Wednesday 29 January 2014

Around the ranch

I used up my word quota on the last blog,
so this is just  glimpse around the ranch this January 2014.

So, without too much explanation here we go.

The sheep

Lad, Lucy and Mali and a sheep

Do you see Mali?



Some more sheep

Fena, eating

Our road to the ranch

The creek

Mali snow plowing

 Mali checking out this ewe, the ravens picked her one eye out,
she was very gentle and cautious in her approach.

Lucy, loves gazing into the distance

Lucy coming to say hi

Heading off to check the coyote trails

Cows heading for the bush

Can you see Fena out there?

and now?

Sunsets are all ways worth watching.

Monday 27 January 2014

Instinct, Intelligence and a whole bunch of rambling thoughts

Charles got me thinking after he posted the question on FB:
“What do you think, are intelligence and instinct the same thing?”
My answer to this was “no”, and I am referring to dogs here.

This is how I view things: 
Instinct is: an inborn, innate response or behavior, which is not learned. A reaction without conscious thought involved. Some examples of instinctual behavior in animals are: spawning in salmon, finding the udder in lambs, flocking behavior.
 In my opinion all instinctual behavior has to do with survival of the species.
Intelligence is an all encompassing word that includes the ability to learn behavior, communication, understanding, self awareness, problem solving and a whole lot more.
I do not think that intelligence or instinct  are the same thing,
they operate on different levels.
An amoeba, despite not having a brain,
 functions at an instinctual, cellular level.
I think we often mistake  instincts,
for intelligence.

Now, onto LGD (Livestock Guardian Dogs) 

The mandate we give our LGD is simple:
1. Do not eat the livestock
2. Do everything you can to protect them

We usually lump on a whole bunch of other requirements,
however that is not pertinent to this discussion.

Many people talk about the instinct that has been bred into LGD;
one that is both nurturing and protective of stock.
You know these types of statements made by breeders..
 "these dogs have an instinct to protect livestock and have been doing so for thousands of years"

I am not entirely sure that what we are talking about,
 is in fact,
all instinctual behavior.

I am not sure if,
by its very definition,
 instinct can be bred in or out?

Surely, it is not instinctive for a canine to lie down next to the  prey they are designed to eat? 
It is not an instinctive behavior to want to nurture and protect their food source over a span of many years. We do not see wild predators babysitting their prey for years and years. 

The innate response, for predators, is to kill and simply eat the lamb.
Dogs, and that includes LGD, are predators.
Hunting is essential for their survival.
The desire to hunt is instinctual,
however, successful hunting requires intelligence.
 Hunting requires both instinct "to instigate the action"
and intelligence "to learn the action". 

So, I do not think that the “do not eat my livestock” part of the job falls in the category of instinctual behavior.

What is perhaps instinctual,
 is the desire to form a pack and protect their territory/ their young/ each other – this is protectiveness,
and is an integral part of LGD behavior and,
 encompasses part 2 of the work mandate.

 Intelligence is required  for the dog to expand its instinctive protective nature to include  the stock, the yard, the kids.
 This process of learning that the pack includes other species, is refereed to as the “bonding” stage.
 Some breeds bond tightly with the stock and others are less bonded to the stock.
Some are more into guarding territory,
 others,  the stock within the territory.
Both qualities are "good" qualities
just some people find one, more desirable over the other.

The degree of bonding varies as much among individuals as it does among breeds.
This bonding to livestock is not instinctual,
 but a learned behavior,
 that has been heavily selected for.

Remember, genetics or heritablity is not the same as  instinct.
These are separate entities.
 I think when people refer to the "instinct" in LGD,
they actually mean the selection of certain traits.
Something that can be bred in or bred out.

I define the instinctual hunting behavior in canines as prey drive,
and prey drive is on a spectrum from high to low,
where zero does not exist.
Wild canines (wolves, coyotes etc) on one end and,
on the other end of the spectrum,
you would have canine breeds that have very low prey drive, such as LGD.
Herding dogs would be on the higher end of the prey drive spectrum.

The hardest part of raising a LGD is to prevent it from playing, chewing, roughing up, chasing and killing livestock.
Why? Because even your best bred, heavily selected LGD still has some hunting instinct.
 The easiest part and something we do not have to teach the dog is the protectiveness to its “pack” and territory.

