Sunday 22 October 2017

The added benefits of living and working with LGD

Article written for the September 2017 issue of the SHEPHERDS MAGAZINE
©Louise Liebenberg (2017)

The job that livestock guardian dogs do is often more than “just” protecting the livestock, when living close to them, and having direct contact with them, one soon see’s the other jobs that the dogs do. I would like to share some of these anecdotes of things I have experienced with our Sarplaninac dogs.

Every morning, when I go out to the pasture to feed the dogs and check on the sheep, I always have a slight feeling of apprehension, we live in a very predator rich area, and our ranch has borders some wild country. Most mornings, the dogs are waiting for me at the gate. Feeding is a highlight and they usually are right there waiting for it. When one or more dogs are not at the gate, I start worrying, I run different scenarios through my head: is a dog hurt? Are they out patrolling?  Has something happened during the night or has something happened to the sheep?
The ewes were bale feeding at a fair distance from the gate, so I quickly checked over the field, to see if I could see if something was out of place. Ravens in the pasture are usually an ominous sign and often the first indicator of what I might find.  Mali did not come for feed.  No ravens. Ewes calmly feeding all seems calm.  I call to Mali but she still does not come. I start to walk out to the ewes, and call again.  I see her sitting up. Ah! She is there! As I get closer, I still do not see why she has not come. As soon as I am within 10 meters (30 feet) she bolts off to her food. I look behind a bale and there are just the legs of a sheep sticking out from under a bale. The poor unfortunate sheep must have lain down by the bale, and the bale must have toppled onto the sheep, killing the ewe, sometime during the night.
Mali was lying with this sheep, keeping the ravens and possibly other predators at bay. As soon as I was close enough, she must have decided that the dead sheep was now my problem, and she was free to go and get her food.  I really like that my dogs do watch over the dead stock, as I find it important to note down what the animal died of. Finding a dead sheep under a bale can be tough, Mali alerted me to this ewes’ position.
In the morning, my dogs are my first indicator of how the night went. If the dogs are hyper-vigilant, do not come for food, or if the dogs set themselves up in semi circle around the flock, facing towards the bush are tell tale signs that predators are in the area. For more than a week we noticed that our dogs were being very “guardy”, very alert, focussed and all business. We had a feeling that something “big” was out there, but did not know what.  It was only later that we had heard that a cougar had killed our neighbor’s colt that week, and that explains the behaviour of our dogs. The dogs certainly do help tell us what is going on. We might not always understand directly, but we have learnt to pay attention to the dogs.

A similar scenario happened a few years ago, none of the guardian dogs came when I went to check on them, after quite a search I found the dogs hanging out close to a rather big hole in a bush pasture. The dogs came to greet me as soon as they saw me, but quickly bolted back to the hole. I could not see anything out of the ordinary and carried on with my sheep checks. A while later, the dogs still did not leave that spot. On closer inspection, deep in the hole was an ewe, stuck. Her whole body was about 2 meters down the hole. With plenty of tugging, we got the ewe out alive and well. Had it not been for the dogs, I would probably have not found her and she would have died in that hole. Good dogs.

Some of the anecdotes are also not specifically sheep related. We usually have between 8 and 10 guardian dogs, they work in various groups and numbers as we need them. Sometimes running four or five intact females together can create a lot of tension and some “bitchy” behaviour. My two oldest females did not always see “eye to eye”, but for the most part they tolerated each other and settled on a truce. As my oldest female started to age more, and developed some health issues, it became apparent that the other female started looking out for her more and more. If the older female decided to stay out in the bush during the night, then the younger dog would head out and stay with her.  When one of the other dogs tried to bully the older female from her food, then the other female would step up and intervene allowing the older girl more time to eat. Many times, I would feed, and the younger female would just sit with her back close to the old girl ensuring that none of the other dogs came closer. These small acts are very endearing to see and experience.

The final story I would like to share today happened over 20 years ago, when I was shepherding in the Netherlands. This story I want to share with you, turned out to be one of those moments, that when you look back at it, you realize your life might have taken a very different course, had things not gone the way they had.

Chantal and me off to go shepherding for the day.

