- Author: Dan Macon
As I've written numerous times, research into the efficacy of livestock protection tools, including livestock guardian dogs, is difficult (if not impossible). The traditional model for scientific inquiry - that of comparing a treatment to a control - is extremely challenging when it comes to livestock protection tools. Fundamentally, nobody wants to be part of the control group (that is, nobody wants to leave a group of livestock unprotected to see if the treatment works!). Further challenges arise when we begin thinking about other variables - questions like the specific environment, the predators in that environment, the dietary preferences of those predators, the surrounding land uses, and so on.
Yet these challenges don't mean that we shouldn't try to shed light on questions about where specific livestock protection tools may work, or where they may fail. I like the idea of doing case studies - real world examples of the success or failure of these tools. In my mind, a useful case study would objectively describe as many of the site- and operation-specific details as possible. Case studies could take into account that many real-world management systems employ multiple tools. And case studies could be important whether or not a particular approach successfully prevented predator losses - sometimes we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The following account, then, is my first attempt at writing one of these case studies.
Flying Mule Sheep Company grazes approximately 100 head of sheep on foothill annual rangeland west of Auburn, California, from mid-December through early April. The flock is comprised of bred ewes (approximately 80 head) and replacement yearling ewes (approximately 20 head). The grazed landscape is a large-lot subdivision (20-40 acre lots). Individual parcels are connected via paved and unpaved private roads and Nevada Irrigation District canals. Many residences have domestic dogs; some have horses and donkeys. Vegetation in the grazed landscape includes open grasslands, blue/live oak savanna, blue/live oak woodland, and riparian vegetation. Surrounding land uses include grazing land (cattle, sheep, and goats) and a large regional park (mostly wildland).
Twelve game cameras were placed throughout the grazed landscape in late December. Cameras were placed adjacent to game trails, roads, and canals to help determine the species of wildlife present and the frequency of camera "capture" in relationship to the proximity of livestock guardian dogs and sheep. In order of prevalence in game cameras from late December through early April, I noted coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and a single mountain lion (in the evening on March 1, 2020). Other wildlife caught on camera included deer, raccoons, skunks, jackrabbits, and turkeys.
During the graze period (December 15, 2019 through April 6, 2020), we had no predator losses. In early February, I found a buck that was likely killed by a mountain lion. On the night that we documented the mountain lion in a game camera (March 1), the flock was in a 13-acre paddock, the boundary of which was about 30 yards away from the camera location. On that date, there were 47 lambs with the ewes (between the ages of 1 day and 11 days). The sheep had been moved into this paddock on the morning of March 1. We lost three lambs during the time the sheep were in that paddock due to starvation or mis-mothering.
From a purely scientific standpoint, I cannot say that the dogs and electric fence prevented predation. While the cameras clearly demonstrated that we had predators in the vicinity of the sheep, I don't know that these specific predators would have killed sheep (rather than wildlife prey) if they'd had the opportunity. I don't know if these predators took livestock from unprotected herds/flocks during the same time period. That said, I can conclude that I feel much safer having dogs with the sheep in this landscape! I can also conclude that the mountain lion I caught in my camera has probably seem me more than I've seen it!
- Author: Dan Macon
Since I haven't posted an update to my Livestock Guardian Dog Journal for four months, I thought an update on this project might be timely! We've been training a new dog to work during lambing (with some interesting observations about behavior). We've trained the new dog to respect 3-wire temporary fencing (as opposed to electro-net). And we've been collecting GPS and trail camera data on predator interactions. Lots to report!
GPS Collaring / Remote Sensing Project
We have been putting GPS sensors on two livestock guardian dogs that are with a flock of 82 sheep (bred ewes and open yearling ewes) west of Auburn. One of these dogs is a 10-year-old Anatolian shepherd neutered male; the other is a 2-year-old Anatolian x Maremma intact male. These collars record location every 5 minutes. We've also deployed seven trail cameras on the parameter of the sheep paddock to document wildlife, domestic animal and human activity in the proximity of the sheep. Our hope is that when we compare the time stamp on photos with the GPS locations of the dogs, we'll begin to understand what kinds of interactions the dogs have with predators and non-predators.
The habitat where the sheep are grazing is foothill oak woodland and open grassland. To date, the cameras have detected coyotes, foxes, deer, jackrabbits, skunks, raccoons, owls, and small birds - along with domestic dogs, walking/jogging/cycling humans and horseback riders. We're in the process of going through the GPS data to determine what the dogs were doing when these animals and people showed up in the cameras. Here are a few of the most interesting photos:
Learning to be a Lambing Dog
Our oldest dog, Reno, has been an outstanding dog at lambing. He keeps his distance from lambing ewes, is very patient with rambunctious lambs, and keeps afterbirth cleaned up (which can attract scavengers and predators). Since he's ten years old, we decided we need to try 2-year-old Bodie with the lambing ewes this year. We also hoped that Reno would teach him manners and respect - Bodie is still a bit immature behaviorally.
Our first lamb was born on February 22, and I was fortunate to arrive shortly after the birth. As has been typical, Reno was lying about 20 yards away from the ewe and lamb. Bodie met me at the pasture fence well away from them. After I had been there about 10 minutes watching the new lamb, Bodie joined us. I shot video of his interaction with the ewe and with Reno - you can view it at this link:
Training a New Lambing Dog (YouTube)
I suspect that some of Reno's protectiveness has to do with his love for eating afterbirth! That said, in the weeks since this interaction, Reno has enforced Bodie's respect for the sheep even when there isn't afterbirth available. And Bodie seems to have matured. He's more respectful of the sheep, less rambuctious in his behavior, and a better guardian dog in general.
Developing an LGD Puppy
Finally, an update on the Pyrenees x Akbash puppy we picked up in September. Elko is going to be a big dog - he's already as big as Bodie. Since pulling the rams from the flock in November, Elko has been with the rams learning manners. For several months, we kept him with Reno (which also helped on the manners front). Since we moved Reno to the lambing flock, Elko has been on his own. He's still definitely a puppy - we're not expecting him to provide much protection at this point, but he is learning to stay with his sheep.
Several weeks ago, we tried an experiment using a different type of fencing. We have found that most of our dogs will stay in 42-inch electro-net. However, we wanted to try training the sheep (and the dogs) to 3-strand poly-wire fencing. I installed a short stretch of fence at our home place and have watched Elko check it out and decide to stay on the proper side. Success!
Here's a relatively recent photo of Elko:
Stay tuned for more information on these topics! And just a note: last week, Reno became lame on a back leg. Our small animal veterinarian thinks he probably tore his ACL. At the moment, he's recuperating in the barn and watching over a trio of very annoying bottle lambs. Given the seriousness of his injury, he's probably permanently retired. He's been a great dog!