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.
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.
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.
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!