Every day I would shepherd the sheep on the heather or in the forested areas of the nature park the Maashorst in the Netherlands. A few trusty border collies, Chantal my livestock guardian dog at my side and about 4-500 sheep. Every morning, I would take the sheep from their night corral and walk them to the area that would be grazed that day. Some days, I was closer to a cycling path or a route where people liked to walk, other times it was a little more off the beaten track.
Never, in all my life have I ever felt scared while out in the bush. Not in South Africa, not in the Netherlands and so far, not in Canada.  In those days, we did not have cell phones, so if something happened, I would have to wait until someone missed me enough, to come looking for me, or in a worse case scenario, that the sheep would drift away and end up in someone’s yard and then the irate owner would come looking for the shepherd.
Most of the time, when you are out shepherding in a busy country such as the Netherlands, most people would stop for a chat. On a nice sunny day, I was shepherding in a remote area of the park. This was a place where you did not just bump into someone, it was off the beaten track. The area was wooded, with quite a lot of grass growing under the tall trees.
I was sitting down reading a book, when Chantal (our first Sarplaninac LGD) warned me that someone was approaching. I looked around and saw a man watching the flock at about 300meters away. This was not unusual and so I did not mind too much. He stayed quiet some time, just leaning up against a tree watching. The next day, I headed off to the same area with the sheep, collies, and Chantal. At about 11 am, Chantal stood up and warned me that someone or something was in the area. I looked around and spotted the same man as the day before. He was a little closer now and was once again just watching. I felt a little creeped out, as most people would either watch and move on, or watch and then come over for a chat.  He disappeared into the woods.
Sometime later, he reappeared again in another spot. He never approached me, just watched. I could recognize him in his light tan leather jacket and jeans. Chantal would be giving a low growl and the odd woof.  I kept her on a leash, close to me as I did not want to have an incident with my large dog and a tourist.
He spent a good part of the day in the area. That evening I mentioned him to my husband and he suggested I phone and chat with the police. I did that but they said if nothing happened and he was not doing anything illegal, there was not much they could do. I realised they were right, he was doing nothing wrong just watching the sheep eat. Day three; back in my corner of the woods. Chantal was on her lead by my side. Three collies with me, spaced out watching the sheep graze. I was sitting on a little stool attached to my backpack. Chantal sat up and rumbled. I looked up and saw the same man walking purposely towards me. I knew, and felt that something was going to happen. His intention was different and he was walking directly towards me. I stood up as I felt a bit vulnerable sitting down.
As he got closer, I felt the tension; I kept Chantal close to me, my hand on her collar. I was standing, he was striding down that bush path, he went on past me, kind of nodded his head at me, I felt relieved, when suddenly, he turned and grabbed me.  Within a second, Chantal lunged and bit him on his arm.  He pulled loose, started screaming and yelling at me, then turned and ran off. The level of commotion was high, I was shaken, Chantal was hysterically trying to drag me after this man, the collies, in the excitement were running around trying to gather up the sheep. I was quite shaken.
I moved the sheep to a more public spot, and kept a look out all day. I never saw the man again. That night I spoke with the police and they would keep an eye out for him.

I do often wonder about the “what ifs”, what if I did not have Chantal with me that day? What if she did not bite him, what would have happened? I also wonder if that man was just watching me for a few days, sizing up the collies, sizing up Chantal, waiting for an opportunity.
Having a free-range guardian for animal predators is great, but it sure is nice to have one right with you, next to you, on a lead, at the end of your arm, to keep the scariest predators of them, all at bay.

I am sure many of you can share similar stories and anecdotes about your LGD.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Wolves of another kind

This past week, we had an opportunity to travel to Vancouver, and on this trip, we managed to go out and do some whale watching. I often wonder if my grand kids will ever have an opportunity to see wild whales.  With the rapid decline of so many species this really is concerning.

I have seen whales before,  off the coast of South Africa,  for me not the first time, however even though not the first time, it definitely is awe inspiring to see these animals. 

I understand much of the controversy surrounding eco-tourism, but I also have this belief that if we expose people to the issues, and use these moments to educate people, then perhaps this would have a positive impact on protecting and conserving both the animals and their environments.I do find that once you see (any) these beautiful creatures in their natural environment, one would possibly be more inclined to want to do more to ensure their survival.
 I found the boat operator to be highly respectful of the animals, staying far enough away and being as unobtrusive as possible. He was also respectful of the amount of time spent with the whales. Bearing in mind that these whales live in a strait that is also full of large tankers and many boats and ships, one did realize how used to boats these animals are. In many of the photo's I took, one can see these ships on the background. These animals were also close to shore, hunting fish and seals.

We had the privileged to spend time with 2 humpback whales, one who is well known in this area, a female called Windy, and her un-named companion.

The tell tale puff. 

I can see you.
 Not many people can tell you,
 what humpback whale breath smells like,
I can, and it  does not smell anything like rainbows...


The seagulls give away the spot where the whales were.

And ever so gently they rise back out of the water, before diving down.

When diving deeper, the tail fin flags in the air before sinking down.
The whales travel quite a distance under water and where they pop back up is very unpredictable and can be quite a distance away.

The animals are identified by their tail fins, shape, coloring, nicks and other identifying features.

We left the two humpback whales, and met up with 2 orca brothers on the hunt. The orcas are regarded as the "wolves of the sea". These orcas are also similarly named by identifying dorsal fins. These can be as tall as 6 feet. Some are wider others narrower, each set of orcas are also identified by the "pod" they belong to. These are family groups. These two bothers were aged 33 and 24 years old, they were not together with their pod initially, but did later join up with mom, a young brother and another female. 

The 2 have different shaped dorsal fins, the older male has a thicker and taller dorsal fin than his younger brother. As you can see by this bottom photo big container ships move through the strait.

Our guide was saying that she thought these two had caught a harbour seal by their behaviour, rolling around over on to it, tail splashing and some other excited behaviour. We did not see a seal. The hunt co-cooperatively and both will share in the food.

It is amazing to see how fast these animals are. Once they decided to join back up with the pod, including mom and another younger brother and a female, they traveled very fast.

This is the other "half" of the pod, Mom and the other two.

They sped off into the distance so we left them alone and headed back to the humpbacks for a short visit again.

These two surfaced pretty close to the boat, and we could see all the bumps on their bodies.

More diving and fishing, at one moment they came up and out of the water, mouths open, swollowing as many fish as they could, the gulls would fly overhead hoping for some morsels of fish.

Going, going, gone... 

We ended up our tour in a small log bay, where logs were held before being transport. We say this eagle and a bunch of fat lazy seals.

The orcas we saw were not reguarded as 'residents" but rather transient animals coming up from the US coast. We were told that the local  resident orcas were having a hard time with the poor salmon runs in the past few years. As the residents will only eat (chinook) salmon, they are less adaptable as the transients, who will hunt seals, other whales and of course salmon.
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