Friday, 6 July 2018

Predators and perimeter type working LGD

A bold coyote watches the flock from the top of a bale. This is a good moment to add in additional guardian dogs.


Predators and perimeter type working LGD
©Louise Liebenberg, May 2018



Much of the focus when raising Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) is ensuring that they form a tight bond with sheep. We want the dog to be nurturing towards the sheep, endlessly patient, gentle, and respectful of their charges. Most livestock keepers value the tighter bonding type of dogs over the more patrolling or perimeter type dogs, believing that when the dog is close to the livestock, it is more effective.

 A successful LGD should have a balance between these two primary behaviours, the dogs need to be trustworthy towards the livestock and protective against predators.
If the dogs are only nurturing types, then they are likely to be a bit milder in nature and perhaps a little less effective in protecting the livestock should predators come calling. To stand up to large predators, the dog needs to be bold and brave, and willing to confront a predator if that is required. Many highly nurturing types will often stand and bark at a distance, but few are willing to be combative. The ideal LGD will have a balance of this traits, however not every LGD has that perfect 50-50 mix. Some are more nurturing, and others are more protective. Some are closer bonding and other LGD like to be more proactive when dealing with predators.

A dynamic exists between predators and prey, a predator needs to stay in close contact with their prey to ensure a constant and predictable food source. However, not every interaction between predators and prey results in a predation event. You will see lions drinking side by side with zebra, at a water pool in Africa, or cheetahs walking past herds of gazelle without the gazelle being overly concerned about their presence.  The prey is wary, and aware of the predators. Many times, predators will just be passing through, observing, and resting close to their prey animals.

This got me thinking about the relationship between the coyotes and our sheep. A few months back I got a call from a sheep rancher in central Alberta, Canada. He runs a flock of a few hundred ewes and has a mature LGD who he described as a close bonding type of dog and very sweet to the sheep. He was concerned about what he was observing. The coyotes would be coming close to the flock, he (estimated around 150 feet) of the flock, and the dog did not seem to respond to them. If the coyotes came even closer the dog would get up and bark at them and chase them a short distance away. According to the owner, the dog was just not motivated to chase the coyotes, and unfortunately the coyotes knew this too.

Coyotes are experts in observation, they have all day to watch and learn what we are doing, they learn our routines, patterns and even the habits of our stock and guardian dogs. Likely, these coyotes were just checking out what is going on, testing what they can and cannot do and learning how much of a deterrent the LGD is. They may not in predatory mode (yet) and just observing the situation. The coyotes could be habituating both the dog and the stock to their presence.

Habituation is a subtle process, it can be defined as “a decrease in responsiveness upon repeated exposure to a stimulus”. The LGD shows a decrease in response towards the regular presence of the coyote. Without the coyotes behaving in a predatory manner, the stock and the dog learns to disregard the presence of the coyotes. The dog may have initially barked at, or chased off the coyote, however over time the dog got a little tired, and accustomed to the presence of the coyotes. Gradually, the dog started reacting less and less to the presence of the coyotes, allowing them closer and closer. Some people may feel that this dog is responding with appropriate force, as no predation was occurring.

I have seen similar behaviour with the coyotes on our ranch. They regularly check out what we are doing, if we move the stock or change our patterns, the coyotes come and see what has happened and changed. A few years ago, I noticed a coyote coming around at various times of the day, staying beyond the fence. Within several days, I found the same coyote laying on a hay bale in a field closer to the sheep watching what was going on. A few days later, the same coyote was laying on a bale in the same pasture where the sheep were grazing. At this point, I had two dogs with the flock on a large pasture containing both open areas and bush. There was a progression in the coyote's behaviour and his boldness. I realized that I needed to “up the ante” and increase the number of LGD working in this pasture to ensure that the coyote did not become even bolder. Thankfully, I have some "spare" LGD and could re-group them and increase the number of dogs in this big and difficult to work pasture.

