Sunday, 5 June 2011

Sheep are not eaten by big cats in Sussex

The Sussex big cats do not target either sheep or lambs.This statement has provoked much debate among the local big cat researchers and it,s fair to say i,ve had to defend these words quite vigorously.The principal point against these facts is that out of a commercial flock of say 6000 breeding ewes that would produce say around 11000 lambs,would,say,the sheperd/ess miss a few that were taken overnight with no trace and strat worrying what happened to them or would the sheer numbers involved mean that in all likelihood a dozen here or half a dozen there not be noticed at all.
Modern sheep farming in Sussex is a highly mobile operation with in reality all flocks are actually split up into hundreds of ewes spaced out wherever the lambing fields are with the stockmen actually doing rounds of many of these fields in a single day.Many rent the grazing and only put what each field or group of fields can handle.This means that they are more easily kept an eye on and believe it or not anything amiss is usually noted promptly.Fencelines are quad biked along as are bramble or scrub patches looking for fleece either stuck in the wire or on thorns that would be a telltale sign of predator attack.
Foxes do take lambs on occasion as do badgers however fox kills are easily noticed as they tend to go for orphaned or triplet new borns not yet acquanted with their surrogate ewes or the ones caught up in the said fences or brambles.In "08 i think it was we had a 2" fall of snow in april around lambing time on the downs and the resulting wind blown drifts "drowned" 50 or so new borns,the quick thaw revealed that the local foxes got wind of these easy meals with themselves cubs to feed and then went on to have a go at the lambs as they got a little older which is unusual as often foxes just go for the afterbirth.Foxes tend to drag a carcase a short way while they are eating it and the evidence of their kills is easy to notice as much fleece is lying around and the site tends to be messy.The messiest are the badgers though and these have the strentgh to drag the lambs into deep cover often squeezing then through the sheep netting.All the shepherds i know or have spoken to would notice any of these goings on and it would appear by what i,ve been told so far that lambs taken by either foxes or badgers would be well down on previous years with only a couple reporting any problems and neither of these involve big cats.At the South of England show next weeks i,ll have a chance to chat to a few others and find out more.In fact, like deer,lamb carcases are never carried very far away.Take the Telscombe lamb kills saga from last year where a big cat definitely had been killing the lambs,every carcase was found in the surrounding scrub and was consumed there,the bodys didn,t just mysteriously vanish and all were immediately noticed by the farmer.Even up to the 20 kilo lambs which are a heavy load for the bit bigger than a labrador big cat that was seen amongst the sheep at night with lamps to carry over the fences and it appeared that it had copied the badgers in pulling the bodies through the netting.I had never seen anything like it before which made the exception rather than the rule.
So,would a few lambs missing not be noticed occasionally by a particularly hard pressed farmer?Well,maybe for a short while in the uplands up north where say black faced sheep drop their young without much problem and little help from the sheperd but here too from what i,ve been told they are very much on the ball as their foxes really do take lambs on a regular basis but here in the more sheltered south the favoured meaty crosses can sometimes struggle to give birth and all available hands will be on deck to help.Every ewe is tagged and the numbers of lambs noted,this is rudimentary stockmanship to guage which are the best breeders and when they are moved off the lambing fields any and exact shortfall of numbers will be noticed.I checked this out last year with sheperds and found out that as usual all casualties were accounted for,of course i can,t speak to everyone but if anyone knows any different then please tell me?
In addition to this any flock that is continually harrased either at night or by day is extremely noticeable by their owner who will find out the cause pronto,it just so happens that like foxes big cats suss out potentially new hunting oppurtunities well before they go in for the kill so to speak and will be seen in the fields amongst the sheep at night before any lambing takes place,this so rarely happens i can count the occasions happening on one hand.
It is my opinion, weighted by all the available evidence,that on the very rare occasion for lambs to be taken by a big cat that firstly the evidence is plain to see and only when it has cubs to feed and for some reason the natural food like the rabbits has been denuded.There is no evidence to the contrary,if there was then i think i would be the first to say it.A healthy scepticism and constant questioning of the facts helps us all understand big cat behaviour that much better and to analyse what we know or think we know already but there is drawing the line between supposition and fact by examining the evidence.It is often supposed that a sheep carcase is found by a member of the public and just because a big cat has been seen in the area 1 and 1 makes 5 in that the conclusion will be that a big cat has killed the said sheep,it then gets reported to the press and supposition becomes fact overnight without any analysis of the carcase,investigation of the scene or any of the photos,if any,made available for public scrutiny.When on the odd occasion it does happen for real it all gets blown out of proportion.
Looking for evidence of big cats being anywhere beyond the usual witness statements is extremely difficult and very trying on the patience as very little if any is found when we know full well a big cat has been very active in an area,it can be tempting when looking for clues to jump to conclusions in our haste for some sort of evidence but looking around sheep fields for sheep carcases will only prove in the long run ,i,m sure,that the title of this piece is the normal current of affairs........