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ARTICLES >> Livestock Articles

The Good Oil on Guardians– Protecting your Livestock Investment

Posted by Bestprac on Jan 30 2013

by Liz Guerin
Dogs are said to be ‘man’s best friend’ but with wild dogs costing Queensland alone an estimated $67 million per year in livestock losses, disease spread and control, many pastoralists are looking for a new ‘best friend’ as a solution.

Enter, the guardians! Alpacas, donkeys and maremma dogs are being used with success as the sheeps’ ‘best friend’ (or the friend of any domestic livestock or free range poultry) and can be an effective tool against predators.

With interest amongst pastoralists high, Leading Sheep (a partnership between Australian Wool Innovation and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Queensland with the support of Ag Force) organised a series of webinars on guardian animals where producers could share their experiences of various guardians, what is involved and their effectiveness. This article summarises these webinars.

Read below about - Alpacas, Donkeys and Maremmas.

Alpacas have recently been exploited for their livestock guarding ability and territorial nature. Known for their herding instincts and strong dislike of dogs, they are gregarious, intelligent and long-lived animals (10-15 years), which makes them a good guardian ‘investment’.In the yards: Peter Sheehan says bringing the alpacas into the yards with the sheep is important to maintain bonding.

With case studies showing that use of guardian alpacas can result in lamb marking increases of up to 14 percent in the first year of their use, and up to 10% in the second year, alpacas can effectively ‘pay’ for themselves in a short period of time.

David Jenkins, Senior Research Fellow, School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, at Charles Sturt University says that once alpacas feel ‘at home’ and have bonded with their chosen ‘flock’, they just get on with the job.

“They become aware of predators through line of sight, are easy on fences and their management is much the same as sheep,” he said. “They need vaccination against diseases such as clostridial disease and regular drenching and may need occasional toenail trimming.”

The alpacas’ browsing habit does mean that they are prone to accidental poisoning – a fact to which producers Pat Hegarty of Longreach and Peter Sheehan of Quilpie can both attest.

Pat Hegarty of Longreach has had alpacas since 2006 when, despite years of baiting and trapping, wild dog numbers (and sheep losses) were increasing.

“After some research, I felt that for us alpacas would be a good fit, as I would still need to bait and trap, due to the surrounding hilly country.” Pat said.

Originally purchasing alpaca wethers, the Hegarty’s have built up their alpaca numbers to around 32. Yet ideally Pat would like to have between 100 and 150 (or 8 to 10 in every paddock), a presence he feels would be enough to deter wild dogs.

Whilst Pat says he has never seen alpacas attacking a wild dog, he has seen them go after sheep dogs and try to strike out at them with their front legs.

“I am confident that if any dog came into the mob, the alpacas would attack and rough it up,” Pat said. “The alpacas that went after my sheep dog were not bluffing and were very angry.”

Peter Sheehan of Quilpie has had similar positive experiences with alpacas, after starting with them three years ago. Following increased sheep losses inside the barrier fence and a concern that use of guardian dogs would impact on his baiting program, since introducing alpacas, he is pleased with the results and his losses have reduced.

Both Peter and Pat agree that shearing alpacas can be a challenge. Neither shear their alpacas in shearing sheds, with the annual operation conducted on the ground and coinciding with a 5 in 1 vaccine and a drench.

Ideally, fully grown castrated males are best (and cheaper) to use. Castrating males before they are two years old is advisable, as conflict between uncastrated males is best avoided. The longer they are left entire, the more ‘attitude’ and aggression they will develop – ideal for a guardian.

However, the most important aspect is the initial bonding process. The alpaca’s protective instincts are not fully developed until they are 18 months to 2 years of age, and both Pat and Peter initially introduced their alpacas to sheep in their yards, fed both with hay, and gradually let them out into increasingly bigger paddocks.

“Every alpaca tends to be different in terms of time taken to bond with sheep, but we keep on an eye on them until they are moving and camping together,” Peter said. “As they are let out into bigger paddocks we know whether they are bonded well or not.”

Peter Sheehan said that one of his early mistakes was not bringing the alpacas in with the rest of the mob when mustering for crutching.