Now, how does intelligence play into all of this?

Intelligence will give the dog the ability to learn (not chase the chicken), problem solve ( how to escape out of fences..) and make judgment calls ( bark for back up or get into a brawl with the wolf?).

Intelligence in a LGD would allow it to utilize is existing prey drive to catch mice,
yet allows it to differentiate that stock is not included in this behavioral pattern,
through learning.
LGD Lucy utilizing prey drive to catch mice
Intelligence has very little to do with instinct, but more to do with the range of behaviors possible.

 Instinctive behavior is fairly clearly defined;
you need intelligence to mold the instinctive behavior into a pattern you can utilize.
We do this with herding dogs, hunting dogs, retrieving dogs and LGD.
You need selection to hold onto the desired traits.
So, what I think is happening is that LGD have not lost their instinctual hunting drive,
( we see many cases of LGD chasing and killing stock),
instead what the old world shepherds have done over time
is selected for dogs with lower and lower prey drive.
This selection has resulted in dog breeds that are not “triggered” to react to bouncy little lambs as much as other breeds would, making living together a possibility, as opposed to eating them.

Instinct is not gone, merely suppressed.
I bet if you stop feeding your LGD,
 its instinct will kick in and it will start to eat the stock in a heart beat!
(Hint: feed LGD well!)

Aggression is the outward display of protectiveness.
And,  protectiveness is instinctual.
The degree of protectiveness is another man selected trait.
Some breeds have been selected for a lower level of aggression and others for a higher level of aggression, this selection would probably depend, for a large part, on the predator load and environmental factors.
Some LGD breeds have a lower aggression level as they need to be nice to the neighbors, the postman and the neighbor’s cat.
The breeding of animals who display these desirable behaviors are then combined.
Intelligence will allow for a good dog to make judgement calls as to how much aggression is needed in what situation.
Once again protectiveness is instinctual;
 the degree of aggression is heritable.
Intelligence allows for the behavior to be utilized in various forms (police dogs, gripping a wayward cow, dog fighting..)

I personally do not think that instinctive behavior can be bred out or in to an animal.
Through selection we can we can mold a certain desired trait.
 Intelligence does not influence an instinctive behavior.
I believe that not every LGD is cut out to be a LGD, despite the parents being awesome guardians; in some cases the instinctive response overrides selection and training.
If it was instinctual to protect baby lambs, no LGD would make the error to kill them.
As LGD are intelligent (and stubborn) animals, they can be taught to have a low re-activity towards the livestock.
Most “bad” LGD get selected out (they get shot by the furious rancher when he discovers the dog chewing his livestock).
The ones, who do not make the grade, are generally culled out of the gene pool. 

The qualities we admire in LGD  need to be selected for on an ongoing basis. 
Without this selection, these breeds will revert back to their instinctual behavior pattern and higher prey drive will become more prevalent, undoing years and years of good selection by shepherds.
It only takes one generation, one poor decision to lose what you have.
The work a dog does,
is important so that we can keep selecting for the “right” qualities.

This leads me onto the next discussion, if you do not raise livestock and have LGD guarding them, how can you be sure that you breeding for and selecting the “right” qualities in dogs?

Well, in a nutshell, I don't think you can.
I hear so often of litters of LGD being bred only for show or other reasons (such as dog fighting),
and then they are advertised that they  will make awesome LGD.

The argument that the breeder uses is that even though their dogs are not used for protecting livestock now,
does not mean they have lost their “instinct” to be a LGD.
Maybe, but maybe not.

I see many people advertising their pups as a LGD,
however for a number of generations none of the dog’s ancestors have done the traditional job of protecting livestock.
 Many originate from “urban”  lines.

 I question how people “know” that the desire to protect livestock and nurture baby livestock has not been selected out or lost?
How can we “test” this, without actually having the dogs do the job?
How do you test reliability with stock unless the dog is placed in that situation?
Reliability, that needs to span 10-14 years?
You cannot see "evidence" that a dog laying on the kitchen floor,
 will make an awesome LGD.
You may assume this, even hope that this is the case, bit you just do not know until the dog is placed in that situation.
Do we not make this similar mistake in assuming that our dog will never bite a child?

