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Sheep guardians come in all shapes and sizes

In response to the Sept. 20 letter, “What about donkeys?” seeking more information about livestock protection options, the livestock protection animals that you choose have a lot to do with:

  •  What you like;
  •  What is available;
  •  What you are willing to pay for;
  •  What your fencing or physical setup is (close to town, very rural, dense bush, close to home or far from home);
  •  Your personal animal-care practices (dogs have to be fed each day).

We have had a variety of dog breeds as guardians, a jenny donkey and a male intact llama over time and in many different areas (provinces) with a mixture of fencing and livestock.

When protecting sheep or goats, after many bad experiences with the donkey and llama we have had great luck with the Akbash LGDs (livestock guardian dogs) here in the Interlake. All breeds of guardian animals have different guarding traits, strengths and weaknesses, and depending on your situation these could be considered either good or bad.

Donkeys eat the same food as sheep but require a different mineral that could be harmful to sheep. They cannot get their head into some feeders designed for sheep and may have issues if left with full access to grain that may not be an issue for the sheep. The very negative aspect that we found with the donkey was that out of the blue she would reach down and bite off a lamb’s ear or suddenly kick and break a leg. This was unacceptable to us.

As a guardian, if you have a mountain lion or other big cat she has no defence and will basically not be any safer than the sheep themselves.

Llamas and alpacas

While able to protect themselves in the wild, they use speed rather than fending off a predator. Males have fighting teeth used to disembowel other males seen as a threat and can be used on people or other “dangers” they perceive. They typically kill smaller predators by stomping them to death. Intact males can be very dangerous and try to “mount” or otherwise dominate anyone or thing they have the urge to, thus people could be in danger and they will sometimes molest their sheep charges. The one llama we had here could not care less about protecting the sheep from coyotes but definitely figured that we were a threat.

Dogs

Each breed has definite traits. Some are perimeter guards, making the rounds of each pen and jumping over fences and marking territory. Typically people with Pyrenees dogs describe this behaviour. Some are with the animals and tend to just wander along with them, but when the coyotes come they move out and harass or “play” with them, in what appears as a move to distract them from the sheep. Some will actively move the animals from area to area when they perceive a threat, leaving one dog with the herd and the other dispatching with the intruder.

The Akbash that we own tend to be just like the research books describe, and during calm times in the pasture have been known to move unwanted animals away from their territory for up to four miles at which point they quietly return home. They do kill a perceived threat.

There are also dogs that can be trained to do what is referred to as tending-herding, where they patrol and move the sheep or goats through grazing areas.

But I believe they require more intervention from people giving commands and are what I would use if grazing unfenced areas such as described in the recent articles on goats cleaning parks and such. Most real LGD breeds are not highly trainable, working mostly by instinct without any real guidance, although most will follow a few rudimentary commands if taught at a young age.

The positives for LDGs over donkeys or llamas are that they can, if necessary, get through, over or under a fence. They have the ability to kill by biting or tearing apart a coyote, wolf, big cat or bear. They will kill a feral dog, coyote or anything else that is seen as a threat, yet know the difference between what belongs and doesn’t.

The LGDs allow the border collies to do their job unmolested. This could be an issue for those using the donkey or llama, having to remove them from a pasture before sending out the herding dogs to round up the sheep.

Threats from people are another issue. The people who recently lost their little goats from a barn, would not have likely done so if they had an LGD in with them. We always tell people to keep their hands in their pockets when in with our sheep, and have learned that no one would be stealing any sheep from here as the dog would have them pinned down first. Yet they are good with children and will accept a pat from visitors.

LGDs work best in pairs. Their strategy for protecting is usually one with the herd and one to chase or kill the predator.

The LGDs also have different barks that tell the sheep distinct messages. Certain barks will be totally ignored by the sheep, another will have all the sheep pick their head up and pay attention, another will have them instantly running for home. I have actually watched pups as young as a few months, sort out who was old and decrepit and go lie with them in the field, as well as protect new lambs before they themselves were even moving about in the field. They can be bonded to almost any animal if properly introduced. Pitfall of this is that if bonded to a house/yard dog, they may be unwilling to stay in the pasture. They can be bonded to an area instead of an animal(s).

Part of their attempt to deter predators can be misconstrued as they will clean up deadstock and may be accused of killing. They do clean up “afterbirth” and can make identifying a new mom difficult as they will often clean all blood away even from her back end, and clean off new lambs if the mom has not completed the job herself. With pasture lambing you have to take care to pay attention and be out often to check.

These are just a few of the things to think about and consider when you are looking at a guardian animal for your operation.

If you do get LGDs, be sure to educate your neighbours about them, as if they are out they can seem quite intimidating.

Lorna S. Wall

Lorna and Pete Wall operate Wall 2 Wall Sheep Ranch in Poplarfield, Man., where they raise White Dorper and Katahdin sheep as well as border collies and Akbash dogs.

www.wall2wallsheep.com

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