“Unfortunately, a mob of feral goats came in and the alpacas decided to bond with them,” he said. “We learnt that we couldn’t leave the alpacas behind, otherwise they would bond with something else.”

Hard at work: Out in the paddock the alpacas are rarely away from their flock – a fact that Pat Hegarty finds very reassuring.Whilst there is no ‘magic ratio’ of alpacas to sheep, 1 alpaca to 100 sheep in 20 hectares is a rough guide.

Pat Hegarty said that they run their alpaca wethers in mobs of around 6 with between 500 to 700 ewes, in paddocks up to 3500 acres.

“As the alpacas get used to the sheep, they are rarely away from them, which I find very comforting and gives a sense of security,” he said.

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Now read about Donkeys or Maremmas. 

Donkeys have been used with varying success in areas such as the US, Canada and Switzerland as guardians against predators such as coyotes, bobcats, foxes and wolves.

Friends: Bruce McLeish says that donkeys are docile around people yet aggressive towards dogs which makes them good guardians.Like the alpaca, they can be used in areas where baits are used, require minimal maintenance, are easy on fences and can survive in rugged country. They are docile around people and aggressive towards dogs. They will eat the same feed as sheep, and unlike alpacas, do not need to be shorn. They are highly intelligent, and are long lived (20-40 years) which makes them a good investment over a longer time period.

For Bruce McLiesh of Karara, his interest in donkeys as guardians was sparked after hearing the experiences of a free range poultry producer and her guardian donkey. Following some internet research, the McLeish’s sourced 4 ‘unbonded’ donkeys and started the process of breeding. They now have around 20.

“Already bonded guardian donkeys are in short (or non-existant) supply – but fortunately they do seem to get in foal easily and gestation and births so far have been straightforward,” Bruce said.

Donkeys are bonded with sheep when weaned from their mothers at approximately 10 months of age and separated far away otherwise they will try to get back to their mothers. To date, Bruce has had no success bonding ‘mature’ age donkeys.

“We lock the donkey weaners in the yards with sheep for a couple of weeks and then transfer them to a small paddock,” Bruce said.

Bruce says that whilst all donkeys will guard to some extent, some animals are brilliant and others just mediocre. However if anything that they are unsure of enters their paddock, they will try to get rid of it.

“We had a gelding who, when we changed to suffolks, was grabbing and chasing the black lambs because he hadn’t been bonded with them.”

Bruce said that bonded donkeys live with the mob and always come to the front of the mob when anything approaches.

“When mustering they can make life difficult by trying to block the mob – however once moving they generally travel at the centre,” he said. “The donkeys appear to be familiar with our sheep dogs but both donkeys and the dogs are very wary of each other.”

15 years ago, wild dogs were an issue for Tambo pastoralist, Andrew Martin. Despite forming a syndicate with neighbouring properties and trapping 2000 dogs, the Martin’s decided they needed to do more.

He had heard a lot about donkeys and after trying both alpacas and Maremmas as guardians and finding them not suited to his management style, was keen to try guardian donkeys.

“I got onto a group of wild donkeys near Windorah that had been mustered by helicopter into yards. Despite being wild, within half an hour, we had them on the truck,” Andrew said. “By the next day after feeding them hay, I was stroking a few of them down the face, albeit through a rail. They got quiet very quickly.”

Andrew said that he bonded the donkeys with sheep in a slow process which involved leaving the donkeys in the yards to become quieter and daily exposure to people and working dogs. Gradually the sheep were moved in closer until they were in the yards with the donkeys.

“Right from the start the donkeys wouldn’t let the dogs in the yards which was a good indicator,” Andrew said.

The bonding process was conducted using a mob of stragglers including rams, wethers, ewes and coloured sheep, which with hindsight Andrew says has been beneficial.

“They got used to the whole suite of sheep which saved us potential problems with lambing ewes and re-bonding,” he said. “Although re-bonding might be necessary with shorn sheep, because it is such a massive change.”

Andrew has found that once he had his core group of guardians, he didn’t have to go through the bonding process with every single animal.

