Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
After 10 years of relatively calm, successful lambing seasons, last year brought calamity to our Kansas farm, Rancho Cappuccino, in the form of the coyote. For a decade, we had tolerated the occasional loss of a small or weak lamb, figuring that the coyotes were here first and that they had a right to make their living off the land as well.
A year ago, however, they started hunting in a pack, digging large holes under our fences faster than we could block them, and picking off our lambs at a ferocious rate. We lost 40 percent of them (about 2 dozen lambs), and the predation continued for months. Even sizable young rams with horns were taken.
We had no interest in shooting the coyotes. A friend recommended the application of wolf urine to the perimeter of our property, so I got online and bought a pint of the foul-smelling stuff. I spent the better part of a Saturday diligently dribbling a little on each and every fencepost. It didn’t work.
Our next line of defense was a livestock guardian dog. After many inquiries, we heard from a woman who had sold her flock in anticipation of a move, and whose 2-year-old Great Pyrenees, Sam, needed a new home. “Maybe you should bring some tranquilizers”, she said on the phone. “He weighs 175 pounds.”
We arrived with a syringe of tranquilizer provided by our vet, a box of dog treats, the stock trailer, and Toby (our goat) to keep him company. Sam was aloof and wary even of the dog treats we tossed his way. But, he was also beautiful and impressive and he clearly took the guardianship of his owner very seriously. She sedated him and together we loaded our enormous, groggy pup into the trailer for the long trip home, stopping frequently to check on him and shower him with affection, which he seemed to appreciate.
It was late when we arrived home, so we left him in the trailer with food, water and the still-suspicious Toby. In the morning, we greeted him and took him into the closest pasture. The first thing that struck us was his body language around the sheep. We’re accustomed to our border collies, who are constantly in motion and are always hoping we’ll need them to move the herd. Sam walked slowly, eyes averted from the sheep, plodding along placidly; he was doing everything a dog could do to put a nervous herd at ease.
That night, a coyote showed up at a dug-out place along the fence. Sam met him on the other side. For about 2 hours they had a standoff, with the coyote attempting to intimidate Sam and Sam firmly patrolling that section of fence, barking ferociously and blocking the coyote’s entrance. The coyotes would try every night for the next several days, but eventually their attempts diminished.
Within a month we had worked out the kinks. The border collies learned that Sam was a part of the team and to not go near his food. We learned that he didn’t need to eat as much food as we’d anticipated. We also learned that Great Pyrenees have been bred to use their own judgment, and as a result he didn’t have much use for our voice commands. He’s also very affectionate and loves to get pet just as much as any other dog. We noticed that while he ignores the chickens as they scratch nearby, he has no tolerance for wild geese and not only forbids their presence in the pasture but does his best to keep them out of the airspace above, as well. The sheep learned that he was their protector and began to watch him for cues and to listen for his warning bark.
Within two months we were completely sold and found an 8-week old Great Pyrenees puppy for Sam to train. We named him Saul and from day one they were inseparable buddies.
Five months later, the lambs began to arrive. The herd looks and acts utterly differently with their protectors nearby. They are visibly more relaxed, spend more time spread out in the pasture and less time clumped up in a defensive mass, and the ewes are much more willing to let their lambs run and play together; before, they were constantly calling them to their sides. Clearly, the flock perceives itself to be relatively safe.
Saul is a giant puppy and sometimes plays with the lambs, and, on a few occasions when a newborn lamb has gotten separated from the far-off herd, he has caught and held the lamb for me until I was able to catch up and carry the slobber-covered lamb closer to the flock. He will also herd kids and lambs closer to the flock on his own, and the kids in particular love to invite him to a game of chase. Sam is a bit less interactive and I expect Saul will follow suit when he’s older, but for now I expect the advantage of the play behavior between pup, lambs and kids will be an even stronger bond between the herd and their guard dogs in the years to come.
During the lambing, Sam and Saul cleaned up after every birth (they ate almost no dog food for a couple of weeks). Even without predation, a few lambs struggle for survival. In these cases, the dogs check on the ailing lamb periodically, nudging it to stand up. When a lamb dies, they collect the little body and put it in a particular place in a protected corner. After a couple of days, they eat it. It’s not the prettiest sight, but not a bad thing either.
There aren’t many disadvantages to our happy new arrangement. Although Saul likes to go exploring, whether there’s a fence in his way or not, he never goes too far. And while Sam is perfect around small children, Saul gets excited and wants to play with them, which invariably results in the human child knocked to the ground, crying. But the young pup is learning.
I wish we had taken this route ages ago. If you have good fences and a reputable breeder, I’d absolutely recommend livestock guardian dogs for your flock. We have heard that you can take a Great Pyrenees pup one of two directions; either into your home to be a member of your human family, or onto your land to be a member of your livestock family. Apparently, though, once they have set out in one direction or the other, it is unwise to try to turn a livestock guardian dog into a house pet or visa versa. The only time I’ve seen Saul truly afraid is the one time I brought him into the house for a visit. He flattened himself on the floor and quivered with fear. But he and Sam preside confidently over our 50 acres and know more about what goes on out there than we farm “owners” ever will.
Photos by Carolyn Welch