Using a Donkey as a Livestock Guardian: the Pros and Cons

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DonkeyIn search of a livestock guardian, we have looked at both traditional livestock guard dogs and guard llamas.  Although used less commonly than dogs or llamas, here is one more possibility – a guard donkey. A donkey chosen as a guardian should be standard-sized or larger. It is not appropriate to use a miniature donkey as a guardian against dogs or coyotes since he would be so vulnerable himself. Standard sized donkeys tend to weigh 400 to 500 pounds and stand 36 to 48 inches at the withers. Larger donkeys, such as Spanish Jacks or Mammoth Jacks, are horse-sized. Both gelded males and female donkeys, or jennies, are suitable as guardians. Intact males can exhibit aggressive behavior toward other stock and may much more difficult to handle. A single donkey is more likely to socialize with your other animals, although some owners use a jenny with a foal.  A foal raised in this way should make an excellent guardian itself when it is grown. A young donkey or a weanling may bond well with stock but will not be able to defend himself or others until it is older.  A young donkey may also attempt to play with its companions, which will become a serious problem when the donkey is eventually much bigger than its pasture mates. A three-year-old donkey will have outgrown much of his youthful playfulness.

Pros

While donkeys are less social than llamas, over several weeks they will generally come to associate with your other animals. Successful guard donkey users advise that you create a small corral for the donkey in the sheep pen where they can all become acquainted with each other over time before placing them together in a pasture situation. Donkeys do tend to become territorial although they do not patrol their area. They are an especially alert grazing animal with very good hearing and a wider field of vision than horses. They also tend to be less spooky or flighty and more likely to stand their ground than horses.  If the donkey brays loudly at threats, this may discourage predators as well.   

Donkeys are naturally aggressive to canines and this behavior will extend itself to their pasture mates. Donkeys are not purposefully protective of stock but are either reacting to a threat in their territory or behaving as a maternal jenny. Donkeys make acceptable guardians of sheep, goats and calves. Often the sheep or goats come to see the larger donkey as protective and will gather near it if they perceive a threat. Donkeys can protect against a single fox, coyote, roaming dog and possibly a bobcat.

Donkeys who do attack a predator will be very aggressive, using their teeth and hooves. They may bray loudly. They will charge the threat and attempt to chase it away. If they confront the predator, they will attempt to bite at the neck, back, chest or buttocks. They may slash out with their hooves or turn and kick the predator. Experienced owners strongly suggest you do not attempt to stop a donkey that is charging or attacking and that afterwards, you allow the donkey to calm down before approaching it.

Unlike a livestock guard dog, donkey will have similar maintenance and feeding requirements with its pasture mates, although they may need a taller shelter. Donkeys are natives of desert areas and lack the protective undercoat of horses. They definitely need shelter from rain and snow. Do not give donkeys access to Rumensin, urea or other feeds and supplements only intended for ruminants. Donkeys also need trace mineral salt, not the white salt eaten by sheep or goat.  Donkeys will also drink more water than sheep or goats.

Donkeys respect the same fencing as sheep, goats, or calves, although donkeys will chew on wooden fences or posts.

Donkeys are extremely long-lived, with a life span of thirty years or more. They are also relatively inexpensive, although experienced guard donkeys will cost more.

Donkeys generally have a calm temperament and pose little threat to neighbors or farm visitors. Unlike dogs, donkeys don’t roam, dig, or bark.

If you are comfortable with horses and horse care, a donkey is not very different to feed, care for, and handle.  However, if you are not familiar with equines, you should enlist the help of an experienced person to help you select your donkey and teach you to care for it. Do not purchase an unmanageable donkey. Not only does the donkey require regular medical and hoof care, you need to be safe when moving among your stock and handling the donkey.

Donkeys can be used in pasture settings when other forms of predator control are used, such as poisons or traps.

Cons

Not all donkeys will confront canines, choosing to flee instead. Some donkeys will ignore threats to the other animals in their pasture and only react if they themselves are threatened. It is difficult to test a potential donkey for his guardian tendencies. Some users will place a prospective guard donkey in a small corral and introduce a strange dog, taking great care that the dog is safe from harm. Donkeys may not alert to familiar dogs at all.

Donkeys cannot deal with multiple canine attackers or against wolves, bears, feral hogs, or mountain lions. Donkeys also don’t typically protect against small predators, such as raccoons, or against large birds.

Donkeys may not alert you to threats, so that you may be unaware of situations in your pastures.  On the other hand, some donkeys bray a great deal, which may irritate your neighbors. Donkeys will bray if they are lonely or if you have conditioned them to receive attention or a treat when they see you. Expect some braying when you first bring a donkey home.

Donkeys will have difficulty guarding widely scattered sheep or goats and very large pastures with rough terrain or heavy brush or trees.

Guard donkeys may not accept herding or livestock guard dogs and may pose a threat against family pets, as well.

Some donkeys will harass other livestock and they may cause injuries. They may also interfere in the breeding or birthing process. Exercise caution placing a donkey together with ewes and their lambs, unless you are certain of his behavior. It may be necessary to remove a guard donkey from his flock at this time.

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.

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Donkey head – Oscarpanther

Donkey - Dixi