“New donkeys can be put in with bonded animals and they soon get the gist of what they are supposed to be doing,” he said.

Andrew recommends jennies or geldings as guardians instead of jacks, and says that numbers do matter.

“One donkey in a 3000 acre paddock is not enough. I just keep tipping them in until the problem goes away,” he said. “We are finding that in paddocks with 3 or 4 watering points, you will always find at least 1 donkey with the sheep. Even if the sheep have split up after a shower of rain, then the donkeys split up too. They have excellent hearing and can cover country quickly.”

Andrew says that since having the donkeys, they still do lose the occasional sheep, but comparatively, losses are now manageable.

“What I was losing before was not sustainable. There are wild donkeys in large numbers in many areas – and there are costs involved in getting them home and bonded but in my opinion it is well worth it.”

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Now read about Maremmas.

It is 10 years since Ninian Stewart-Moore first introduced Maremmas – a guardian dog the same size, shape and colour as sheep, to their sheep flock. And it has become the answer to their problems.

Bottoms up: Maremmas are the same size shape and colour as merinos In 2001 the Stewart-Moore’s were running 20 000 merino sheep and 4000 cattle on their 46,500 hectare property. Wild dogs were decimating their sheep and affecting calving percentages.

“We were seeing losses on a daily basis, and estimate that we lost 15% of our total flock to predators,” Ninian said. “It was so soul destroying that we considered getting out of the sheep industry altogether.”

In 2002 with the baiting program ineffective, due to insufficient participants and too many wild dogs, the Stewart-Moore’s began looking for solutions.

“We had heard the name ‘Maremma’ and did some research over the internet. Within a couple of months, we were in contact with a breeder in Victoria. We bought 24 dogs home and started the big learning curve,” he said.

There are 13 old world stock guarding breeds including the Maremma. The Maremma breed began in Italy over 2000 years ago and was first imported into Australia during the 1980s. They breed true to type and their herding instincts are strong.

The Stewart-Moore’s chose Maremmas simply due to availability at the time, and despite an initial outlay of $20,000, Ninian estimates that the Maremmas paid for themselves within the year.

“Initially there was a big time factor involved with bonding and settling them in but sheep losses dramatically decreased,” Ninian said. “We reckon it costs between 30-50c per year/ per sheep to run the Maremmas – but that varies depending on whether you are breeding your own pups or buying them.”

The dogs work by creating a territory and generally take it easy by day and patrol at night. They have a large physical presence (30-40kg of dog) with a deep loud bark. They herd sheep away from perceived danger and are very strong and very quick.

Like all guardians, Ninian says that sound bonding to livestock is the key to success.

Balance: Being able to manage the dogs but not have them want to be with you is a fine balance.“As a pup they need to imprint with the stock in the paddock and not with humans,” Ninian said. “The first 7 months are critical as the pup comes to understand what it is supposed to do.”

Ninan says that getting the balance right with humanisation is vital as it is a fine balance of being able to manage the dogs but not have them want to be with you.

“Ideally you want to go out to a mob of sheep, find a Maremma with them, have the dog come over for a pat and then go back to the mob,” he said. “You can then deal with any injuries or husbandry issues without any trouble.”

In terms of management, ensuring that the dogs have sound genetics and are de-sexed is essential. Regular worming and some coat trimming are required and toe nails need to be clipped if in soft country.

Dog feeding stations that are inaccessible to sheep and cattle provide adequate food for the Maremmas and ensure that the guardian dogs don’t have to leave their flock to go looking for food.

Ninian says that they have achieved full protection with no cost to the government and no reliance on others, and whilst they still contribute to baiting programs across their boundaries, they have peace of mind.

“Our losses from predators have reduced to almost zero. They aren’t zero, but they are at a level that we can live with and we know we can improve,” Ninian said. “Our livestock are less stressed, and so are we.”

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For further information, or to hear the full version of the guardian webinars, go to 
The Leading Sheep Website for (recorded webinars)
The Invasive Animals CRC website
or The Dunluce Station website for more information on Maremmas 

Last changed: Jan 31 2013



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