Owning livestock means dealing with predators. There is no way around it; it’s a part of life with livestock. Livestock species are all natural prey animals, and therefore attract the unwanted attention of natural predatory species. Predators can be skunks, possums, raccoon, predatory birds, dogs, coyotes, wolves, cougars, bears, or even humans. In warmer climates such as the deep south, even alligators end up on this list. But the existence of predators does not have to mean a death sentence for our livestock!
For this blog post in particular, I’m focusing on protecting livestock from natural predators. That means guarding them from the predators that come from the local ecosystem — in other words, wildlife. Even though domestic dogs kill more sheep and goats than any other predator except for coyotes, I won’t focus on dogs as predators in this post. This is because dogs, domesticated or feral, are not a part of the local wildlife. They are instead an introduced threat that become predators and problems for livestock owners when the owners of the dogs do not act responsibly and keep them on their own property. However, the practices listed here also work toward preventing attacks on livestock from wandering dogs as well.
Predators and Nature
In most cases, predatory species are also an important part of the natural ecology of a given area. The presence of natural predators is essential for a healthy balance of wild prey species. If a predatory population drops too low, the number of prey species can get out of hand. In my area, the deer population is out of control due to a lack of sufficient natural predators. While in some states hunters are only allowed 3 deer a season, here hunters are permitted to shoot three doe a day because their numbers are so high. Disease has increased. Crop farmers are issued special permits that allow them to shoot deer out of season because the population is so high that they are stripping crops and damaging yield and profit. Clearly we need predators here to take the deer population back to a healthy level, and predators in this case include human hunters.
While nature has a way of righting itself, it still causes damage when things get out of whack. Often disease strikes and drops a population, other times a new predator will move into town and start taking out the over-plenty prey. My personal opinion about the deer in my area is that we will eventually see a population of mountain lion or possibly even black bear, both of which were once native here, regrow and start feeding on the deer if their numbers continue to remain high. Black bear sightings have already occurred and been documented in this area of the state, and many people — some of whom are friends or family — have claimed to see cougars in the area. (*Update – I originally wrote this post in 2013, and here we are in 2016 and there have been over three confirmed cougar sightings in Tennessee.)
Only time will tell for the deer in my area, but nature is a naturally balancing, sustainable force. Each thing plays a part; the predators, though they kill them, work symbiotically with the prey. Without prey, predators die from starvation; without predators, prey die from disease or starvation (and cause problems for humans in the mean time). Exceptions to this rule include invasive, nonnative species, but overall if nature is left alone it balances itself naturally.
Unfortunately, humans are not a part of nature anymore, at least not to the extent that they once were. The numbers of hunters and fishers who act as predators in the ecosystem have fallen. Now most people get their meat and fish from the store, wrapped up in nice plastic packages. Humans also encroach on wildlife habitats, which in turn drives out certain species. Though some animals do quite well adapting to human presence (like raccoon and squirrels) others are driven away by or clash with them. It is also an unfortunate fact that in most cases, people attempt to work against nature instead of alongside it. They fight it out of selfishness or greed, or even just sheer ignorance, and they cause problems when they do so. The buffalo massacres of times past comes to mind, as does the more recent introductions of nonnative animal and plant species by well-meaning but no less nearsighted humans. Nature is here for us to responsibly utilize, but often times we abuse it instead.
Predators and Livestock Owners
One way in which we often work against nature instead of in symbiosis with it is in livestock farming. People all too often either a) automatically kill any predators they see on their land or b) ignore the very existence of predators until an attack occurs. In both cases losses will be inevitable, and life will be an uphill struggle. Killing a predator only opens the door for either prey species to become overpopulated or another predator to simply move in and be the next threat to livestock.
I want to point out that this is not me saying that predators should never be killed. If a predator is caught attacking livestock, they should be humanely put down when legal.* Once that behavior is learned, it’s there forever and that animal will always recognize livestock as a smorgasbord. Predator species can become overpopulated as well just like prey species, in which cases legal hunting may be used to help combat the problem. Also, predators that do not fear humans are dangerous. A quick Google search of wildlife attacks on people (especially mountain lions and bears) will assure you of that fact. That said, I 100% believe that the best way to deal with predator attacks is to prevent them.
Preventing predatory attacks on livestock has twofold benefits: 1) livestock does not die and 2) natural predators do not die. In short, nobody has to die if livestock owners simply take measures to ensure the safety of their stock rather than waiting until an attack occurs and acting after the fact. There are a number of ways to live in harmony with nature, including natural predators, and drastically lower if not completely prevent losses of livestock to predators.