Two of the guardian dogs lead the flock back to the night corral after a day of grazing.
What is important in these situations is to understand that patrolling dogs/perimeter type dogs have a function to push predators further away than just the area directly around the flock. In most instances when we change pastures or move into a new area, the dogs will forge ahead and do a sweep through the area. In heavy bush, we will allow a some of the dogs to go in a few days before the sheep arrive to ensure that the predators move out.  By having dogs who go a bit further, check out the regular trails and place pressure on the predators at a distance, ensures that coyotes do not get overly comfortable being around the sheep and dogs. The patrolling dogs form a greater buffer zone around the flock.

I have read that LGD who chase predators with determination and over a greater distance, will deter predators for a longer period, than when the dog only barks and chases for a short distance. The key is, that the dogs need to work with conviction and determination so that the predator feels his life may be in jeopardy when it approaches the flock.  These types of dogs are often higher on the protective side, and more proactive in their guardian duties.  It surprises me how many ranchers feel that the only good LGD is one who is close and tight with the sheep. I think both types play an important role in providing protection for the flock.

We have found the tasks of staying close to the flock or out patrolling are not static, and are interchangeable between various dogs.  We have seen when a cougar is close by, that many of the older more experienced dogs head out and form a perimeter around the livestock, when the predator pressure is low the older dogs are quite content to lounge around the sheep and let the younger dogs patrol. The division of roles could be because of the age of the dogs, temperament, predator pressure and even the dynamic within the pack.

 I do not like to define close bonding types or perimeter types as something that is a breed specific trait as I have seen both traits within one breed. We run one breed of LGD (the Sarplaninac), when I am asked if our dogs are tight bonding or more perimeter types, I am never sure what to say, as our dogs do both tasks, they are often sleeping tight in with the sheep but are certainly quite willing to go out and patrol too.  Defining a breed by these two labels (perimeter or close bonding) is too generalized and static, it negates the fluidity and adaptability that each dog has within the pack. A perimeter type is not less effective than a close bonding type, each have an important role in keeping the flock safe. Too often, a dog that is not bonded to livestock or one that roams, is described as a “perimeter” type, and that is part of the problem when we use such generalized labels.

The roles our LGD have are not static, depending on a certain situation they could be described as close bonding types and at other times, very willing to be out patrolling pushing predators further back.

A good livestock guardian dog ensures the livestock are safe, and that predators are happy to avoid the area the flock grazes in.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Fence training for your LGD

This field of 160 acres has been subdivided with electric sheep nets, the sheep are grazed in about 120 acres of bush. In the evening, the ewes are brought back to a night corral. The sheep and dogs wait patiently for us to bring them to the night corral at the end of a day grazing.


Fence training

©Louise Liebenberg 2018

Written for the The Shepherds Magazine


In the last article, I discussed some reasons why livestock guardian dogs roam. In this article I would like to share some of the things we do on our ranch to teach pups to respect fences. 

We graze our sheep mostly on land that does not belong to us during our short grazing season, this can be bush pastures, cleaning up stubble on grain lands, controlling grass and weed growth, cleaning up around equipment yards and a multitude of other situations. Our grazing is very seasonal due to our harsh winters in northern Canada. As our sheep are often not home, and we graze areas that have a high predator load, it is imperative that our guardian dogs stay where we put them and respect the fences. The fences during the grazing season are electric sheep nets. When the sheep are “home” we have permanent field fence, but we will sometimes subdivide certain pastures with the electric nets to either manage the grazing, or ensure the areas are smaller in times when predators are active and so giving the LGD the best advantage. 


Once the snow comes, the nets are packed away and the sheep stay behind the permanent fence and are fed through the winter.  Even though we live out in the bush, it is still important for the guardian dogs to stay where we put them, the breed we have are ҆arplaninac, and these dogs are coloured like typical gray wolves and coyotes, if our dogs are out roaming, chances are high that someone would mistake them for a predator and shoot them. Around here, roaming dogs are shot, killed by predators, or simply disappear. With the predator density, our sheep would stand little chance, it is imperative that the LGD stay with the sheep. As we value our dogs and understand the importance of always having enough adult dogs with the livestock we need to ensure our dogs stay within the boundaries we place them in.


