2011-04-01 "Napa sheep slaughter solved: Culprits were cougars" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
(04-01) 11:15 PDT NAPA --
Seven dead lambs were found scattered among leaves and brush in the woodlands of Napa County's Mount Veeder area, some half-buried and others just lying there after being dragged from the adjacent vineyard.
It was a massacre - in all, 10 specially bred sheep had been killed, and some of them had been eaten - but the carnage was not the work of bloodthirsty humans as sheriff's investigators and the sheepherder had believed.
It was marauding mountain lions that killed the sheep, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday.
"They found evidence of sheep and baby lambs that had been torn apart," said Tom Meadowcroft, the owner of Mount Veeder Vineyard, who was using the flock of sheep to control weeds on his property.
"Some were half-buried. Others had been left there on the hillside. It's all evidence of mountain lions."
Napa County sheriff's investigators and sheep-owner George Richmond had erroneously concluded that three sheep found dead in the vineyard March 25 had been shot and that six others had been stolen, possibly for someone's Easter roast. They were all Babydoll Southdowns, a gentle breed with short legs that make it difficult for them to reach grapes on the vines.
Richmond noticed that the gate, which has a pass code, was wide open. A sheriff's deputy spotted wounds in the back of the head of the dead ram, ewe and lamb and concluded that they were gunshot holes.
The news created an uproar in this normally peaceful wine-growing region northwest of Napa, where there have been several recent burglaries. The missing sheep, all but one of them young lambs, added an element of mystery to what looked to everyone like a diabolical crime.
That all changed when a federal trapper found the missing lambs' carcasses in nearby woods, Meadowcroft said. The trapper told Meadowcroft that more than one mountain lion, probably a male and female, had killed the sheep in the vineyard, dragged them down a hill, ate some of them and buried the others for later.
"I imagine their appetite was satiated," said Meadowcroft, 50, of Kentfield, who was grazing sheep on his 2 1/2-acre property for the first time. "What a feast."
Meadowcroft suspects the vineyard gates either blew open during heavy winds or were left open, but experts say it wouldn't have made any difference for the sheep because cougars can climb fences.
Mountain lions are found in most wildland areas around the Bay Area, but attacks on livestock are rare, said Zara McDonald, executive director of the Felidae Conservation Fund, a Marin County nonprofit dedicated to the protection of wild cats.
McDonald said deer make up 80 percent of their diet, but mountain lions are opportunists and will go after easy prey when they see it. They typically kill with a bite to the back of the neck and head, which would explain why the punctures on the dead sheep looked like gunshot wounds.
Killing rampages like this one are unusual but not unheard of, she said.
"Sometimes if they kill one it sort of drives the predator instinct and that will trigger them to continue to kill," McDonald said, "kind of like a house cat playing with a toy."
McDonald said folks in the area need not panic. Cattle, horses and people are almost never on the mountain lion menu, she said.
The fact that pumas and not people were responsible actually makes things a little better, Meadowcroft said.
"I'm relieved to know that what caused this was part of the cycle of life," he said. "I hope it gives comfort for people to know that it wasn't some crazy sick person out there."
Tom Meadowcroft / Courtesy to The Chronicle
Sheep graze on Tom Meadowcroft's Mt. Veeder vineyard, Meadowcroft Wines, March 19, 2011. The sheep are specially bred to graze in the vineyards, clearing overgrown brush, but unable to reach the grapes on the vines. Authorities now say that several lambs were killed by mountain lions, not shot, as earlier reported.