In my opinion, the presence of livestock guardian dogs is the best predator deterrent. The guardian breeds, when bred for the job and trained accordingly, are better at protecting livestock than even humans. With sharp eyes, ears, and noses they can detect threats long before a human can. They also add the benefit of being able to be with the flock 24/7 and the ability to deter most predators before they even attack. Unless a predator is desperate, they will most likely move on to easier targets before ever even attempting to go after the ones guarded by large dogs. Dogs, especially males, will also mark their territory to alert predators to their presence even when they aren’t in that specific area.
How many guardian dogs that are needed depends on the type of predators native to the area and the individual circumstances. Other things to take into consideration when choosing how many dogs to run include how big the predator population is, how ample their natural prey is in the area, how bold they are around humans, and how far spread out your livestock may be when grazing (i.e., the size of the actual livestock areas). More and larger predators need more guardian dogs.
It is extremely important when choosing your guardian dogs that they are a guardian breed and that they have been born and raised in a working environment with parents who are already guarding livestock. Those bred-in instincts and early education are vital to having a successful guardian. Not just any breed is built and bred to bond with and protect your livestock! True guardian breeds have been selectively bred for centuries to live with an protect livestock 24/7/365.
Fencing and Housing
This is also an important aspect of owning livestock. It’s important that your fencing is able to keep your livestock and guardians in while also keeping predators out. After all, even a guardian can’t protect a kid, lamb, calf, or what-have-you if it’s running outside of the fence. Be sure and take into consideration the size of the stock that will be in the fence; for example, baby goats can slip right through the holes in cattle panels. Be sure to research proper construction if you aren’t familiar. A well built fence will be useful for years, but a poorly built one will be nothing but a pain. Don’t take short cuts — it’s not worth it in the long run.
I highly recommend using electric fencing around the bottom of the fence when housing small livestock, especially goats, or dogs that are known to roam or dig. Pyrenees and other guardian dogs often have a tendency to roam large territories, as this is how they originally lived when the breeds were developed. Guardian dogs are extremely smart and often find ways out of fences. For dogs that like to climb, a string around the middle or top also works well. Electric can be difficult to maintain, but it prevents goats or other animals from damaging fencing by going under it or rubbing along it and using it as a scratching post. In order for it to work properly, it must have the correct size charger for the distance, the correct voltage for the species inside it, and no dead leaves or live vegetation grounding it out.
For extremely heavy predatory areas, electric can also be run around the bottom and middle or top of the outside of the fence. This helps deter predators without permanently injuring them. The bottom strand is most important in areas with canines predator species, while the middle and top are important in areas with climbing predators such as big cats or bears. Obviously a potent shock would be necessary to deter a bear.
Housing also needs to be a secure place, but understand that it must also be well ventilated. Housing cannot be your sole defense against predators for this reason, and because the livestock need to have free access to move in and out of the housing during the day. If a prey animal can get into and out of the housing from the field, so can a predatory animal. Therefore, fencing and guardians are the first line of defense. It is possible to lock livestock inside of their barn at night while predator activity is typically at its height. This is the recommended method for poultry especially, and is not a bad idea for young stock or for areas with high predation.
Birthing pens should be especially secure, both in fencing and housing. The sounds and smells of birth draw predators looking to make an easy meal out of vulnerable young or mothers in labor.
Other Habits of Prevention
- Schedule pasture use when predator pressure is low
- Graze cattle with smaller livestock to protect sheep, goats, and calves
- Time calving and lambing to avoid predation risk
- Lamb in sheds, secure fenced lots, or protected pastures
- Make frequent and unpredictable patrols in pastures
- Fence out predators
- Learn the ecology and habits of area wildlife
They also recommend the use of guardian animals.
All of these are methods of preventing predator attack, and they all relate to two core principles:
Coexisting with native wildlife is just one small part of raising happy and healthy livestock in a humane environment. It is a common desire among homesteaders and small farmers to raise animals humanely and naturally as possible — to step away from the modern conventions of putting profit above all and quantity over quality — but all too often we leave out this important part of the equation. Wildlife, predators included, are important. It would be remiss to seek to responsibly raise livestock while blindly struggling against nature.
While we may not be able to prevent 100% of predator loss, we can do our part to keep our livestock as safe as possible in a proactive manner instead of a reactive one.