There is just not another “alternative” way to test LGD;
a working situation is really the only way. 

So, can we maintain all the good qualities our LGD have,
without having stock?

Well, I don't know,
I am of the opinion that if you don't use it,
you lose it.

 Is dog fighting a suitable “test” to measure “protectiveness”?
Many breeders primarily in Eastern European countries claim that is tests bravery, courage, strength..
If they have these traits they will surely be able to ward off a wolf?

 I see part 1 and 2 of the mandate as equally important to being able to function as a LGD.
Only testing aggression does not cover the “do not eat my stock part” of the equation.

 A singular selection just on aggression (through dog fighting) may in fact,
 result in a high prey drive selection, thus defeating objective 1.
Rolling a ball away from a 7 week old puppy to test prey drive,
  does not really cover all the bases. 

What we can do to reinforce the desirable traits here in the west so that they are not lost?
IMO the only way to reinforce these traits is through work and selection. There is just no other way (and, if there is I have not found it yet) to test a dog on prey drive, ability to ignore his instinctual response to living 24/7/365 with his prey, to see his innate protectiveness and intelligence.

You just do not know how a dog will respond unless placed in that situation year in and year out.
We want to preserve the selection that has taken place though  generations of shepherds,
however even that selection  never was, static.
We need to select what suits our ranching operation.
 I do not think my needs as a shepherd,
are any different to the needs of my colleague shepherds in the East. 

 In my opinion,
raising reliable LGD still lies in the hands of shepherds,
who have the ability to “test” the dogs over many years.

To what degree does a farm dog, companion dog, or protection dog differ from your stock protectors?
The difference lies  in the definition of the job.

Here are some of my definitions:
A farm dog is a dog that lives on the farm, he generally goes on the pick-up, barks at strangers, does not not directly interact with the livestock. His main task is to bark when someone enters the yard.
Companion dog, lives within the house, is kept solely for company of the owner, accompanies them, does not necessarily have to “do” anything except wag its tail, lay on the couch and not bite the hand that feeds it.
Protection dog is one that has a job to do and that job is to be reactive if it feels the owner needs and warrants protection. This can be learned response or an innate (instinctual) protectiveness.
Some protection dogs, like most police dogs are  taught this behavior,
in other breeds it is more instinctual.
 Livestock guardians have a clearly defined job, do not eat the stock, protect it with your life and do this 24/7/365 without someone telling you what to do and when.

All breeds can show instinctive behavior such as protectiveness, however not all breeds can do the job of a LGD , they may not be large enough, or built incorrectly, the prey drive may be too high, may not be protective enough etc..
The specific nature of the job does require a specific “tool”.
You can look at a LGD as a valuable asset,
as well as a companion - albeit in the pasture.

Finally, for all the reasons mentioned above, crossing a LGD with a herding dog is simply a very bad choice.
Of course,  people will bombard me with cases of an individual border collie that made an awesome LGD, or a husky cross guardian that did a fantastic job.
I attribute these dogs with intelligence,
and luck.
Some dogs may after a few generations still have a low prey drive and a high protectiveness,
however I am not sure I would want to gamble on that possibility.

The selection in herding dogs has been for a high prey drive and lower protectiveness,
exactly the opposite of a LGD.
This muddles things and can "Mendel" out in all different directions;
it is just too much of a risk to have a messy gene pool,
no pre selection and,
 an instinctive response to eat lamb.

Breeding’s between two LGD breeds is acceptable as the selection has been focused on similar traits and behaviors.

To preserve the working LGD,
you will still need to have shepherds utilizing these breeds,
 lose your shepherds, you lose the function of the breed.

The breed may live on, however it original functionality will be lost.
Remember, Lassie?

Despite this being an extremely long rambling of thoughts,
I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
Feel free to comment, who knows, I may even change and adjust my thought processes.
I am sure a good writer, could write down what I have said  in two sentences.
I am just way to wordy and repetitive.

I am tired and do not feel like re reading this essay, editing the errors etc.
So, it is a take it as it is blog post..


