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As a carnivore biologist in Maine, I enjoy visiting our farms and supporting our farmers in their efforts to coexist peacefully with our carnivores.
I have many stories about farmers and farmers tell me many stories. But this one is especially poignant, as it manifests the many intricacies of relationships in the ecosystem of a farm.
So during my visit to a farm in western Maine this farmer introduced me to her farm animals…chickens, ducks, horses and new piglets. She told me of a COYOTE whose territory included her farm, and a FOX who lived in the forest on the other side of her farm. She never had any issues with the Coyote, as he actually assisted her by doing rodent patrol on her farm.
The FOX was kept away from her chickens by the presence of the Coyote. So the Coyote was unknowingly protecting her chickens…just by his presence.
Then an individual from away moved in next to her farm and began killing the entire Coyote family present there. And what ensued was tragic for the farmer…. The FOX, now recognizing that Coyote was no longer present, felt safe coming to her farm and killing her chickens.
What is so significant about this whole scenario…..is that the farmer understood what happened in the relationship between Coyote and Fox and the human neighbor. Human interference by killing important carnivores can have a myriad of negative consequences.
Now that her Coyote neighbors were gone, her only alternative to protect her animals from the fox, was to purchase a Guardian Dog….which she has done. Before that……Coyote was what you might call her Guardian Dog…
One of our Maine Farmers shared the following experience with us:
Many times on our farm we would hear coyotes and often see them hunting mice in the hayfield, when we were haying. They never threatened us but with two young sons, we were cautious. One evening my young boys and I went to our family’s blueberry field to check the crop and monitor for insect damage. I left the truck at the top of the hill and walked down to its other side. At the foot of the hill, about 800 feet from the truck, I saw movement in the tall grass. It is not uncommon to see deer in the field, so I motioned the boys closer to watch. Then only to realize they were Coyotes …six Coyote pups and their mother!
What happened next answered many questions I had of Coyotes. I instructed my boys to walk slowly back to the truck. And I would remain near the coyotes as a distraction until the boys were safe.
A Mother’s instinct is very strong, and not just in humans! Mama Coyote was doing the same thing as I. She began yipping at her pups. Listening to her calls, her pups circled around and headed for the refuge of the woods. Mama Coyote and I stood about 500 feet apart…just watching each other, and willing to do whatever to protect our babies.
When my boys were safe in the truck and her pups safe in the woods, we each backed up slowly and parted ways peacefully. I will never forget that evening; just two mothers feeling the same…..regardless in the difference in species.
Allowing experiences like this to enfold brings one into a whole new world, one that we didn’t even know existed….inside of us. But it is that willingness to let it unfold which makes it happen.
This woman farmer came to deeply understand that this mother Coyote felt just like her….when it came to her protectiveness of her little ones. But something even more was happening here…the restraint, the trust. For the mother Coyote she knew well the violence of humans. It had been passed down in her culture over the past 200 years, ever since the Europeans arrived. And for the farmer, only the fear of powerful carnivores had been passed down to her own species. Yet the two of them trusted each other, and used restraint.
And when this happens….you are never the same.
When we speak about Farming of the Future …..THIS is what we are speaking about.
It is just so refreshing and exciting to watch how our farmers of today are taking on the Leadership of creating a farm that is a healthy, resilient ecosystem. Inherent in their perspective is the need for carnivores to be present…welcomed and undertstood and valued.
And so without further adieu …inviting you to relax and take in this marvelous conversation initiated a young farmer in Hollis, Maine, Raychell Libby of Fervor Farm.
If there ever was an understanding of WHO Coyote is….look to the farmers who have come to know them. A number of Maine farmers have shared with me the collaborative effort both they and the coyotes have worked out together.
Families of Coyotes who live on farms KNOW the farmer very well. They understand whether the farmer respects them or not, whether the farmer welcomes them or not, and whether they can trust the farmer with their lives …or not.
