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Of bears, barns and more

It has been four years since the bears developed a taste for sheep in alarming numbers. We’ve always had a few bears—at least one feasts from the old apple orchards that lie to northeast and southwest of our farm; his commute between the orchards takes him over a board fence near our house. Every October when he’s plumped up he takes off a few boards.

And yet another lived in the highlands above us, startling drivers on twisty Lindholm Rd as he dashed from ditch to ditch.

Both these bears, and a few others that drift into the community, used to harvest a lamb or a ewe every now and then. Though we weren’t pleased, we didn’t do anything about it because the tradeoff of living in a place with cougar and bear was worth the loss of an occasional sheep. It was a balance of sorts.

In our minds, and those of other farmers here, that balance was lost when the bears developed an ongoing appetite for sheep. Three years ago it was 15-20 killed; last year over 45. There is no way livestock production can endure with those kind of losses.

Whats more, one of the sows killing sheep had three cubs. If they learned anything at all from mom there will be even more kills this year.

Why they developed a taste for sheep (and to be fair poultry too) is the subject of coffee shop debate. One theory is that a local farmer didn’t quickly bury bear-killed carcasses and thus encouraged them to think of lamb as a staple rather than, as it seemed in the past, a treat, or food for a desperate predator.

An effort to educate our neighbours and customers about the damage the bears were doing to our viability utterly backfired. When we should have been shooting we were talking, and the result of all that talk was to convince a group of people in our community that they needed to form an alliance to protect the bears. So now we have a situation where the bears are killing livestock, and a group is protecting the bears.

A recent meeting with government officials confirmed what we already suspected—that the emphasis is changing from predator control (trap and relocate, shooting) to harm reduction (keeping livestock away from bear territory, using electric fence to deter bears). This is a whole new way of thinking about things for us, and we are not sure that installing and maintaining four kilometres of electric fence is even viable. Someone suggested livestock dogs. We have sheep in four separate fields; our farming friends have sheep in 20 fields; two dozen livestock dogs for two farms?

My wife and I have “donated” so many sheep to predators over the years that I feel unimpeachable to the charge of being a bear hater, though others don’t see it that way when I bemoan the days when predator control was achieved out of a kitchen window with a Browning .303 rifle.

* * *

I am sorry to keep writing about our new pig barn, but the whole process has been engaging. Last issue I mentioned that the planning of a new barn required a new way (to me) of thinking—from making do to getting it right. A few further thoughts since then:

—worrying has a bad rap. Between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. almost every night for the last six months I lay awake in bed thinking about some aspect of the new barn, from big-picture stuff like financing and contractors to details such as where we hang the white board with the to-do lists. I know this isn’t supposed to be good for your health but my goodness it does yield results. Perhaps sleepless worrying just needs to be rebranded as pondering or midnight mulling.

—the mid-sized family farm, like ours, is increasingly an oddity as farms become either very large or very small. I could find vendors of the farrowing equipment I wanted, but the first four I contacted said that an order of just over $10,000 was too small to bother with. It wasn’t until I pleaded that an outfit in Alberta agreed to take our order. Interestingly, these same vendors were fascinated to hear that there were still farms of our size (50 sows, 60 ewes, 150 acres). “You have a 1950s farm,” one said. Sounds good to me.