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PROTECTING LIVESTOCK
by
Eugene Fytche
efytche@xplornet.com

It would seem, from conversations with livestock producers in Ontario and in the northern USA, that the idea that livestock and poultry can be protected from predators has taken hold. It is also being recognized that any form of protection cannot be 100 %, that clever predators or changing circumstances in the environment or in the interrelationship between rural producers and the urban population, may tip the balance in favour of the predator.

The necessity to protect livestock goes back for thousands of years, among the pastoral peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa. The wolf was present in most of those regions, but there were other predators as well, and a feature of the protection was the attendant shepherd, who lived with the flock and was trained to react to danger to his charges. This approach is still used in developing countries, and in mountainous regions where the cost of live shepherds is within the acceptable costs of production. Breeds of guard dogs evolved that developed an instinctive protective attitude towards the domestic animals, and in conjunction with live shepherding, kept predation under control

Hunting has always been one way for shepherds to fight back, and until quite recently, there hasn't been an urban lobby to value wildlife higher than domestic livestock. The hunting tended to be passive for the most part, and only when the threat of losses became unacceptable did hunting as an separate activity aimed at reducing the predator population enter into play.

It must be remembered that protection in North America prior to 1970 was based on hunting and poisoning of coyotes and wolves, the principle killers of sheep, goats and cattle. When the poisoning of carcasses against coyotes was outlawed in North America in the 1970's, it was to these guard dog breeds from Europe and Asia that producers turned to fill the gap. Since there are few North American shepherds who want to endure the hardships of living with their flocks, other protective measures have been sought.

Subsequently, a whole body of modern protective methodology has developed here, in less than 40 years. The electric fence technology was developed, in the 1930's, and while originally used to control grazing of cattle, has evolved into what has been termed, arguable, predator-proof fencing. Since then the donkey and the llama have become recognized among North American livestock producers as having useful instincts as guard animals that can be harnessed to reduce predation levels

All these protective measures, combined with the ingenuity of producers themselves, are now available to existing and to new producers. While "old timers" usually have their minds made up, whether from successful experience or whether from stubbornness, new producers may still make a decision as to how they will proceed in the face of ever more active coyote populations. Literature is abundant, repetitive, and usually helpful, if a new producer has the time to research the several options. The alternative, to speak with producers in the same region is also helpful, but may lead to restrictive advice. An alternative is to review some of the survey results that are available, that reveal the choices of large numbers of producers, thus reducing bias. (Surveys have their own shortcomings, well known to statisticians, but may be useful in the decision process.)

Three surveys are compared below. The results are interesting, are indicative of recent practice, but the reader is cautioned that the surveys were conducted differently and the questions asked were independently worded, and because of these differences in technique are not rigorously comparable.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) samples the 75000 US sheep producers on predation issues on a 5-year basis, and the 2004 survey included questions on the frequency of use of a number of protective measures. The data were analysed on a national basis, but were also broken down to state or regional level, showing variations of practice in the smaller units.

In 2005, the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency (OSMA) included a questionnaire on predation issues in the distribution of its magazine Sheep News to 4200 producers, with a 12% response.

In 2005, a mail out questionnaire was sent to about 220 producers in the counties of Lanark and Renfrew, and the former Township of West Carleton, with a 30% response

The comparison of the relevant responses is shown in Table 1. The US national data are shown, and for comparison, responses from Pennsylvania, and from the New England states have been separately shown. US data on a national basis covers such a variety of conditions that it loses specificity, but the latter two columns giving regional responses may be compared with data for Ontario and the Lanark/Renfrew/W.C. where the level of the coyote problem may be similar.

Few data are available to show how the use of protective measures has spread over time. Of interest are the statistics of sheep losses over the last decade, shown in percentage terms to correct for changes of population. The comparison of losses is shown in Table 2. The comparison is interesting: total losses in the USA have maintained the same level, losses in New England and Ontario decreased over the first half of the decade, then increased, and losses in Pennsylvania and OSMA's District 9 showed an increasing trend over the decade.

It would be a bold analyst indeed to draw firm conclusions from data collected is surveys with such disparate bases, but some observations are valid:

1. The surveys show that producers have elected to use all of the conventional technology for protection of sheep flocks, although the emphasis from region to region may change. It may also be observed that more than one measure is used by many producers, averaging 2.3 in the USA and 2.54 in Ontario. Generally this means that when predator pressure on one line of defence grows to the point that losses start to increase again, the producer will add another line of defence, e.g., a guard donkey to supplement an electric fence.

2. In spite of the acceptance of protective measures by producers, losses in some regions still increase. It is not clear from the data available whether this is because of an increase in coyote population or whether the use of protective measures have diverted the predators to unprotected flocks.

3. There is still room for education of producers. Losses tend to be most severe on grazing livestock, less among dairy animals than meat varieties, and protective measures can be of more help to producers in the meat industries. Also, newcomers to the sheep, goat and cattle industries are most likely to benefit from educational programs. The challenge is to get to these newcomers before they invest improperly and before they are disillusioned by heavy losses.

4. It's what works for the individual producer that counts!

Description of the pros and cons of protective measures are discussed in "...May Safely Graze" and "Wild Predators? Not in my Backyard". Both are available from Rare Breeds Canada. They are also available from the author and may be ordered at e-mail address: efytche@sympatico.ca. Prices are $12.95 for "...May Safely Graze" and $20.00 for "Wild Predators..." - add $3.00 for postage. These are the only comprehensive books published to date, and most of the literature on the subject at the time of publishing was researched and predigested for the books. (They make good Christmas presents!)

TABLE 1 United States
Losses as % of Sheep Population in 2004, 1999, & 1994
Year United States New England Pennsylvania
Sheep
Population
(million)
Losses Sheep
Population
(thousand)
Losses Sheep
Population
(thousand)
Losses
Head % Head % Head %
2004 6.0 224,200 3.7 43.0 700 1.6 90 1800 2.0
1999 7.2 273,000 3.8 49.0 500 1.0 83 1300 1.6
1994 9.8 368,100 3.8 65.9 1175* 1.8 127 1525 1.2
* Data only for Connecticut and Vermont; the other four states lost less than 100 each.

TABLE 2 Canada
Losses as % of Sheep Population in 2004, 1999, & 1994
Year Ontario District 9*
Sheep
Population
(thousand)
Losses Sheep
Population
(thousand)
Losses
Head % Head %
2004 311.2 2516 0.81 16928 270 1.59
1999 337.9 1999 0.59 15977 225 1.41
1994 231.1 2822 1.22 14912 162 1.08
Source: OMAFRA statistics of compensation paid under the Livestock, Poultry and Honey Bee Protection Act
* Note: values include Lanark and Renfrew Counties and the City of Ottawa


 

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