Nowhere is this more fully appreciated than when the farmer turns on his tractor to mow his fields, and Coyote quickly leaves the refuge of the forest to follow in their own wild distance behind the tractor, picking off all the rodents that have now been exposed.
This only happens when there is TRUST and RESPECT in their relationship.
And Life is rich…and Life is peaceful….and Abundant for All.
By Ed Robinson, Board member of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust in Maine
“I love the plants and the land, it is an organism to be fostered,” Laura Grady stated as she tried to explain her engagement with the 100 acres upon which Two Coves Farm rests. Laura continued “We listen to the land, we work with it by spreading compost and we try to determine the best use of each parcel.”
You need to spend only a few minutes in Laura’s company to know that her connection to the land runs very deep and that the farm business is her primary life’s work.
It is understandable that Laura enjoys working with the soil and animals since her father toiled on a small farm along with several other occupations to make ends meet, in typical Maine fashion. Growing up it was clear to Laura that her life would be lived outdoors since she is “not a four walls gal.” Her husband Joe grew up in a family with more professional backgrounds but in the mid 1990s Joe became interested in organic food, then more specifically in high nutrient foods. As the young couple thought about their lives, they focused upon how to feed their family with healthy food and decided that getting back to the land was more important to them than pursuing the material side of life.
Along with many other young adults in the late 90s, the Gradys moved back to the land trying to make a go of it on 40 acres. They found that they loved the life balance the farm offered them, but 40 acres was not large enough to support both vegetables and the cattle the Gradys wanted to manage. By good fortune, they were able to strike a long-term agricultural lease with the benevolent owner of their current home, and Two Coves Farm was born 11 years ago. Joe is also the Program Director at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment in Freeport.
As you drive down Neil’s Point Road in Harpswell, you pass a fenced in parcel with 30 pigs whom Laura says enjoy living in the open forest rather than a concrete pen. Next you see a large enclosure for chickens, part of a total flock of 350 laying hens. Across the road from the 1885 farm house is a lovely 20-acre field running down to the ocean with a fenced section for 40 ewes, 3 rams and this year’s crop of 60 lambs. A lovely Jersey cow chews her cud in the fresh spring grass. The Gradys also maintain up to 25 Belted Galloway cattle on 40 leased acres in Brunswick.
Laura talks with obvious affection about the animals in her care, although they clearly are not pets. In her experience, respecting the animals, caring for them and giving them a healthy environment is enough to ensure the animals prosper and provide healthy food products when it is time for harvest. The animals and the fields of vegetables provide produce for the Gradys’ CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation. The farm sells to local restaurants and shops, and currently has more than 200 CSA members. The waiting list has grown during the pandemic as people look for healthy sources of food near their homes. Laura estimated that more than 80 percent of the food she sells remains within 30 miles of the farm.
The Gradys are respectful of other wildlife that live on and around their farm, including the many birds and predator species. While they have not had problems with bald eagles, hawks sometimes decide to go for a tasty chicken dinner. Laura remembers a fisher that managed to kill five chickens, but the local foxes do not seem to cause trouble. She also recalled an incident where she fell asleep in the woods while leaning back on a tree. She awoke to find two weasels jumping over her legs but causing no harm. Laura is appreciative of neighborhood coyotes since they keep the population of mice and shrews in check, thereby lowering tick numbers. The Gradys have a 125-pound guardian dog named Tessie who spends time in the fields near the farm animals to keep an eye on potential predators and to bark at any who come too close.
Laura clearly thrives on the lifestyle offered by their farm and made it clear the Gradys are in it for the long haul. She loves living with the seasons and has a deep appreciation for the natural rhythm of life around the year. Laura is grateful for the breezes on their hilltop, since they keep the flies and mosquitoes in check. Her favorite time of year is winter when there is a bit more time to relax and enjoy the natural beauty around them.
The only downside to living on an old farm is the ongoing maintenance of buildings and equipment; it seems there is always something in need of tuning or repair.
