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PERSPECTIVE ON HERD & FLOCK PROTECTION
by
Gene Fytche
efytche@xplornet.com

Herdkeepers, over the past ten years, have become more aware of the problems of raising sheep and goats during a period when the population of coyotes has been relatively unrestricted.. Volumes of good material, and some not so good have been written on how to deal with the problems. As a result herdkeepers have become aware that there are many ways by which they can improve the risk situation for their herds. Because there is so much material I summarized the essence in my two books, "...May Safely Graze" and "Wild Predators? Not in my Backyard" as an aid to herdkeepers, particularly to those entering the field for the first time. It is opportune, now, to look at some of the lessons gained over the past decade.

First, we should look at some of the events over the past 30 years. Poisoning of coyotes was outlawed in both the USA and Canada in the early 1970's. American producers, searching for some way to reduce losses, turned to guard dogs, a time hallowed protection in Europe and Asia, but hardly used in North America. Donkeys had been used in Texas. Predator proof electric fencing (PPEF) technology was just being introduced from New Zealand. The llama had not been introduced as a guard animal. Hunting was practised everywhere, and gave the satisfaction that comes from hitting back at the perceived source of the trouble. Hunters were encouraged by bounties on coyotes (wolves and brush wolves in the East, rarely at that time referred to as coyotes). Research seemed focussed on the behaviour and feeding habits of coyotes and on determining whether there were coydogs. Only slowly was the farming community in Eastern North America becoming aware of the Eastern Coyote, a bigger version of the prairie cousin. For those who wish to follow the story, Gerry Parker's book " The Eastern Coyote" describes the research and the story of the coyote's migration from the prairies to all parts of North America.

As a specific example of change, the Province of Ontario, in 1989, decreed that there would be no more payments of bounty. At about the same time, the international lobby protesting the hunting of wild animals was becoming more vocal. These two factors combined to reduce the incentive for hunters to hunt. Whether or not there were other contributing factors, the number of kills and payments under the compensation program trebled by 1991. Ontario's Red Meat Plan recognized the value of electric fencing, but would not contribute to other protective measures. Producers realized that they had to take more responsibility in their own hands to protect their herds. Mobile protectors - guard dogs, guard donkeys, and guard llamas - would have to be financed by the producer. The number of producers who now use these animals to protect their herds shows that a valuable opportunity was missed in structuring the Red Meat Plan.

One shortcoming of the sheep and goats industry is its inability because of its size to support research in all the areas that would be useful. Statistical data are not available to show to what extent protective measures have been adopted. It can only be said that in conversations among herdkeepers, many more of them now acknowledge using one or more of the protective measures referred to above than did ten years ago.

What lessons have been learned by the present generation of herdkeepers? Some of them are:

1. Coyotes are here to stay, and the only controls on their population are food supply, disease and hunting. Because of municipal by-laws prohibiting firearms discharge, anti-hunting lobbies, and urban public opinion, the last mentioned is at best a diminishing control.
2. Protective measures - predator proof electric fencing, mobile protectors, and hunting of problem predators - are effective, but the predator is adaptable and the producer must be ever vigilant, and must be prepared to change or add to his method of protection to counter new challenges.
3. Coyotes are becoming a problem in urban areas but only if their attacks on domestic pets and perhaps humans become frequent can significant support be expected from more enlightened city dwellers.
4. The coyote, as is other wildlife, is a charge of the government. However, all the demands on the public purse by more vocal groups seem to preclude much government support for those impacted by the actions of predators.

The reasons that I have come to these conclusions are:

Compensation
It is very nice that some constituencies have market value compensation payments from government for predator kills. This is an economic assistance, but does nothing to compensate for the emotional impact of predator kills. It is also a disincentive to adopting protective measures. Compensation payments are subject to whims of governments largely elected by urban voters, and may be discontinued at any time. The implication is that producers should plan their operation without depending on compensation. If government is to be generous, its assistance would more effectively be directed to helping producers protect their herds, thereby reducing future compensation payments..

