There were few signs of Spring in the Comeragh valley of sloping sheep-filled fields, except, perhaps, the lambs. They, like me, were sheltering from a thunderous downpour of rain, under leafless thorn bushes. Thick mist enveloped the hillsides. The boreen had become a stream.
The lambs were not doing their customary Spring-thing of leaping about: ‘ag damhsa ar na banta’ as per one of those old space-filling phrases of school essays as Gaeilge. They looked vulnerable, not only to the weather and possible future snow drifts, but to foxes and dogs.
Looking at them, I remembered an incident on my grandmother’s farm and of awakening in the night to the sound of frenzied barking of dogs. In lambing time, the sheep had been removed to the fields in the vicinity of the house, for protection and convenience. But protection was fragile, when it came to the so-called man’s best friend, the household pet turned atavistic and reverting in the night to its primitive state of chasing and killing.
The cacophony of sounds to which I awoke on that night was spine-chilling. There was the hysterical barking of small dogs and the gruff throaty barking of big dogs, pure breeds, mongrels, mutts, all chasing the terrified sheep.
The farm’s own dogs (Shep and Jem) which normally worked with the sheep, were also frenetically barking, in a way in which I had never heard before. They were locked in their sleeping quarters in the barn but clearly wanted to get into the act.
By now, everybody in the house was awake. This was not an uncommon farm experience, and it has nowadays become even more common, as town suburbs and urban sprawl penetrates more and more into the countryside.
Then, on that night, I heard another house-shaking sound – that of a shotgun being discharged from my cousin’s upstairs bedroom window. He tried to disperse the dogs by shooting over the fields. Eventually, an uneasy peace descended, except for the bleating of the traumatized sheep.
Breakfast was early the following morning. At first light my cousin went into the fields, and I listened to the subsequent inquest. Four lambs had been torn apart, and three sheep and three sheep had been taken into a straw filled farm building, and their lambs were being bottle-fed. In attempting to defend their lambs, the sheep had suffered many injuries, their fleeces and skins had been torn from their backs.
When the milk was taken to the creamery, the Vet would be contacted (few farmhouses then had telephones) and a decision taken as to whether the sheep should be mercifully put down, such were their injuries.
I now recall that there was no discussion around the breakfast table about the financial loss, which at a time of a depression in farm economy, must have been significant. The only concern was about the trauma suffered by the sheep flock.
As a town-child, living in a family which always had a dog, a much loved pet, which could be played with, patted, taken for walks and who wouldn’t hurt a fly, I found it difficult to understand how such a pet could become a killer in the night. I asked questions.
I was told that all the dogs which formed the hunting pack of the night before were probably cherished family pets, whom the owners thought were sleeping in their unsecured, unlocked beds, and so were free to roam the countryside in response to some primeval instinct to chase and kill: an instinct, which like human civilisation, is little more than skin-deep and has not been completely wiped out by domestication.
As I understood it, that instinct was awakened by some leader-dog, an alpha male (or female) who would send out, buy a sort of canine bush telegraph, an invitation, or even an imperative, which when received by any dog, would result in a pack formation, and a pursuit which amounted to a blood-lust. So cuddly Rex, or harmless Bran, or not-too-bright Sport, given an opportunity, could take to the killing fields.
I realise now what some of what I heard that morning around the breakfast table may have been over-statement, but the facts were indisputable: blood-stained fields, animals torn limb from limb, a loss of farm income.
My cousin, who was not unfamiliar with such experiences, reckoned that a dozen dogs had been involved in the carnage of the night before, and that now all were safely home in their beds, tired, a little bit dishevelled, but capable of eating a good breakfast and of being very compliant and obedient pets.
But, according to the consensus around the table, once such a dog had ‘tasted blood’ a nightly Spring-time rampage was inevitable, unless the dog was properly secured.
It was also agreed that it would have been unwise for any human-being to confront such a primordial pack, unless armed, and that if you were to hear them baying as you were making your way home at night (this was a time when there were few cars) you should take a detour to avoid them.
When the thunderous rain stopped, a pale sun filled the valley, and the lambs left the shelter of the thorn bushes, and leaped and played and did graceful little jumps, Simple joys. Heart-stopping early promises of another Spring. But not without its hazards of dark nights and of people who do not control their dogs!.