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The Other Livestock Guardians: Llamas and Donkeys

9/3/2013 10:11:00 AM

Tags: Raising livestock, working dogs, livestock guardians, Jan Dohner, Michigan

While livestock guard dogs (or LGDs) are the oldest and most traditional livestock guardians, other animals have been used to help protect stock. Today we are most familiar with the use of guard donkeys and llamas.

The use of larger and more aggressive, alert, or protective animal species to protect other stock is technically referred to as multi-species grazing. A few goats were often kept in a sheep flock, even in ancient times, because they were more likely to respond aggressively with a dog or another predator. Cattle, especially horned cattle, and horses or ponies may also offer some deterrence to predators. The difficulty with this practice is that often these different species do not naturally graze together in a single group and will separate in pastures.  D.M. Anderson, of New Mexico State University, coined the term flerd to describe the multispecies grazing groups that are created by deliberately bonding lambs or kids with cattle. Keeping these animals together in a pen over a month or two will not only increase their tolerance of each other but the smaller animals will learn to seek out the cattle for protection.

Using llamas or donkeys as livestock guardians is a form of multispecies grazing. Neither of these animals actively work at guarding livestock in the way LGDs do, nor can they provide the same level of protection; but there are several good reasons why a llama or a donkey might make a better choice for your stock or your situation. 

llama and sheepLlamas as Guardians

Llamas and alpacas are from South America, where they were domesticated in the Peruvian Andes 6000 to 7000 years ago. While alpacas were primarily raised for their fiber, llamas were also used a pack animals and sources of meat and leather. Llamas were not used for predator control in their native land. In North America, llamas were primarily viewed as exotic or zoo animals until the 1980s, when the interest in diverse fiber animals grew. Sheep producers noticed that predator losses were lower when llamas shared pastures with their sheep.  By the early 1990s, more comprehensive surveys and studies began to determine just how llamas provided livestock protection.

Llamas have several behavioral characteristics that help them take on the role of livestock protector.  They are highly social animals that don’t enjoy living alone.  If they are the only member of their species in a pasture they will naturally associate with the other animals.  They are also reliably aggressive against canines, including dogs, coyotes, and foxes.  Mature llamas demonstrate protectiveness of their young, their herd mates and their territory.  Although individual llamas may act differently to threats, there are observable steps in their behavior. At first a llama will sound a high-pitched call or scream, often followed by posturing that includes spitting and moving towards the predator. Llamas will often charge or attack an intruder, attempting to kick or paw at it or chase it away. Some llamas have been observed placing themselves between the threat and their companions or they may attempt to herd them away from the threat. Llamas may also use their height to scan the surrounding for potential issues or even patrol their area.

Researchers have determined that three most important llama traits that correlate with successful livestock guarding are alertness, leadership and weight. Weight is often linked to age and maturity. Besides sheep and goats, llamas have also been used successfully to guard cows with calves, deer, and poultry.

Guard Donkeysdonkey and sheep

The common donkey is primarily the descendant of the Nubian wild ass, domesticated by the ancient Egyptians and other peoples of the region 5000 to 6000 years ago.  He is still the common beast of burden in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world. And he has long been the pasture mate of sheep and goats.  Donkeys made their way to the New World on the second voyage of Columbus, and the Spanish colonists who followed brought burros that eventually became feral in tremendous numbers in the Southwest.  Donkeys were also common in the southern states as the sires of mules; however, the deliberate use of donkeys as livestock guardians is recent.

The number of people using donkeys as guardians is smaller than either livestock guardian dogs or llamas.  In surveys of producers, donkeys are generally rated as less successful livestock guardians; however, there has been little research on how donkeys work as guardians and how to chose and train donkeys for the job. No doubt, more knowledge on how to select a good candidate for training would improve the situation since some owners report excellent results from their donkey.

Donkeys are very territorial in nature, which is a useful trait for a livestock guardian. They are strongly and instinctually aggressive to canines and this behavior will extend protection to their pasture mates.  Donkeys can be formidable fighters – biting, kicking, slashing and chasing intruders. Although horses tend to flee danger before using their teeth and hooves to protect themselves, experts believe the donkey’s fight instinct is triggered more quickly because they often lived alone and, therefore, were more vulnerable without the protection of the herd. In the wild, male and female donkeys tend to live alone or in very small groups most of the year, coming together in larger groups only for during breeding season.  Unfortunately, this is also the reason that a solitary donkey may not seek out the continuous companionship of sheep or goats in his pasture. 

Donkeys are an alert animal on pasture, which is also very important in extending livestock protection. If the donkey becomes bonded to its flock and stays with them in the pasture, the sheep often regard the donkey as a protector and gather near or behind them if a threat is perceived. Although gelded jack donkeys can make good livestock guardians, many experienced folks recommend using a jenny with a foal since she will be extremely wary of potential threats and predators.  The foal, which is raised with a flock, is usually a livestock good protector as it becomes older since it is so comfortable with its pasture companions. 

Now that we have looked at how dogs, llamas and donkeys can function as livestock guardians, in my next post we will look at the pros and cons of each livestock protector so that you can make a good choice for your situation.  In the coming weeks, we will also look at how to select a good candidate for guarding, how to provide good training and experiences, and problem solving.

Jan Dohner is the author of Livestock Guardians; Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd, by Storey Publishing. She has over 30 years of experience with livestock guard dogs and wrote this book to help all owners and potential owners of livestock guardians to achieve greater success. She is also the author of The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds. You can find more on her blog Rare on the Farm and her author page at Mother Earth News.

Photos by: Are You Sure I’m Not a Sheep?, Greg Clarke; Donkey and Sheep Together, Kareem Mayan



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