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Dogs or donkeys?

Two farms side by side in the coyote-infested Interlake credit 
guardian animals for eliminating losses due to predation

Sheep producers Lorna Wall and Rozanne Nevakshonoff are Interlake neighbours who disagree over whether guardian dogs or donkeys do the best job of protecting their herds.

But they do agree on one thing: guardian animals are their best defence against the coyotes, wolves, bears and cougars roaming their sparsely populated farms near Poplarfield.

Both say their preferred guardians have virtually eliminated predation losses.

Before Lorna and Pete Wall brought in a pair of Akbash dogs to protect their flock, lambs would regularly disappear without a trace.

“Pete has watched it happen,” she said.

At about 11 a.m., when the flock was far enough away from the house to be out of rifle range, a coyote would skulk out of the bush and grab a lamb as casually as a shopper lifts a package of meat off a supermarket shelf.

“As long as the coyote comes out nice and quiet, they can just pick that lamb up and nobody pays any attention at all,” said Wall. “Now, they’ve figured out how to get a free dinner.”

In 2007, Pete brought home a pair of dogs that looked like “a ball of Kleenex with short, stubby legs.” They put the pups in with the ewes to bond them to the flock. When a ewe got too aggressive, they would roll onto their backs and “scream like a banshee.”

The first pair grew up into a formidable protection team, and they’ve since begun bonding more pups as replacements and for sale at $500 per dog.

Even though the area is thick with wildlife and bush cover, regular patrols by the Akbash dogs, which stand six feet tall on their hind legs and weigh over 200 pounds, have kept the flock safe from four-legged terrorists, even bears, which they once chased up a tree.

Last winter, however, one of the big male Akbash dogs had to be put down after it got an infection from a “big gash” received after fighting off what they figure was a cougar.

Having at least a pair of dogs — or one for every 50 animals — is the secret to successful flock protection, she said, because the Akbash dogs “hunt” attackers swiftly and silently as a team. Often, while one is lying down in the middle of the flock, the other circles the perimeter.

Try and sneak up on the flock, and within seconds, you’ll feel a silent, formidable furry presence “right on your butt,” said Wall.

That means two-legged predators intent on stealing sheep are also kept at bay.

Once, a visitor ignored warnings to avoid touching the lambs, and Wall said that one of the dogs promptly “knocked his hat off” as a warning.

Like any species, human or otherwise, there are good performers and poor performers. Mixing guardian dog breeds makes the results harder to predict, said Wall.

When the Walls lived in Alberta, they tried donkeys as guardian animals, but found that they attacked the lambs too much.

But Rozanne Nevakshonoff, who uses small standard donkeys as guardian animals to protect her flock of 90 sheep about three miles away from the Walls’ farm, swears by them.

“We live in coyote country, but I’ve never lost a sheep to predators. Not in seven years,” said Nevakshonoff.

She runs two jennies with her flock, and keeps a jack for breeding. The donkeys, which she plans to sell for about $400 per head, offer significantly lower costs than dogs because they eat grass. She believes they are more effective than guardian dogs.

“They’ll attack a coyote or a bear,” she said. “I’ve seen mine come over the fence to chase off a wolf.”

Nevakshonoff, who once had a Great Pyrenees guardian dog but got rid of it after it killed a few of her sheep, said that donkeys are more trustworthy, cheaper to feed, and easier to manage.

“I tried both and I found that I prefer the donkeys,” she said, adding that she’s had no problems with them behaving too aggressively with the flock.

Different farms have different needs, she said, adding that she knows shepherds who have had good success with llamas and alpacas.

She added guard dogs can be unpredictable, especially when visitors come knocking.

“I don’t need anybody getting bit by a dog,” she said. “How do you get somebody to come onto your property to do chores?”

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