Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Other Guard Animals: Donkeys

A pair of standard donkeys hanging out with a flock of ewes in Northern Alberta.

Other Guard Animals: Donkeys
Louise Liebenberg (2022)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

This month’s article is going to deviate from my regular column on livestock guardian dogs (LGD) and I am going to look at other guard animals to protect livestock. Typically, donkeys and llamas are the other “go to” animals used to guard livestock.  Very little research has been done regarding the effectiveness of these other guard animals and any that I can find, was done almost 30 years ago.  A lot of the information available is anecdotal and quite subjective, where owners “feel or think” that the guard animals are being either effective or not.
In this article I am going to focus on using donkeys as guard animals.

Donkeys that stay close to the flock can add a layer of protection to the flock against predators.

There is a tradition of shepherds using donkeys, going back to Biblical times. Many shepherds used donkeys to help transport products, shelters and fencing into grazing areas.  Donkeys carried supplies into the high mountain summer pastures and grazed alongside the sheep. In more nomadic tribes, donkeys, along with camels, were commonly found in their caravans. As donkeys lived near to the sheep flocks and their shepherds, it can be assumed that the donkeys might have started to display protective behaviours around the flocks. I have met shepherds in Europe who still use donkeys to help transport electric fencing, milking items and food supplies for the grazing period and they feel having a donkey in the flock is a positive addition as the sheep will follow the donkey on a flock move.

Donkeys are often found around sheep camps as they can be used to transport goods and supplies to high mountain pastures.

The effectiveness of using donkeys is a strongly debated topic.   As with LGD, some are great, and others simply do not work out. A study done in Ontario, Canada in 1995, reported that “about 70% of the donkeys being used were rated as either excellent or good in terms of providing flock protection. However, the donkeys’ effectiveness ranged from total elimination of predation, to having absolutely no impact on predation, while simultaneously causing other problems within the flock. In many instances, poor management practices and unrealistic expectations (too many sheep, scattered sheep, or pastures) are as much or more to blame for many failures as any shortcoming of the donkey(s).” (1995 Ontario Predator Study, Study 6: Donkeys as Mobile Flock Protectors, by Fytche Enterprises)

Although success is a difficult metric to define, I will define success as; the donkey has been reliable around the sheep and does not harm the sheep, the sheep are comfortable around the donkey and no/little predation has taken place. Donkeys seem to be the most successful on smaller groups of sheep and on open terrain, some research suggests a hundred ewes or less is the optimum number of ewes for a donkey to watch over.  This is logical because large bands of sheep spread out and it is hard for the donkey to be able to watch over this expansive area. As donkeys are taller than sheep, they do act more like a sentry and can spot predators further away. Ranchers have found donkeys to be less effective in bushy and hilly areas, where sight lines are obscured, and predators can do sneak attacks from a wooded area.

Some research suggests that donkeys are more successful if they are kept alone with the sheep. As soon as they have other donkey companions, they tend to buddy up with them and the sheep become less important. The donkeys will form their own little “herd” and the donkey may no longer feel protective over the sheep when danger approaches.  This could happen also when horses or even cattle are included in the mix. The donkey might feel more herd affinity towards these species, than to the sheep.

The most functional guarding donkeys are those that are bonded to the sheep, similarly to livestock guardian dogs. The donkeys that are raised with sheep from a young age and are bonded to the flock will tend to be more protective, in this way very similar to how LGD are bonded to the sheep as puppies.  The sheep intuitively will tend to congregate around the largest animal in their pasture, in this case it would be the donkey. Donkeys are regarded as more effective against predators than cattle or horses as they seem to have a more inherent hatred toward canines. Unlike LGD, donkeys tend not to be purposefully protective of the sheep, instead they react aggressively towards a predator in their territory, or a jenny might be protective of her own young that is within the sheep pasture.  

As with all guardian animals, they all have their “pros and cons”. One advantage to utilizing donkeys are that they do not require specialized feed, they eat what the sheep eat. They can be contained in similar fencing as the sheep and are not prone to roaming like some LGD.
Overall, donkeys are also cheaper to purchase, often live longer and are less expensive to maintain in comparison to LGD.

Problems that people have with donkeys are comparable to some of the issues people have with LGD. Some donkeys are not bonded to the sheep and do not feel protective toward them. It is also well documented that they can be very aggressive towards the sheep and lambs, stomping on them, picking them up and shaking them. Intact males can be aggressive toward the sheep and people, if not gelded.  Occasionally the guard donkeys will chase the rams away from the ewes in breeding season, which would require them to be separated during this time. Perhaps, the biggest downfall could be that they can be aggressive towards your own farm dogs, making it hard to use herding or guardian dogs around them.

As donkeys are prey animals, it is not fair to choose a mini donkey be used as a guard animal, they need to be at least standard or large size. While I was in Portugal, many of the shepherds were quite horrified to hear that sheep keepers in North America purposefully use donkeys to guard the livestock. Stories were told to me how donkeys were the favoured animal for wolves to eat, how sheep were passed by, and the donkey was killed. They all asked how a prey animal could be effective in guarding against large predators?

I personally believe that there is no one solution to reducing predation. Predation management involves layering of different forms of deterrents.  If you are not able to utilize LGD, then adding a large donkey might be a good alternative. Having the donkey, might not prevent predation but it might still work as a deterrent, particularly if you are in open areas, with a smaller flock and where coyotes or stray dogs are the main predators. Having at least one form of predation mitigation strategy in place is always better than none.
Combining the donkey with deterrents such as foxlights or electric fencing, all add additional layers of protection around the sheep. In certain circumstances, a standard or large size donkey may be the only way to provide some form protection to the flock, however one does need to remember that using prey animals to guard against predators may not be the most effective strategy and in some areas, where large predators are in abundance, the donkey might become food to these predators.

Some people suggest that having just one donkey with the flock might be more effective, however donkeys that have been raised with, and bonded to the flock, might be more important than  the number of donkeys. A jenny and her baby would certainly capitalise on her protective instincts to keep her own baby safe from predators.

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