Thursday, January 17, 2019

Paul White's Comment on Sheep Farming in Predator Country

I am very proud of Paul White's continual work on animals, LGDs, shepherds, predators and more, and hope you enjoy his wonderful musing here and there - from his famous country near Transylvania. Enjoy his latest comment!
Sheep Farming in Predator Country

Never let anyone tell you that it's not possible to farm with sheep in predator country because it is. Shepherds and herdsmen have been grazing livestock in Transylvania for centuries and without fences. The big difference here is that sheep never graze on open ground alone. Shepherds are always present with the support of their livestock guardian dogs (LGD) to instantly counter threats from predators.

This was far from a typical day as normally I would be down there in one of those snow covered houses trying to keep warm. It was well below freezing, but rather than sit around the house I decided to take a trip into the foothills with Bandi, one of the many shepherds that live in Ozsdola. Usually I visit Bandi in fair weather during the grazing season which covers spring, summer and autumn. So this winter grazing trip was a first for me.

This is not 'one man and his dog', but more one man and his pack! Bandi had chosen five dogs for the several hours of grazing planned in the surrounding hills. Several points have to be considered before deciding which and how many dogs to take.

Predator burden - Ozsdola has a high predator burden for shepherds. The greatest threat comes from wolves and bears, so more LGDs are required to protect sheep. In winter when food is scarce, wolves move down from the surrounding hills and forests. They usually prey on wild boar and deer, but in winter often target stray dogs from villages. There is also the expectation that bears are hibernating in winter, but not all, especially if there is a food source available. Bears scavenge from bins and passing motorists, but equally both predator species will take sheep if not adequately protected.

Flock size - obviously the more sheep you have to watch and protect the more LGDs you need. All dogs are different and their skills, personalities, strengths and weaknesses must all be considered by the shepherd when choosing which dogs to take with him. Seniors obviously have more experience and knowledge but may not be as fit and agile as the juniors. The oldest dog with us was twelve years old, an incredible age for such a large dog. Although fit and healthy, it stuck close to the shepherd and the sheep. So did two other dogs whilst the remaining two acted as 'outriders' checking the ground surrounding the flock, especially bushes and trees that offer cover for predators.

It is important to say that here there is never a scenario of a shepherd working with one dog. A single dog is no match for a wolf or bear. Dogs are only effective when working in cooperation with others, so two is always the minimum number.

Livestock guardian dogs do not drive sheep, they integrate with them and surround the flock to protect them. If a bear or wolf attacks then these dogs will put their lives on the line to repel the predator.

As soon as the dogs and sheep left the village they all knew the routine and made their way uphill along a track which connects with one of several communal meadows that surround the village. I followed taking photos and noted that there was little verbal communication between the shepherd and his dogs. There was no need really as the dogs knew what to do and the sheep knew where to go.

Obviously there's not the same amount of grass available compared to summer but the sheep did find some morsels to eat amongst the snow. However, these winter excursions are not just about nutrition as the sheep are given plenty of winter feed in large barns. This is also about exercising the animals, especially the dogs as the winter here can be very long, often extending from November to April.

Note: Several people have contacted me regarding this article and the issue of a continuous human presence with LGDs to optimise predator deterrence and reduction of livestock losses. Many do not believe this to be economically viable in modern day farming. My observations are confined to my small study area situated in the eastern Carpathians of Romania amongst the Szekely community. Fladry and fences, electric or otherwise are not generally used.

I am aware that there are many instances of human/predator conflict in Romania, especially when the 'old ways' of protecting livestock have been forgotten. However, the shepherds I study are experienced and offer a highly effective deterrent (in conjunction with their LGDs) in an area with a high predator burden.

Dogs are much less effective without a shepherd or shepherds present. They need guidance, feeding and chastising occasionally. The shepherd is like a parent, attending to both sheep and dogs, looking after their health and dealing with injuries as and when they occur. LGD pack dynamics is a constant consideration too. Introducing new blood/puppies, raising and supervising young dogs, working with them and maintaining boundaries. All this early attention/intervention makes for a well balanced and better behaved dog. LGDs that are overly aggressive with humans have not been supervised properly and haven't been around people enough.

Transhumance here is remote shepherding with grazing areas often located between forest stands in the wildest areas of the mountains. Once grazed the shepherds follow forest corridors to fresh grazing on neighbouring meadows. They milk their sheep three times a day and make cheese on the mountain. They are too far away from home to return each evening for a shower and to sleep. It is a tough life being attached to your flock 24/7 from April through to October, but who said that farming in predator country was easy?

That said, this system works well and a constant human presence keeps livestock losses to a minimum. The choice is really very simple. If you want to farm in predator country and leave your sheep unattended, then your losses will obviously be high. Shepherds sleeping in huts next to their sheep can react immediately if a wolf enters the sheepfold. They work as a team with their dogs to repel any attack but never with guns which they neither carry or use. The objective is to repel and deter attacks from predators but NOT to kill them. Your dogs will always do their best to protect your sheep, but they will always do better with their master present.


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