Tuesday 21 January 2014

Words, comments and name calling

Words are strange things, 
 the power they hold is immense.
This blog is mostly about this power,
the associations we form and
a reaction to a Facebook comment.

The associations we make with words, are directly linked to what our parents teach us. 
Calling a penis a penis is embarrassing,
talking about sex and other “difficult topics”
 is just easier when a penis
becomes a …willy.

Words shape how we think about certain topics.
Language is powerful, and easily creates a mental picture,
 results in a negative/positive attitude towards a certain subject. 
Racism is full of examples where,
 the use of specific words,
 are used to create a negative image of the person or race involved.

 Associations with certain words soon evolve into “beliefs".
If we say something often enough,
we actually start believing what we say.

Now, onto the power of words in relation to predators
and our tenacious attitude towards them.

Does our attitude towards predators simply depend on the  way we talk about
or describe them?

Think of the word “coyote”,
 for most people when you say the word "coyote",
most  think immediately of the smaller, wild canine.
 Add in the word “marauding” or “killer”,
then the mental image that is created..
becomes heavily associated with negativity,
 a feeling of slight fear and apprehension enters our thoughts.

This form of describing animals is often,
 the initial introduction we have as kids,
 to many predators;
“the big bad wolf” the “man eating Tigers”, “marauding coyotes”
all imply evil,
something to be feared and a direct danger to ourselves.
 The media world lives off the use of these emotive evoking words.

If the only way we ever hear a coyote being described is as being
evil, killer, varmint etc,
then soon,
 this becomes the mental image we create about  the animal.
 The feelings created by the association of these words,
 soon becomes our belief pattern...
irregardless of the fact,
 that we may never have met a people killing coyote before.

Although I was raised with willy's, rather than penises,
 I was always told that a wolf is a wolf,
a jackal is a jackal,
 a lion, is a lion.
Simple and  neutral.
Never vilified.
I cannot remember my parents ever using negative words to describe any wildlife.

 I believe this attitude and neutrality has shaped me, and that way I see animals.
I never had fear ingrained in me;
I did not grow up believing that all wolves were bad,
and that all coyotes are marauders.

 I wonder,
if this is why so many people have an irrational fear towards predators
simply because of the language used to describe them?

Did, Little Miss Red Ridinghood,
really cause so much damage,
 that we have an irrational hatred towards wolves because of this fairy tale?

I believe,
 if we want to strive for co-existence,
then attitudes needs to change,
we can only change attitudes,
 if we can change the way we think about and describe things.

If we can leave out words such as killer coyotes, and marauding packs,
perhaps the first step can be made towards co-existence! 

So, this leads me to a recent post on Facebook,
this comment,
 instigated, this blog post. 

I did edit this post, I took out  names and corrected some spelling:

They (coyotes) are increasing in numbers here in TX and they are attacking and killing people in the Houston suburbs, who venture outside to save their little dogs or cats who come under attack. Feeding coyotes is the worst possible suggestion. They already have no fear, are experienced killers and when fed or when they find a reliable source of food their numbers explode. For the first time ever in 35 plus years of owning livestock they found my dog food bins on the feed shed and ripped them apart. The female who kept tearing into my feed room now has a pack of 15 to 20 marauders constantly crossing the part of my property that is un-fenced and without a LGD. I now walk out my door with a pistol or a shotgun after several recent deaths just south of here that was the result of coyote attacks on elderly people or small children playing. I have invested in spring loaded coyote proof barrels with lock down lids for my feed. Now they come in daylight hours within several feet of my door. Fencing the rest of my property so that my Akbash can protect our entire place is a greater priority than ever before my 88yr old father in law meets with some tragedy. I've had just about all the coyote sympathy I can stand.......

I read such posts with a sense of amazement..
(and this post is fairly mild in comparison to others I have read)
the descriptive adjectives, the blatant untruths and the ingrained fear/hatred
towards coyotes just astounds me.

 I did a few internet searches, looked up some stats to try and verify the allegations in this comment.
I did numerous  searches for "coyotes killing people in the Houston suburbs", "deaths by coyotes",  etc
 I did not find one case in Houston.
 I then looked up for all Texas..
and then USA..
and could also not find evidence that coyotes were "killing people" in the numbers suggested by this poster.

