a raccoon, or something they had treed, so I wasn’t too concerned for my own safety. I threw on some sweats and grabbed a flashlight. I went through the gate of the first pasture and found Cletus was now with the sheep. He had come back, leaving Bruno out with the threat and led them all up into the corner closest to the house. Apparently it was not just a coon, as the dogs don’t often split up and one hover over the stock. Cletus acknowledged me, then turned and led me out of the pasture and on into the darkness toward the barking without further ado.

I didn’t use the light except when I thought there might be a hole to step in. There was some moonlight and I followed Cletus, who continued to look back for me. As we headed down a lane, the sheep caught up to us. Cletus ran them back, which was something I had not seen him do before. They returned to the beginning of the alley and waited there. We walked on and started through the tall weeds, in the direction of Bruno’s growling. I could see him, his hackles raised, his tail curled tightly. Both dogs were sounding and barking out in the direction of impenetrable brush. They stopped for a minute to listen, then took off ahead of me. There I was, alone in the pasture in the dark, with thistle taller than I, unable to see further than a few feet ahead of me, no weapon to defend myself but a flashlight. I knew if something attacked me, the dogs would know and protect me and had indeed, already run whatever it was out of the vicinity. I had the willies, but I knew I was safe enough. I started heading back towards the house. Bruno suddenly and silently, appeared at my side, escorting me, matching my tentative steps through the darkness and the brush, walking so closely, I could feel his fur on my fingertips. Cletus had gone on in pursuit of whatever it was they had protected us from. We caught up to the sheep and Bruno took the lead. The sheep followed him back to the gate dividing their pasture from our backyard. Cletus caught up to us by that time.

All was quiet until I was back in bed. I heard Cletus again, by our window at first. His bark trailed past our window, the side of the house and across the road in front. Something was stalking the goats. He sounded fierce, aggressive and confident. The barking didn’t last for long. Most likely whatever they had run off before, had doubled back for the goats, who were in a different location than the sheep.

I used to lay awake at night, fretting about the stock. I had goats in a small pen close to the house, but we had to put a top on it, because of bobcats and cougars who brazenly entered the yard, even to the point of attacking one of the cowdogs just feet from our front door.
The wire on our chicken run has places where it was nearly pulled off by some animal, likely a raccoon, attempting to get inside where they would quickly put an end to our flock.
Now I rest at ease.

I know the Maremmas are on patrol and won’t allow anything to endanger their charges. Their barking tells me the dangers haven’t disappated, but they are restrained. I marvel at the instinct, heart and courage of these incredible dogs. Grateful the danger to themselves is minimized by both of them working together, I sleep peacefully.

I stepped out on the back porch this morning and was greeted by a wet and muddy Bruno. He must have just gotten back from his patrol. He was watching meatie chickens grazing on the lawn. Cletus came around the corner, from out front where he’d been guarding goats. They both jumped on the porch, their joy of seeing me working its way through their huge, powerful, wiggly bodies. They tried to squeeze one another out as they pressed their big heads onto my lap and looked up to touch my nose with theirs. I don’t know if all LGD’s or all Maremmas do this, but these two do. They do it daily to each one of the goats, calves, and sheep and each time I see them, they do it to me.

It means “I love you and I intend to guard you with my life”.

Lord, I am blessed.


  1. What an incredible story. What incredible dogs. What an incredible life you live! I am without enough words.

  2. Did you have to train your dogs at all or is it just instinct? We just got a Golden Retriever puppy and named him Tucker. He is just so lovable. I can imagine how you must feel for your dogs.

  3. These dogs are not terribly trainable. They have to be independent thinkers and use their own discretion rather than take cues from us, by nature. It's what makes them so effective. There is minimal work involved with them, just socializing, telling them when something is NOT ok, (squeaky toy chickens) etc. They are unlike any other dogs. LGD's are a class of their own. I LOVE my golden! They are fabulous dogs and they ARE very trainable! Cider picks his toys up and puts them in a basket each nite. :)

  4. great story. LGDs are awesome dogs

  5. I love reading about your day. You tell a good story. I live on a ranch in western Oregon but don't have all the animals you have. I admire your LGDs!

  6. Thanks Goats, and thank you Linda. There is so much to appreciate here!

  7. I see such an amazing parallel between how the maremmas watch over their charges- and how the Lord watches over us. Always watchful - always protecting - always with loving care. And He has already given His life for us - We are all blessed!