Learning to respect fences is part of the work we do with the LGD. We want our dogs to respect the barrier even if it is easy for them to jump over or get out of.
The training starts young, our pups are born in the barn with the sheep and depending on the time of the year will move into the pasture. We have a few different size pastures set up close to the barn. The smallest is about 2.5 acres and the largest is 10 acres. These are field fence with a hotwire on the top. These smaller pastures are usually places we keep odd groups of animals in, such as breeding rams, stud horses, bulls, weaker lambs, or sometimes we simply place a few sheep here for the LGD pups to bond to. It is in these fields where we start the pups in, the pups are safe, are close by and we can easily supervise them in this area.

The pups and the mother are placed in the smallest pasture. Initially the pups will stay close to the mother and they do not look to escape. The hotwire over top is primarily to ensure that the larger livestock like bulls and horses do not lean on the fence but is also teaches the young LGD not to jump up against the fence. Most learn within 2 tries that over is not an option. We never teach the dogs to jump and will always open a gate to allow a dog in or out of the pasture. With the electric nets it is sometimes easier to just hold the net down and allow the dog to hop over, but this is the start to them learning that the fence is not a barrier. We simply never allow them to jump over a fence. We will also never pet a dog over a fence as this encourages the dog to stand up on the fence. We generally never give the dog any attention until we are in the field with the dog. 

As gate-ways are often the “weak spot”, where the young dogs can crawl through or dig under, we will often fortify this area with hog panels attached to the fence. If a dog still tries to dig out, we will generally not close the hole, but will instead run a hotwire over this hole on the outside of the fence so if the pup tries to crawl under the fence he will get zapped on the far side. One of the big issues we have is that we have bears that constantly dig under the fences to come onto the ranch. We have miles and miles of field fence that are in some areas very difficult to access. We simply cannot be out patrolling the entire fence line daily to ensure every hole is closed in. It is better for us to teach the dogs that the fence, even with holes dug under, should still be respected. 

As the cattle gates do not contain the sheep, we usually attach some field fence to the gates. At times we need to fortify the gates with a few layers of fence, particularly when dealing with pups who can shape-shift through any size hole.

If a dog is super persistent in trying to dig under or crawl through the fence, we will on occasion place a yoke on the dog, this yoke makes it impossible for the dog to get under the fence. After a few weeks, the dog generally does not even try to challenge the fence.

We will introduce a pup to the electric sheep nets when they are about 4 to 5 months old. These dogs are smart and soon learn that these fences should also be left alone. We are fussy that there is always sufficient power on the nets, if not then lambs tend to get themselves hung up in the nets, coyotes chew gaping holes in them and the dogs learn that it is an easy barrier to escape from. We maintain tension and power on the nets, or we break them down when not in use.

The sheep are grazing a roadside ditch here being contained by the electric sheep nets. Our guardian dogs have learnt not to jump over or crawl under these nets and in this way, we can graze areas further from the ranch, knowing our dogs and sheep will stay where they need to be.

Usually, once the dogs are about 6 months old, they accept that fencing is a part of their environment and they rarely see the need to challenge it. On occasion a naughtier, yearling dog might decide to challenge it again and it important to stay one step ahead of the dog. It must never be allowed to learn to escape, it is better to kennel or tether the dog and fix the fence, than allow the dog to continue to escape. Every single time the dog escapes, it is rewarded for this behaviour (adventure is a reward) and it will keep doing this, becoming increasingly fanatical in finding ways out. We have a policy that if a young dog escapes, we will directly send it packing back to the sheep. We do not pet or talk nicely to it, it gets sent back by chasing it back, telling it in a stern tone of voice to go back to the sheep and maybe even tossing the odd object (do not throw the phone) that happens to be in our hand at the dog. The dog needs to understand that this behaviour is unacceptable and that we will no reward bad behaviour. 