  If a coyote kills a person it makes headline news, no matter where they are.
Any wildlife, killing a person makes the evening news.

What I did find was;
only two fatal coyote attacks have been recently documented by experts:
 In August, 1981, a coyote attacked a 3 year old child in California and in October 2009, a 19-year-old Canadian women was killed by two coyotes.
There have been more documented cases of coyote bites and attacks,
 and also a few in Texas, in the last few years
this statement made by the poster:
They are increasing in numbers here in TX and they are attacking and killing people in the Houston suburbsand,
after several recent deaths just south of here that was the result of coyote attacks on elderly people or small children playing
is simply not true.

I am not ignorant to the fact that coyotes kill livestock,
nor that they can serious injure a child.
I am not blind to the damage they can cause.
I am aware of the "nature of the beast".
 You have to respect the wildness of a wild animal,
but surely,
 rationality and common sense must also prevail?

What oozes from this statement is the irrational fear,
the negativity in the description and of course the loathing of  the coyote.
I wonder if the poster ever had "sympathy" for a coyote?
When I see a coyote, I view it as a mouse catcher extraordinaire,
I see an animal that is smart, intelligent and doing what it was meant to do.
I do not have "sympathy" for this animal,
it does not need sympathy.
It is simply a hunter.

Not all coyotes are “experienced killers”.
Killing is a learned behavior; the pups need to learn how to kill sheep.
Unprotected livestock creates a “learning opportunity”.
 It is very difficult to teach a coyote to stop killing your livestock once it has learned how to do so,
it is not that they are evil, or demonic,
it is simply, a coyote being a coyote.

 Preventing them from learning this behavior in the first place,
 is a very important part of the process of keeping your stock safe.

I do agree with the poster that feeding wildlife is a very bad idea and should be avoided; improving fencing to allow the dog (s) to patrol more,
 is an excellent step to take to prevent conflicts between coyotes and stock.

I would like to hear what people do to promote co-existence,
however making unfounded, irrational and fear based statements adds nothing to the conversation.

Mouse killing cats?
Now, that is another story..

Wednesday 15 January 2014

First to tell..

I wanted to be the first to tell you this news..
As of last Monday,
our ranch, the GRAZERIE
 has now also been certified

We join the ranks of other certified producers such as:

All things Alpaca Ecuador
Cheetah Conservation Fund
Wildlife Works
Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool
The Living Earth Farm
Women for Conservation
Snow Leopard Enterprises
Ayrshire Farm

and many other, internationally recognized programs and organizations!

To see the complete list go and visit the website of  Wildlife Friendly

This certification is a step up from being Predator Friendly.
So, we are both Predator Friendly, as well as Wildlife Friendly now.
Wow, it is beginning to look like a game farm around here!

Our ranch had to undergo a rigorous audit.
The auditor flew all the way from the USA to our little ranch to conduct this audit last year.
External control is an important part of this ISO certification,
adhering to international standards,
unannounced visits are part of being certified.

We are very excited to be part of this program and work hard at promoting co-existence and looking for solutions that will benefit both ranchers and wildlife.

We hope that this certification of our ranch will promote:

1.  More dialogue for non lethal solutions to predator management
2. Promotion of co-existence between wildlife and ranching
3. Labeling of our meat products in order to sell to consumers who value our commitment
to sustainability and wildlife.
4. To help provide our ranch with some economic stability
(to be honest, the sheep industry and cattle industry, is mostly surviving on a subsistence level,
economic survival of the small family owned ranch is crucial for both the rancher and the wildlife)
5. Education

We are the first ranch in Canada to receive this certification,
and we are proud of it!

More information about this certification will follow soon.

I just wanted to share this news with everyone first!

What is "Wildlife Friendly" organization?

Our Mission

Our mission is to protect wildlife in wild places by certifying enterprises that assure people and nature coexist and thrive.

