Wednesday 8 December 2021

Attitudes toward LGD

A shepherd heading out with his goat herd for grazing in an area in Portugal that has a high wolf population. This dog was provided to him through a wolf conservation organization. They supplied the dog, feed, veterinary care, and ongoing education on using LGD to mitigate conflicts between livestock and wolves.

Attitudes toward LGD
©Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

It is interesting to see how attitudes vary regarding using livestock guardian dogs (LGD) to protect livestock against predators. For me, it was simple, I am passionate about my ranch and all the animals on it, I appreciate all the wildlife we have, and I like dogs, so I saw the use of LGDs as a benefit, and positive addition to the ranch. However, not everyone shares this view, it is interesting to look at these attitudes and what affects them.

In countries where the use of LGD is still a strong tradition, the attitude toward LGD is positive and there is high acceptance of them by local people. These shepherds understand that LGD and sheep belong together, in many instances the shepherds are proud and positive about their LGD. In many of these countries it is tradition celebrate the use of LGD. In Turkey, a Sivas Kangal festival is held to honour these dogs. In Macedonia, tribute is paid to the Sarplaninac dog by having an image of the dog on a coin and in some countries, where the dogs protect the sheep from wolves, the dogs are adjourned with flowers and paraded through the local villages.

In regions where the wolf has long been extirpated and now making a comeback, the attitudes are less positive. Many ranchers and shepherds I have spoken to, feel that using LGD has been forced upon them due to wolf reintroductions or through “rewilding” programs. They view the use of LGD as tedious requiring additional management practices and a higher cost on their livestock operations. Some shepherds feel that by using LGD, implies acceptance of wolf reintroduction, a “giving in” to government pressure. Some people question why do they need to invest in LGD, and their training, to keep the livestock safe when the government is initiating this reintroduction?  Not using LGD, it is a form of resistance to these Government programs, rather than an actual negative attitude toward LGD.  Some shepherds feel they can “show” how disastrous wolf reintroduction is, by having higher losses from predators by not taking measures to protect their flocks.  It can be used as a lobbying point for higher compensation payouts, both for livestock deaths, as well as the additional costs of using LGD.  Many of these ranchers and shepherds feel that using LGD sends a message of compliance to the reintroduction or protection of wolves and other predator species.

There is no historical tradition for using LGD in the United Kingdom (UK), yet they do have a long history for breeding very talented herding dogs. The border collie is the main “sheepdog” in the UK. There is no tradition to using LGD and many shepherds find the concept of having a very large dog living in among the sheep alarming.   In the UK, most shepherds have a very negative attitude about (pet) dogs in amongst their sheep due to them chasing and worrying them. The shepherds in the UK understand that border collies (or other herding dogs) cannot just be left unattended with sheep, as this can result in death and injury to them. As public walking paths can, and do, criss-cross through farmers fields, a lot of sheep deaths are caused by the general public’s dogs getting off leash and end up chasing, harassing, and killing sheep. It is an offence to allow a dog to worry sheep in the UK and has been drummed into the public’s head that dogs and sheep do not go together free, in a pasture. I have spoken to many British sheep farmers and the idea of a LGD living in with the sheep full time is concerning for them. It would take a lot of education and perhaps many years to have any kind of acceptance for LGD to be working with sheep flocks. A secondary issue would be the potential for conflict between LGD and the public. As walkers do have free access to farmers land, having a LGD free in with the livestock might create issues with the LGD being aggressive towards walkers and their pets. There is no culture in the UK for using LGD, so many shepherds generally have an attitude that LGD cannot and will not work in their situation.  A similar situation exists in Switzerland with public access to walking trails and the potential for conflict between the hikers and LGD. Signposts and videos on how to behave are being promoted by the government to help educate the public.