It is rare that any of our dogs look to escape after the first year. If we leave a gate open, the may come to the barn or visit the collies but usually within 15 minutes they will head back to the sheep or the pasture they came from. Our dogs always work in pairs or more, they have companionship and back up. The dog needs to feel safe, happy, and comfortable with the livestock. If the dog has all its attention, feed, shelter, other dogs and a job to do, then there should be no reason for it to leave. On the larger pastures, our dogs will actively patrol and push predators back, but they always return to check up on the sheep or lay on a lookout overseeing the sheep. Given the space on larger pastures, our dogs will utilise this space to patrol, but always return to the vicinity where the livestock are grazing.


Another advantage of having our dogs learn to respect fences is during the winter. We live in a high snowfall area, and with snow drifts, our fences will drift under or sometimes just have the top wire exposed. The advantage is that even though the dogs cannot always see the fence, they do remember where it is and will still stay behind the fence. At times is funny to see these big dogs standing behind a foot of fence, something they easily can hop over, and yet they do not.
With the advancements made with technology, invisible fence is another tool one can use to teach respect for fences. The invisible fence alone is not (in my opinion) sufficient to stop a LGD, however hung along a solid fence it certainly help teach the dog that the barrier should be respected.

In our set-up we also have several sturdy kennels with coyote rollers on the top. These kennels are primarily used when we have a female in heat. If the female is not going to be bred, we will remove her entirely from the pasture to ensure no males learn to breach the fence, the sex drive is perhaps higher than the desire to stay behind the fence. By removing the female from the work area, she will also not encourage predators to the area. This way, we can keep the other dogs focussed on their work and keep the female safe and unavailable for breeding. If the decision is made to not breed her at all, we always spay or neuter our non-breeding dogs, this makes managing the dogs a lot easier.

As with most things, prevention is always better than the cure. Some early work initially, does pay off overall, and knowing our dogs respect the fences allows us more flexibility in grazing and managing our sheep.




Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Wolves




We live in an area that is heavily populated with wolves, despite their being a bounty in our County on them. With the bounty, we have mostly had transient (dispersers) wolves passing through the area.  We have noticed that since the wolf bounty was implemented, the deer and elk populations have become more stationary in our area, causing problems for many of the grain farmers, and there has been an increase in hay predation, with the elk feeding, jumping on, and urinating on hay bales meant for cattle.  We have also heard of a dramatic increase in the number of cougar sightings in our area, possibly due to the abundance of prey. The wolf bounty or as it is euphemistically called “wolf hunting incentive” was implemented in our area to help cattle ranchers to reduce wolf predation on cattle.  Despite the ongoing bounty (about 8 years now, and well over 500 dead wolves), cattle ranchers still lose livestock to the wolves, it is like this revolving door, you shoot some and the next wave moves in. Wolf problems are not solved with the bounty, if livestock management does not change, the cycle continues. 


At times I feel very conflicted because the two passions in my life are the ranch and wildlife, and for many this seems almost counterintuitive. It appears that if one supports ranching, that you are expected to be anti-wolf. To me, it is unimaginable not to have the full array of wildlife here, including all the predators. I do understand that wolves do and can wreck havoc among livestock keepers, but I also see many ranchers not taking any measures at all to ensure that their livestock remain safe. In our operation we strive to co-exist, we do no lethal control of predators on our ranch (we run cattle and sheep), and we focus our attention on the livestock, something we can control and manage. We cannot control bears, cougars, wolves, and coyotes but we can control where, when, and how our livestock are managed.

This past spring our good intentions were put to the test, when a pack of wolves decided to move in and den on our ranch.  Smack bang in the middle, about 300m from our sheep, and sharing a fence-line with the cows. The wolf den was located centrally on our ranch and about half a mile from our barn and home.


This photograph shows the proximity that these wolf pups were to our barn and corrals.