Even her three teenage children would grudgingly admit to loving the farm life, and each of them has a special talent for certain tasks around the place.
In recent years the number of Maine acres in farm production has begun to climb after 100 years of decline. If recent trends hold true, more consumers will gravitate to the benefits of truly natural, organic foods grown near their homes instead of imported from distant countries. The Grady family will be part of the movement, cherishing life on their land and enjoying the interaction with customers who share their appreciation for local foods grown with love.
Young Coyote recovering from Mange at Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
The use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers:
A new study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University and the Holden Arboretum suggests that changes we are making to the environment have the potential to make animals more susceptible to diseases and therefore may lead to population declines.
Their study suggests that human-made changes to the environment may be damaging the immune systems of a species of frog whose populations have drastically declined since the 1970s.
This research shows that land use–farming or treating lawns with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers–can influence traits that protect animals from disease.
“By improving our understanding of the factors influencing immune defense traits capabilities, we are given the opportunity to make changes to our land management practices to better protect wildlife health” Dr Krynak said “and in all likelihood, our own health as a consequence.
Katherine L. Krynak, David J. Burke, Michael F. Benard. Landscape and water characteristics correlate with immune defense traits across Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris blanchardi) populations. Biological Conservation, 2016; 193: 153 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.019
*** During this pandemic we are experiencing the close connection between disease in wildlife and our own species. We are all connected on this planet, and so our human behavior can cause animals to be more susceptible to disease, and this can lead to profound consequences we do not yet fully understand.
We are learning more and more about chemicals used on the landscape of farms and their effect on all the other life present there. And the picture has become very clear regarding the connection of using rodenticides…poisons to kill rodents….and the suppression of the immune systems of carnivores. It is they who hunt and eat the poisoned rodents. This has been observed in cougars, owls and other birds of prey, bobcats, coyotes and foxes.
Again, when their immune systems are compromised, they are much more susceptible to disease. One of these is mange, caused by millions of microscopic parasites that invade their skin and hair follicles. The parasites suck their blood causing severe anemia, destroy their hair follicles causing them to lose all their fur and violently scratch, leading to open weeping sores. With a severely suppressed immune system, members of these species die a slow and painful death.
As a farmer, why should you care about this?
For your farm to be healthy and productive, you want to have healthy wild ones living there with you. If for no other reason, it is to YOUR benefit. There is so much we do not know about the workings of our amazing planet and her marvelous Life…..SO
We live in a time when we are experiencing worldwide disruption of the Earth’s diverse ecosystems. And as a result of these profound disruptions, worldwide pandemics of disease, as well as local epidemics like the Lyme disease in eastern North America, continue to plague life as we know it.
Human Health is inextricably tied to the health of animals and the environment.
Human health is tied to the health of animals and the environment BUT our human behaviors are also tied to the rest of life on our planet; human behaviors are causing profound disruptions and are the underlying cause of the massive spread of disease today.
And these behaviors are uncontrolled human population growth, and this leading to humans taking over vast areas of the planet. This leaves very little space for the rest of life to survive, many wildlife forced to live in close proximity to humans. In addition, our large carnivores are being wiped out by the continued perceptions of the past.
And as wildlife habitat is destroyed, biodiversity is lost. And when biodiversity is lost, so is the resilience of the life forms left behind, causing them to more easily succumb to disease. Add to this the serious and outright killing of major carnivores whose presence, protects and supports biodiversity, and keeps their prey populations in balance.
SO YOUR FARM is a microcosm of Earth’s larger ecosystems. Your farm is an ecosystem that can be disrupted or it can be one that is rich and biodiverse. And when your farm is in balance and biodiverse, the Earth will protect you from disease that can affect both your farm animals and you.
