Where wool begins: Keeping sheep safe

Where wool begins: Keeping sheep safe

In my last post, I introduced you to how we raise sheep (and wool!) a little differently than most in Canada — our sheep live outside year-round and graze solar installations and cover crops as their day-job.

In that post, our livestock guardian dogs made an appearance and garnered plenty of attention, as they should. We couldn’t graze sheep like we do without our dogs!

Where we farm, coyotes are a major threat to sheep. Our sheep are also vulnerable to attacks by ravens and even bears, though it has been years since that has happened here. Did I mention we are in Ottawa city limits? We are! But yes, there are black bears, sometimes wolves, and plenty of coyotes to worry about.

There are a few options for guardian animals, including dogs, llamas, and donkeys. We’ve had the greatest success with dogs — it takes a predator to smell, spot, and deter a predator. And that is our goal: unless a coyote or group of coyotes is preying on our sheep, we leave them alone. We would rather not hunt or trap the coyotes, but it does happen from time to time that a troublesome animal or family moves in and even the dogs can’t keep them back.

We’re always asked what breeds of dogs we use. Most of our dogs are a mix of breeds — there are a surprising number of guardian dog breeds, all of which have been developed over hundreds of years alongside sheep flocks. Most of our dogs are Maremma (an Italian breed), with some Great Pyrenees, Akbash, and Karakachan in the mix.

A child and adorable puppies
Charlie and some puppies, March 2022

Our dogs are sometimes born here, or at other sheep farmer’s set ups, but it’s so important that they be from working parents and are born and raised with the charges they will protect. A pup needs to bond with sheep from the beginning so that they treat them as their own. The instincts these dogs have been selected for are truly amazing, but they still require training and support to eventually make it as a livestock guardian. Not all of them do.

We run about one adult dog per 200 ewes, but prefer that the dogs work in pairs. The final number (up to three or four) all depends on the coyote pressure, the terrain, fences, and whether we are lambing or not. There are always young dogs coming on and older dogs slowing down. It’s a real challenge to find the balance of new and experienced.

A livestock guardian dog watches as a ewe has her lamb
A livestock guardian dog watches as a ewe has her lamb. The paint on the ewe is to identify with breeding group she is in. It mostly washes off the wool, I promise.

We’ve just started lambing this week (see above) and two of our newest dogs are doing an amazing job keeping watch over the newest lambs. These dogs not only keep the ewes and lambs safe they also clean up the lambing areas (gross!) which serves a real purpose — less scent for predators to pick up on or come in to investigate. The relationship between these dogs and their flocks is incredible.

Even with many good dogs, losses still happen. This past fall and winter were some of the hardest for coyote kills in close to 10 years. They even took down a mature ram, which is rare. We did have a few trapped, and that seemed to help, but our goal is to add more dogs to keep the pressure down.

A livestock guardian dog looks over his sheep after being sheared
T-Dawg, a livestock guardian dog, looks after sheep

Until next time, enjoy the sunshine and if you’d like to see more of our solar grazing and lambing adventures check us out on Instagram at @Shady_Creek_Lamb!

12 thoughts on “Where wool begins: Keeping sheep safe

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your article Lyndsey. I too, raise sheep in New Mexico strictly for fiber. I have nothing like your flock but just 10 Wensleydales and 2 Leicester Longwools. I have two Great Pyrenees that stay with them in many acres of a fenced area. They are sweet hearts to people but they let the coyotes that come up to the fence know who is boss. Their bark is definitely intimidating to strangers as well. Yes, they love to chase the Ravens as well.

    1. We love that most of our dogs scare off the birds, too! Ravens are beautiful birds, but so violent with new lambs.

  2. Here in Southern Alberta I have seen a number of the Maremma breed of dogs and have interacted with some puppies about 8 weeks old – just the loveliest little clouds of white fur!! The puppy parents were really laid back and I’m not sure if they were used to work with cattle or to protect the property. I don’t remember seeing any sheep on the place. There are also Great Pyrenees in the area too as well as various cross breeds (I’ve not heard of the other breeds you mentioned) of these wonderful guardian dogs. They have similar predators as well as the occasional cougar to contend with here.
    Your information about using the sheep to keep the vegetative growth under control at solar panel sites is very interesting and I will pass this on to some sheep farmers I know. It is only in the last couple years that acres of solar arrays have been constructed near here so this offers another source of income for sheep farmers! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Solar grazing is starting in Alberta — Whispering Cedars near Strathmore started last year. We’re excited to see it expand on more acres.

  3. I am fascinated to learn about your guardian dogs. I hadn’t realised that dogs
    can be safely left to look after sheep. Over here (UK) we do have sheep dogs which are trained to herd sheep on commands (whistled or shouted) from the shepherd, but they, like your guardian dogs, are trained not to harm the sheep. Sheep dog trials are very popular – even being televised too.
    Otherwise, we only ever hear about people’s pet dogs mauling sheep or chasing pregnant ewes so much that they loose their lambs. We are constantly being told that dogs should be kept on a lead in the countryside because they are all natural predators, but even so we still get those people who say “my dear little doggy wouldn’t hurt sheep” and then are amazed when they do, by which time it’s too late for the sheep. What really annoys me is that these people are putting their dogs at risk as well as the sheep, because a farmer is entitled to shoot a dog which is worrying his animals.

  4. What a great post! I loved hearing about your dogs and they are beautiful creatures. I hope you can keep the predators away from your sheep. Always something to do and think about, when you care for animals.

  5. As Karen mentioned above – I’ve not heard about solar grazing or guardian dogs as you describe. Your interesting post & great pix gave me the opportunity to learn something new.

  6. Loved your insight into what it is to have a successful flock where predators also live. The symbiosis between dog and flock is amazing! I’ve read a few books on farming and it never surprises me to see how much we all depend on each other (human and non-human) to thrive.

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