 I had remarked to my husband that the coyotes were very quiet, and for us, when the coyotes are quiet, that normally signals that wolves are in the area. Nothing unusual for us, as wolves come and go, we see scat, we hear them, we see tracks and we catch an occasional glance of them.  Some forestry land surrounds our ranch, and we are close to a provincial park. We are accustomed to seeing predators and other wildlife. What we did not realize at that time, that the wolves were not transients, but had decided to move in, live, den, and raise pups on the ranch.


On a nice sunny day in the early part of July, my husband set out to go and make the first cut of hay. As he started to cut the grass, he could see some animals scattering and running into the bush. At a distance, it looked like coyotes. The following day, the same scenario but this time he caught a better glimpse of them and realized that these were not coyote pups but wolf pups, as they were much larger and moved differently. As we continued to hay in the area, the pups would come out of the bush, play in the open field, and bed down together. Occasionally, we would see an adult, who would be the first to bolt for the bush.  We soon realized that the wolves had denned on our land, and the field we were haying was being used as a rendezvous site by the wolves and pups. In total, there were 7 pups. 




 We were feeling a little concerned about this situation as these were not “regular transients”, with the expectation that they would move on. This pack was established and were not going to move anywhere due to the young age of these wolf pups. It was highly concerning due to the proximity the wolves had to our livestock and our barn. Our grazing season was in full swing, sheep and lambs out grazing, cows and calves spread over 3 different pastures. We understood that raising 7 wolf pups would be hard on the female, and the risk to the livestock would be extremely high. Part of the concern was simply not knowing what to expect or being able to predict what would be the best way for us to manage this situation.




We decided to inform ourselves on wolf behaviour, den sites, rendezvous sites, and discussed this with a few wolf experts. After these discussions, we certainly felt some panic, as they too stressed that this situation was very concerning. At times the panic felt a little overwhelming, but by making a concrete plan and knowing what we were going to do certainly helped. We planned what we would do with the livestock, and how we were going to graze them under these circumstances. We concluded that these pups were probably around 10-12 weeks old before we saw them, which meant this pack must have been here at least 3 months already (denning and whelping). In this time, these wolves had not harassed the livestock or given us any indication that they were problematic. So, with this added knowledge, a concrete plan and the realization that the wolves had up to this point not been problematic, we decided to take things one day at a time.

 That they were not being problematic at that point, did of course, not mean that they would not become problematic over time. With higher food needs for the growing pups, the wolves could easily switch from wild game to domestic livestock. We knew we had to encourage these wolves to move off the ranch and back into the bush before fall came around, as one normally see’s an increase in depredation of livestock in fall.

The adult members of this pack were very human shy and we could only catch a glimpse of them occasionally. We never caught any adults on the game cameras and from tracks it appeared that there were only two adults with the pups. It appeared to be the mother of the pups and possibly another sub adult. The pups however, were not very shy and would often run to the edge of the bush while we were working and then slowly come out and watch us. They would lay in the field and only move away if they felt really threatened. We certainly did not want them to habituate to our presence and felt that it would be best to ensure they remind fearful and wary around people. 

Our plan to manage the livestock included night corralling the sheep and subdivide the grazing area with electric sheep nets to ensure the sheep were tighter contained, this would make it easier for the dogs to patrol. We decided to forego grazing in the wooded pastures and kept the sheep grazing open fields. We did multiple checks daily and, in the evening, brought the sheep closer to the barnyard area. We decided to add in more of our LGD to the main sheep flock to ensure we had more dog power in that area, removed any sick or weaker animals to the barn and kept the rams close to the barn, as one of the wolf experts suggested that wolves were more attracted to rams.


We certainly did consider letting the livestock guardian dogs into the area where the wolves were denning, however after some careful consideration we decided it would be better to increase the number of dogs in with the livestock. With pups, the wolves would be highly defensive and territorial of this area. Letting the LGD into that area would likely result in confrontations, which could mean seriously injured or even dead dogs. Having several dogs injured or lost would then mean that the livestock would be less protected and therefore more open to predation.  