Dayton Hyde, a highly respected rancher and writer shared his experiences regarding the value of an important carnivore on his ranch. This is what he had to say: “I thought of other species on the ranch. Without flickers, badgers, trout, deer, or chipmunks, the ranch still would have flourished. But if I took away the Coyotes, the whole system fell apart. In fact, if I were to design a kit for the beginning rancher, a pair of Coyotes would have to be included.”
Carnivores like Coyote play THE vital role in protecting from disease and keeping the balance by the part they play in the predator-prey relationship. So you want to make sure you save a place for them on your farm. You want them to be present, and you want them to thrive …so you need to make sure there is habitat and plenty of prey for them. If you do……THEY WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU!
Note: the electric fencing and Guardian dog photo by Billy Foster
As a wildlife biologist, my work focuses on our recovering carnivores and our relationships with them. Supporting our farmers is important to me because they not only feed us, but here in Maine there is such an effort to farm sustainably. I make regular trips to our weekly Farmers Market, but also give presentations collaboratively with several of our leading farmers.
On one particular Saturday at the Farmers Market, one of our farmers requested that I might help another new one who had just come to Maine after retiring. So I thought I would stop by and chat with him to offer any support he might wish. What I found out from him was this: he raises very vulnerable lambs in a rural area, allows them to be born out in the field, and he has NO electric fencing and NO guardian animals.
So basically he uses no animal husbandry practices to protect them, in fact he informed me that he refuses to do so. Instead he kills any coyotes that he sees. As we all know through so much research on this subject, there will be no end to his losses because of his behavior.
He sees the Coyote as the enemy, instead of viewing them as intelligent beings who he can come to understand, and with whom he can share the land. However, a door needs to be open for new learning to take place.
Then I walked over to another farmer and we had a short chat. He was a young farmer who told me that he loved hearing the Coyotes howl, and in his words: “I want to learn more about them.” Such a simple statement, yet it is very powerful. The desire to understand our fellow beings is the first step to living very successfully with them.
AND SO THE CONTRAST~ Experiences like these have made me more and more aware that we are living in an amazing time of transition. So we are seeing those who refuse to make use of successful animal husbandry practices, who see Coyote as the enemy, and continue to see killing as the answer. YET we are also seeing more and more young farmers embracing what works AND at the same time not seeing Coyote as the enemy but as a fellow being of our planet Earth. THEY GET IT! This is the farming of the future happening today.
It is the CONTRAST that lets us know how much further we have to travel on the road to the farming of the future.
Here is just another way to farm successfully, in the company of carnivores: Multispecies Grazing. Actually this form of farming mimics nature for there is always a diversity of grazers in a healthy natural ecosystem. And when there is this biodiversity on your farm, it all comes into balance, is resilient and healthy.
Our wild predators recognize SIZE when they seek out their prey. Large herbivores can be and are a serious threat to them, and they will think twice before attempting to hunt in their presence. So in the presence of cows, llamas or donkeys, your sheep are much safer from predation.
BUT ~ there is also what is referred to as predator pressure. This pressure can either be slight or great. You can participate in making it be slight. First: provide sufficient habitat on your farm for the carnivores AND their prey. By doing so you are allowing them to have a good living without looking toward your farm animals for sustenance. Second: protect your resident carnivores, especially ones like Coyote, Cougar and Wolf who have complex social systems. By supporting the presence of a stable family group, you protect your farm from all others.
We would like to highly recommend this excellent film of John Chester and his wife Molly. It was their goal to create a farm that would be ecologically healthy and robust. And so they set out on an adventure with results they could never have imagined. So let them take you on this journey.
But we would leave you with this thought ~ What they discovered was the immense importance of the predator prey relationship in order for their farm to be successful. They did not use this scientific term, instead they experienced it.
And finally, note how their relationship with Coyote taught them some powerful lessons: lessons about how we humans view different predators…the ones we fear, such as wild canines and snakes, and ones we do not fear, such as owls and hawks.
You may need to watch this film more than once. And every time you do, you will realize something new!