SKYLINES PREDATOR MANAGEMENT

 

PUPDATE: Though I bred Great Pyrenees for many years, I've sold the sheep flock and will likely not be breeding again. Read on to see how these amazing livestock guardian dogs helped me raise sheep in the mountains of Idaho.

Predators are a fact of (sheep) life
The issue of predators and predator control is a fact of life for sheep farmers and ranchers. Let's face it - the natural world (where most sheep live) is home to a huge variety of creatures, many on whom prey on other smaller creatures in order to survive.

Sheep have absolutely no natural defenses. Even the adults are fairly small, they don't bite, or kick, or have horns (not many breeds in America do anyway), they don't have especially good eyesight, and they can't even run very fast or very far. Lambs are particularly attractive to predators, since they're even smaller, slower, and more vulnerable than their mothers.

Sheep producers simply have to do everything they can to protect their innocent charges.

Holly's two-day-old lambs.


Management technique depends on point of view
In my neck of the woods, there are two very different viewpoints on predator control. Some people combine elements of both, and others "stick by their guns."

Shoot to kill
One group believes, quite ardently, that the only good coyote, or other predator like wolf, cougar, or bear, is a dead one. These folks spend considerable time and energy trapping and/or shooting any predator that sets foot on the property, whether they've attacked the sheep or not (and sometimes whether it's legal or not). Some members of this group used to also use poisons, but that has been outlawed in recent years since so many other critters were eating the poisoned bait and dying.

Peaceful coexistence
The other group believes, quite ardently, that sheep and predators can coexist peacefully, and that killing predators actually encourages more predators to migrate into the area. Their theory is that since most predators are territorial, they will go to great lengths to keep competitors out of their hunting ground. When a group of predators is killed or leaves their territory for some other reason, it won't be long before new predators discover this fact and move in.

This explains why people in the first group end up continually having to kill new predators that show up on their property and threaten their sheep.

Sheep not on the menu
Now, as the theory goes, the key to peaceful coexistence between predators and sheepmen is training the existing group of predators that they are welcome to stay in the area, but that sheep will not be on their menu. Period.

I know people who've been training the predators in their area very successfully for many, many years, and I've been doing it successfully on this 65-acre farm since 1998.

Gentle guardians

The dogs
Large guarding dogs like Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherds, and Maremmas have been selectively bred over thousands of years to protect man and his domestic animals.

Their technique is to patrol the perimeter of their property on a regular basis, marking the territorial boundaries with urine and loud barking, and attacking any creature that doesn't belong there. This is something that predators can understand and respect.

Emily, King, and Angus are the first of the many Great Pyrenees dogs who've helped watch over SkyLines sheep. (See more photos of our Pyrs at Photo of the Day-Week-Month.)

Holly's 2001 lambs, about 5 days old


The donkey
When I first started raising sheep on a small farm in 1992, Peaches the guard donkey was my only protection for the few sheep that I had. And she did a great job. When a strange human or dog came into the pasture, she would round the sheep up, drive them into the barn, and make them stay there until she deemed it safe.

Not only was this marvelous creature a sweet, gentle, loving pet, but Peaches also had an important job on the farm and she did it very well!

When we moved to SkyLines Farm in 1998, however, I knew Peaches was going to need some help. We are in serious coyote country here, cougar and bear wander through occasionally, and as the federal wolf reintroduction program begins to take off, every year more wolves are being sighted hunting closer and closer to this farm. I knew it was only a matter of time before my tasty lambs were discovered by the local predators.

Though donkeys are known for intensely disliking coyotes, a lone donkey certainly couldn't be expected to fend off all attacks single-handedly, while also trying to round up the sheep and keep them in a safe bunch. I began to look for guard dogs to work in concert with Peaches.

Building the initial guard team
King . . .
Back in 1998 I bought my first Great Pyrenees guard dog, the experienced 3-year-old King, from a neighboring sheepman. I chose to start out with an adult rather than a pup since I knew so little about how these dogs did their work or even how to train one of them. That turned out to be a smart decision. King immediately set out to notify all the predators in the area that he was on the job, while very graciously teaching me to just stay out of his way, observe, and let him do his work.

By the next year, I understood how these dogs do their job and had much more confidence about starting a pup. I knew that I needed to give the pup lots of latitude to develop on her own, while still teaching her a few basics: "Stay with the sheep no matter what, don't chase or bite them, come when I call you, get in the truck if I ask you to, and let me handle you in case I ever need to doctor you." That's about it. I figured that King setting the example, combined with a few thousand years of breeding, would take care of the rest of Emily's training.

Emily . . .
That summer, I had ought the Pyrenees pup Emily from another nearby sheepman. I taught her the basics, and she then proceeded to learn on her own (and by watching King) how to effectively guard the sheep. By the time she was a year old Emily had developed into a well-behaved, very productive member of the SkyLines guard team. She was also obviously enjoying her job, her sheep, and her life - a goal that I had fervently hoped I could achieve with all of my dogs. Success!

Angus . . .
The following year I bought the Pyrenees pup Angus and started on his basic training. As he grew, I saw him observing King and Emily at work, and he quickly developed into a terrific guard dog himself. By ten or eleven months of age, Angus was a full-fledged member of the team, and actually the most formidable of the three. Like King and Emily, Angus was also clearly enjoying his life here at SkyLines Farm.

