Meat can be the hard part of local eating
On a recent Sunday at Colby Farm, we awoke to a jolt of reality. During the night an uninvited guest had paid a visit to our 2-acre farm nestled between the Colorado River and the Grand Hogback.
Every morning and evening Ed and I were in the habit of bringing a bucket of grain to a section of orchard fenced off with electric tape and wire. Pepper the blue heeler would make menacing poses as five lambs bounded toward the proffered treat, then bleated and circled as we carried it toward a trough under an old apple tree. One of these days I was going to get Pepper all trained up to herd those sheep around.
That morning, Ed thought the lambs must be grazing in the tall grass and alfalfa. Then with a sinking feeling he saw the first one lying still in the field just yards from the county road.
A mountain lion had slipped down the mountain, forded the irrigation ditch and killed all five of our lambs.
When we tell our neighbors this, their eyes get big. Ed wants me to carry a gun when I walk the irrigation ditch now, and he doesn’t like me or Pepper going out in the morning or evening twilight.
Sometimes it takes a strong stomach to eat locally when it comes to meat.
Last winter we enjoyed a freezer full of fatty, tender cuts after the first year of pasturing lambs on the property. We feasted on everything from ground lamburgers to the choicest rack of lamb.
I get a wide variety of reactions to the idea of dining on my bottle-fed lambs. The 20-something vegetarian from Boulder I once was might not approve. But having signed up for the local food movement, I am learning to walk my talk.
The manner of killing left no doubt in the minds of the sheep rancher and wildlife officer who stopped by later that morning. “That was a mountain lion,” they said. Three of the lambs were disemboweled with almost surgical precision, their entrails piled neatly a few feet from their bodies. I felt a pang as I looked into their lifeless eyes and remembered the way they tugged at those rubber nipples to get at the milk.
The rancher and the wildlife officer offered varying theories as to why the lion killed more than it could eat.
Brian from Colorado Parks and Wildlife explained that bears and lions are opportunists who never know how long they’ll have to wait for their next meal. Tame, penned lambs are easy prey. He looked for signs that the cat had tried to cache the meat by raking leaves and grass over their bodies, but found none.
Lions likely prowl the neighborhood every few weeks, he said. The Grand Hogback is relatively thick with them.
The rancher suggested the lion could have been teaching its kittens about hunting. Once one killed 42 of his sheep on the Flat Tops in a frenzy of blood lust. John walked through our orchard looking up into the apple trees to see if the cat had dragged a lamb up to a crook in the branches for safekeeping.
He made the first of several offers I’ve had to track down our lion down with his hound dogs.
“No thanks,” I said, “The lions were here first.”
It’s my job to protect my barnyard animals. We’re new to this, and sadly our lambs paid for a valuable lesson.
The state will reimburse market price for those poor lambs, since they met their end in the jaws of a game animal. CPW collects more than $100 million a year through hunting licenses. Mollifying rural neighbors by paying for depredation is just a cost of business. Had our predator been a coyote, we’d be out of luck, but after filling out the paperwork and doing some math, Ed figures we’re money ahead, since we won’t have to pay for butchering and packaging. This doesn’t particularly please me.
That afternoon, Ed hung two of the lambs from a tree, dressed and skinned them. The night had been cool, and as I told Ed, they weren’t killed by disease. It seemed a waste not to use the meat. But fear and the chase transformed the mild taste of last year’s lambs into a pungent, gamey flavor that Ed found repellent. Only Pepper is living large with scraps and offal in his dog dish.
I can only hope this is the last time a mountain lion stops by to dine locally at Colby Farm.
Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the PI’s Good Taste pages.
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