Industry entry
Because sheep and goats production is an easy-entry activity, many people who want an agricultural hobby enter it with good intentions, but without realizing the responsibilities they are undertaking. Without debating their other qualifications for the activity, it would appear that they are rarely aware of the impact of predation. They should have their eyes open at the beginning, so that they do not become part of the other side of the coin, the easy-exit from the industry, that does nothing for the industry as a whole. How many former producers do we meet who say " I got rid of my sheep and goats because the coyotes were killing too many."
A prospective herdkeeper should be advised to include among his preparations a risk analysis: not a mathematical exercise, but a discussion with all available knowledgeable sources of the presence and the level of activity of predators in his area. This would at least prepare him for the future.

Application of the risk analysis
If the risk is nil, or very low, there is no economic justification for protective measures. If this is accepted, there remains the possibility that the risk level may change upward, and the producer may have to do something downstream.
If there is a medium risk level, the producer has a real choice. He can accept losses as a cost of doing business ( comments on compensation are relevant to this decision ) in which case he may choose not to make a significant investment in protection; or he may decide to make some investment at this time to avoid the emotional stress, and the nuisance cost of dealing with kills. (Burying, applying for compensation, effect on lambing/kidding and herd behaviour, etc.)
If the risk level is high, he may decide not to raise sheep and goats, or he must be prepared to fight back with higher levels of investment and management time.
Risk is a dynamic function, and must be constantly evaluated by keeping in touch with the knowledgeable information sources in his vicinity.

Choice of protective measures
Although there is ongoing research into newer and more exotic ways of dealing with predator problems, and there are management tricks that will be useful in low risk situations, the conventional methods in use are: management practices, predator proof electric fencing, mobile protectors, and hunting and trapping. Each has its place. Fencing and guard animals divert the predators from the farm where they are in place, perhaps to the detriment of the nearby sheep and goats farms, while hunting and trapping may have some impact on total predator population, from which everyone benefits.

PPEF requires a high initial investment of money and time, has to be carefully installed, and has to be maintained. But it is inanimate, on duty 24 hours per day, can't be run over on the road, nor be killed by predators operating in packs. Technically, almost anyone can master its technology.

Mobile protectors (guard animals - dogs, donkeys and llamas) must be selected with care, properly bonded to the herd, and cannot be treated as pets, if they are to be fully effective. Since they are all natural products, their qualities may vary, and some will be found unsuitable for guard duty. They must also mesh with the personality of the herdkeeper. First cost may be low compared with PPEF, but ongoing care is required. Life expectancy is a factor, with dogs likely to have the shortest life. Singly, all have trouble dealing with packs: Several dogs will work together, but donkeys and llamas generally aren't effective as protectors in multiples.

Hunting and trapping can be effective if the problem predator can be eliminated, but indiscriminate killing, that may eliminate non-offending animals, opens the range to incoming animals that may predate. Predation seems to start when the natural food supply becomes depleted, and predators turn to domestic livestock, never to look back, hence the value of eliminating these problem animals. Trapping is another world, for expertise only. One approach that is under utilized is den stripping, because it is time consuming, and, because pups are cute, unappetizing. However, effectively carried out, it reduces population pressures, and doesn't open up the range to incomers. Outside help for hunting and trapping can be expensive.

Public perception
While a herdkeeper may feel that what he does on his own property is his own business, he would be sanguine indeed if he refuses to believe that what he does is subjected to observation by others, whose criteria may be far different from those governing efficient sheep and goats production. PPEF is perhaps the least obvious, mobile protectors are generally acceptable as long as they stay at home. But hunting, trapping and den stripping are not well perceived by the public, notwithstanding the protection given to farmers under the provincial legislation. This perception in the future will only change in ways disadvantageous to the herdkeeper.

In conclusion
The industry is moving in the right direction in accepting the value of predator protection, but many herdkeepers are unprepared to adopt the protective measures that are available to them. There is little allocation of research money to uncover new ways of protecting sheep and goats. But much of the economic losses could be saved by wider application of the methodology already available. Government resources allocated for compensation could be well invested to support serious producers who want to put preventative measures in place

The author has until recently operated a commercial flock near Ottawa in a region he classes as medium risk . He has spoken widely on this subject and has written two books, "...May Safely Graze" and " Wild Predators? Not in my Backyard!" Both are available from the author. Prices are $12,95 and $20.00 respectively, with shipping charges of $3.00 applying . For information or orders : efytche@xplornet.com. The books are also available from the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers, the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.


 

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