When I lived in the Netherlands, we had our LGD in with the livestock to primarily protect the sheep against people’s loose pet dogs. We lost over 24 adult sheep in one night, a pair of dogs got free and started “playing” with the sheep. This prompted us to look at using LGD to provide protection for the sheep. At that time, the largest wild predator in the Netherlands were foxes. The biggest predator issue was caused by pet dogs. We were one of the first shepherds to use LGD with our flocks. Getting our first LGD caused quite a stir, as we left our LGD “unattended” in the pasture with the sheep. This was regarded as a form of abandonment by the local authorities. No amount of convincing on our part could persuade them that LGD and sheep need to live in the same pasture. It ended up with us having to take the dog home at night, not an ideal situation. Since those initial years, wolves have drifted back into the Netherlands and some shepherds are now looking to using LGD to protect their flocks from these wolves. Concerns around public opinions, barking and potential aggressiveness will need to be addressed in the Netherlands before LGD will truly be accepted as a tool to mitigate conflict between predators and livestock.

The attitudes towards LGD varies among conservationists, some feel that having large dogs in with the livestock will have a negative affect on non- predator wildlife species, causing disruptions in their behaviour and potential harassment of deer, elk, and other animals.  Some conservationists feel that LGD affect the natural behaviour of predators and that is unacceptable to them. Research has shown that this is true, LGD do affect how predators behave and react around flocks that are guarded by dogs.  Other people have voiced their concerns as to the claim that LGD are an effective “non-lethal” mitigation tool to livestock and predator conflict, as a LGD will kill a coyote or other small predators if they can catch them. Although it is not very common that LGD kill predators, it certainly does happen, most times the dogs interfere with hunting patterns and push predators further away from the flock without the need to actively engage predators in a fight.  The “non-lethal” only applies to the owner not killing the predators, not the dogs! Many conservationists do however see that using LGD is a way to directly reduce conflict between predators and livestock, many are willing to assist in implementing the use of LGD within flocks. Some groups go as far as providing LGD to shepherds, educational programs, and support. In Canada in the province of Saskatchewan, sheep keepers can apply for a grant to purchase a LGD puppy as the Government feels that using LGD is a sound method to help prevent predation.

The acceptance of LGD in traditional shepherding areas is high. This shepherd walks his goats and LGD through the village to their grazing area every day in Portugal. Neighbors do not complain about this as it is accepted by the community.

In many countries including Africa, USA and even traditional LGD regions, the general satisfaction for using LGD is very high. Shepherds value having LGD in their program and do see the benefit of reduced losses, access to grazing areas that were potentially not useable due to predation and of course peace of mind.  The attitude toward LGD can fluctuate due to external factors such as changing polices regarding wildlife, livestock prices, fluctuations in markets and long term, sustained predation of livestock. If the rancher cannot make a living with the livestock due to low market pricing, every additional cost to the operation can be considered too much. Investing in LGD, feeding and vet care are all additional expenses that need to be carried by the livestock operation.
Attitudes towards LGD are also very dependant on the level of effort required to get a sound and reliable dog. People who have had LGD that have pulled wool and bitten the livestock, tend to be a little more negative about the use of LGD.  I have met people where the LGD has caused the death of some of the livestock, and this has a dramatic effect on the positivity towards the dog, and LGD in general. A lady I know, whose LGD pulled wool  and chewed some ears off the lambs has decided not to use LGD, primarily due to the amount of work and the risk it may pose to her livestock and has opted instead  to implement other methods such as fox-lights, electric fencing and night penning to protect her stock.

I believe the majority of ranchers, in a high predator areas, are positive about using LGD. Many wildlife and conservation organizations also see the benefit of finding ways to reduce conflict between predators and livestock.  The biggest challenge might ultimately be convincing the public (who feel that all dogs should “fur-babies”) that using LGD and other working dogs, is not abusive or neglectful.

Two LGD leading the way for the flock to the night corral in northern Alberta. The dogs allow for sheep to graze pastures further away from home that would otherwise not be available for the sheep to use.

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