With the cows, we did not have too many options for grazing other pastures, so we decided to have the cows with the oldest, biggest, and fittest calves in one group, grazing the pasture closest to were they wolves were, and closer for us to monitor them. The cows with the youngest calves were moved to a pasture about 15 miles away, where the people were living close by. This pasture, is surrounded by grain farms and we felt the risk to these newborns would be less in that area. The rest of the cows went to a pasture about 10 miles away. 

Besides keeping the livestock safe, we also wanted to encourage these wolves to move off our ranch and go back into the bush. We also understood that with pups this age, the female was not likely to move them very soon and that we might have to wait a few more weeks before they would be mobile enough to move. We certainly did not want to have them habituate to us or to people, so we decided we would put pressure on them when we saw them.  If the pups did not run off as soon as they saw people, we would fire bear bangers in their direction.

 

We decided to increase the amount of “human presence” in that area, hoping that this activity would make the female wolf uncomfortable and that she would lead these pups away. We would go quading, horse riding, working the land and we even decided to take our backhoe out and clear a fence line in that area, this fence line was in the planning, but we decided to prioritize it now.  This increase in human presence and a few well-timed bear bangers, certainly had an effect as we noticed that within a few days of this increased activity the wolves had moved further away. After a few weeks, we saw that the pups had again moved closer to the perimeter of the ranch and they were becoming more elusive.


We started to plan that if the wolves did not move away, we would have a “range rider” camp out in the pasture to ensure a constant human presence in that area. This was ultimately not necessary, as a few weeks later we saw that the wolves had left the ranch. We placed more game cameras around the ranch to see if we could figure out where they had moved to. Ironically, they moved off our ranch and moved to where the cows and calves were pastured. As the cows are contained by 4 strand barb wire fences, we added in some hotwire between the barb wire strands. We contemplated hanging up fladry in the pasture where the cows were grazing but decided to hold off on the fladry until we either saw an escalation in wolf activity or harassment of the cattle.  We did regular checks and counts to keep track of all the animals.  In the evening, I would usually go to the cattle, feed them a bit of grain, and try and get them to bed down together. The wolves would occasionally be moving through the pasture with the cows, but they never seemed to actively bother them. We lost no calves and had no bite injuries either. 

The last time I saw the wolves was at the start of fall, there was one adult with two of the pups left.

 
In hindsight, I can certainly see how management choices we made the previous winter had probably led to these wolves moving in. Understanding these factors certainly highlighted to us the need to adjust certain aspects of our winter ranch management. We had, the winter before the wolves moved in, lost some cows in an accident. As the ground was frozen solidly, we decided to dump the carcasses in the back bush, this is a “legal” disposal method in Alberta, we felt this would be the easiest method to dispose of these dead animals.  We did know this would be an attractant for predators but felt that the carcasses were far enough away to not be a problem.  The next management mistake we made, was towards the end of winter we had moved the cattle to the calving pasture which is closer to the barn area. With the cows and sheep closer, we shut the gate to the back half section. This kept all the guardian dogs close to home, and for the rest of winter and early part of spring no dogs, or people, went to the back section. This created an ideal opportunity for the wolves, as there was a ready and easy food source, no humans, no big dogs, thick bush cover, water, and plenty of wild game. This really highlighted to us, the need to allow our guardian dogs to have access to the entire ranch,  we now leave the gates open to this area, compost all the deadstock we have, and we make regular trips to the back section.


This whole situation was very stressful, and I am thankful to the wolf experts ( Sadie Parr) and friends for their help and advice. Their willingness to discuss options and even organise help if needed, was fantastic. We collected scat from the wolf pups to learn what they were eating, and it was very educational to learn so much about wolf behaviour. It highlighted to me the importance of helping others in such situations, and the crucial role all ranch management plays in avoiding wolf/livestock conflicts. I do want to stress that there is no perfect solution and every situation is fluid. What works in one situation might not work for another, there really is no magic bullet.









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