Our Principles

  • Wildlife Conservation
    We champion the conservation of wildlife in wild places around the world. Our members are committed to the protection of imperiled species and biodiversity.
  • Economic Well Being
    We foster economic and social opportunities in rural communities. Certified Wildlife Friendly® products provide a tangible benefit for conserving wildlife.
  • Accountability
    We promote best conservation practices and robust monitoring efforts.
Look for Our Logo and Trademark
The Certified Wildlife Friendly®, Wildlife Friendly®, and Predator Friendly® marks are registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Hanging in

Thank you, to all the people who made nice comments about my "new years post".
I appreciate the comments, shares and likes!
It helps me to connect to you and sure makes blogging a little more interactive.

We have been very busy lately,
the weather in Canada and large parts of the USA have been brutal lately.
Snow storms,
frigid temperatures, 
arctic blasts,
high winds,
wind chill,
and even more snow.
Now, it can get really cold here in Alberta, but to have days and days on end  between -30 and -40 C
makes it tough.
A little global warming would be nice right now.

 Normally, the weather does keep us busy ,
 with things like snow plowing, keeping stock heaters heating, plugging in vehicles etc.
 Combine this winter with a 3 week lambing stint,
 then the work load increases exponentially.
I am not complaining,
as this is our choice to lamb now in the dead of winter.

When a lamb is born at these temperatures,
it freezes and becomes hypothermic in about 10 minutes.
This means we need to catch every single birth directly.
The minute these little lambs drop out of the ewe,
we scoop the baby up, and encourage the mom to follow us to the lambing jugs.

We have heated lambing boxes, that we place the ewe and lamb into for 24-48 hours.
Some of these boxes have an additional heat lamp, these are reserved for the weaker or colder lambs.
Following this, we usually will stomach tube each baby with 50-100ml colostrum,
 just to kick start them into action.

We take shifts in this lambing period,
as we need to be in the barn at all times,
not to assist the ewes but to get them into a jug.

Eric takes the first part of the night until about 2am.
My shift starts at about 2.30am.
This is also a feed and water round for the lambing boxes.
This year we have a student ( Pascal) here to help, he has been doing the 6am round.

At about 8.30am, Pascal and I start the feeding the "general population".

We feed and water all the lambing jugs, then grain the ewes, bottle feed some lambs, hay, feed and grain the 4-H steers, let out the collies, collect the eggs and feed the chickens, feed the big dogs and catch some lambs in between this.
Then we have a coffee break (and FB check..).

After this we hot wire the tractor into action, and do hay bales;
to the cows,
outside feeder lambs,
the non lambing ewes
and rams.

Lunch time

After lunch, we do another feeding and watering round, number, mark and castrate lambs.
We move lambs and ewes out of the boxes into a group pen.
After this, is the time to catch up on some other chores that got left behind such as house work, clearing snow, cleaning alley ways, going to town.

At 4pm, the whole routine starts again.
Make supper.
9pm feed, water, bottle.
I go to bed at 10pm.

At 2.30am my alarm goes off...
I fly out of bed because lying down for 5 minutes longer, means falling a sleep and not getting up at all.

At 3pm , I check and feed.
This is the quiet time.
The ewes are bedded down, the lambs are huddled together for warmth, the dogs are quiet,
the only sound is the sound of my winter boots crunching in the snow.

This year our ewes decided to be slow starting,
 we only had about 30 lambs in the first 2 weeks.
Now, with the end in sight,
they are coming fast and furious.
Putting additional pressure on us and the lambing jug space.

Another week and we should be done.

Many people ask us why we lamb at this time..
well the reasons for this are:
is divides the work load, instead of lambing a whole bunch in spring we have various smaller lambing times spread out over the year
lambing now, means we could hit the Easter market.

Other than those two reasons,
why else would you get out of bed at 3am
to appreciate the northern lights,
 if not for lambing?

Today, however was just one of those days that kind of stand out from all the others.
Not only did we do  all of the above,
but we also had to sort our cows (they were pregnancy tested last week)
and brand them.
Working in this extreme cold all day,
being tired from the lambing routine,
plus avoiding being killed by the angry cows
made it a little tough.

we are not as cordial to each other,
 as we know we should be.
However, we got her done.

My bed is calling my name.
Stay safe and warm.

if you have any questions or would like to know something more or extra,
don't be shy to ask!
I am happy to answer any questions you may have.
Leave a comment here or on Facebook
and I will do a question and answer blog sometime soon.
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