With three trained guard dogs plus Peaches the guard donkey patrolling the farm's 65 acres, I was sleeping well at night knowing my precious sheep were in good hands.

 

Peaches and Dorothy

Peaches the guard donkey
with the ewe Dorothy.

Emily and King

Emily (seated) and King survey the
sheep winter pasture.
 

 

11-month-old Angus on duty
in the summer pasture.


Breaking the rules
I should mention here that with each of these dogs I broke many of the so-called rules quoted to me knowingly by shepherds and non-shepherds alike. My major transgression was probably the rule against "peopling" the dogs. This rule states that a dog will be ruined as a guard animal if the shepherd hugs, kisses, or generally slobbers over the dog (as I always have done and always will). This kind of treatment supposedly makes the animal bond more deeply with people than sheep and defeats the purpose of having the dog.

Well, starting with my first pup Emily I followed my heart, modified the rules, and worked out a system of my own. With a few refinements, I used the same approach with the second pup Angus and all subsequent pups. All of my Pyrs I've worked with have been fabulous guard animals, as well as gentle, affectionate family pets. Here's the system that's worked for me . . .

Bonding the pup to sheep
For the first two or three months, the pup stays near the barn and bonds with a few select sheep who serve as mentors. I went through a few iterations of this bonding method before I hit on the best one for my situation.

Lambs: Some shepherds put their guard dog pups in with lambs for the bonding period. I tried this approach, and quickly decided it wasn't for me. I just couldn't stand to watch my lambs being chased and harrassed by the pup, even if they weren't being seriously hurt. And I'm not alone. I've heard many people who've tried this method complaining that their year-old guard dogs are still chewing on the very animals they're supposed to guard! In my experience, the rough behavior does mellow eventually with age . . . but I just don't want my dogs to ever be rough with sheep. Period.

Ewes: Other folks put their pups in with their ewes for bonding. I tried that approach also and found that ewes, especially when they have lambs at their side, can be incredibly mean to a tiny pup. This is understandable - they're just protecting their lambs. As the pup grows it eventually learns to stay out of the grumpy ewes' way . . . but I just don't want to watch the process, or worry about anybody getting hurt.

Rams: I also tried putting a pup in with the rams, and they all got along just great. The SkyLines rams are so big, so sturdy, and so mellow that they clearly enjoy the pup's constant chewing and gnawing on their legs and ears . . . but that's definitely not the behavior I want the pup to learn!

The Final Solution: I finally settled on a system that works just great for me. From day one, I put the pup with a couple of kindly pet wethers (currently Handsome and Buster). The wethers are extremely gentle with the pup but they're also big enough to teach the rowdy, growing kid some basic sheep manners like don't bite, chase, or harrass sheep. And, with the SkyLines wethers serving as puppy mentors, these overfed, pampered pets now have real jobs at last!

 

Any milk in there?

Angus the Pyrenees pup on the day he arrived here, at 5 weeks of age. Buster the kindly wether seemed to really enjoy caring for the puppy. As Angus grew and became more rowdy in his playing, Buster gently but firmly let him know what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They ended up becoming great pals, though Angus eventually stood eye-to-eye with Buster.


Bonding the pup to the shepherdess
For the first few weeks after the pup comes home, I limit my own interaction with the pup to about 15 minutes, morning and night. During these visits, I thoroughly indulge myself as we cuddle, snuggle, play, and generally get to know each other. When playtime's up, I take a very deep breath and make myself walk away. It's not easy to turn my back on that darling bundle of love that wants only to be with me, but it's got to be done. The pup needs to learn to look to the sheep for its comfort and security.

In time, of course, those roles will reverse, as the dog matures to assume the job of sheep guardian. But for these critical first few weeks, I have to be strong and resist my natural inclinations to sweep the cuddle-dud up in my arms and take it into the house with me. This phase only lasts a short while, anyway. As I see the pup bonding with the sheep, I can slowly begin to give it more time and more affection.

During this period I also teach the pup to walk on a leash, as we go out to meet the other dogs and the rest of the sheep. Each ewe needs to come up and inspect the new "wolf" in the flock, just to make sure it's not a threat. And of course the dogs need time to establish their own pack hierarchy.

The ultimate goal - bonded to sheep and also "peopled"
By the time the pup is four to five months old, it's ready to join the main flock. It's thoroughly bonded to sheep, to the other dogs, and it's also most definitely "peopled." Now, every time I go out to visit or feed, all of the Pyrenees dogs come bounding up to me and crowd around vying for hugs and kisses. Each dog gets a heavy dose of affection every single day.

Much as they enjoy human attention, these dogs were taught at a young age, and fully accept, that their job is to stay with and take care of the sheep. So, when my visit is over and it's time for me to leave, one or more of the the dogs usually escorts me to the gate and then they all go right back to their business looking immensely pleased with themselves.

Of course, this friendliness only applies to me and to the people I bring onto the farm. The dogs do not tolerate strange people or animals near their fenceline, much less inside their pastures, and they make that very clear with loud and ferocious barking.

So much for the rules . . .

Over the years, I've come to deeply love each of these kind-hearted, gentle creatures. In fact, I may just have to keep at least a few sheep forever, so I'll have an excuse to keep Great Pyrenees dogs and donkeys around too!

King with some of his lambs

 

 

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SkyLines Farm 4551 Highway 6 Harvard, ID 83834 208.875.8747
Purebred Romney & Romney-Cross Sheep