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Watching over livestock: our guardian animals

True innovation is rare in agriculture. Most farmers are willing to improve the way they work, but these improvements are typically small adjustments to established practice, rather than fundamental changes…

Guardian animals, a environmentally friendly and adorable way to protect our livestock. Karen Rodgers

True innovation is rare in agriculture. Most farmers are willing to improve the way they work, but these improvements are typically small adjustments to established practice, rather than fundamental changes in direction.

But farmers throughout Australia have recently begun experimenting with a radical new solution to one of their biggest problems: attacks on livestock by wild predators, mainly dingoes, other wild dogs and foxes. This is the most significant threat faced by many sheep, goat and free-range poultry farmers, and is a major headache for cattle farmers.

The conventional response is to try to kill as many of the predators as possible, usually by distributing baits laced with 1080 poison. This happens on an industrial scale over vast areas of Australia, but many farmers are complaining that the predator problem is just getting worse.

The innovation is to use guardian animals, like dogs, alpacas or donkeys. Dogs are the most radical option, because farmers who use them have to stop spreading poison on their farms. The dogs belong to ancient breeds like the Maremma sheepdog that have been protecting livestock for thousands of years.

Puppies are raised alongside lambs, forging a pack relationship between the animals. The puppies grow to protect their adopted family. Flickr/Charles Roffey

They are prepared for their work by living with livestock from puppyhood, so that they bond to them rather than to people or other dogs. Because they go through their social development with livestock as their closest companions, they grow into adults who choose to live with “their” livestock and provide full-time care and protection. They do this using complex behaviour and independent decision-making. For example, they may bring the animals into yards to keep them safe during nights when packs of wild dogs invade the farm, and at other times keep watch over injured or distressed animals until the farmer can find and help them.

For these reasons, they provide a more complete solution than other guardian animals like alpacas, which are effective only because they are aggressive to predators and provide indirect protection for sheep or goats when placed in the same paddocks with them.

For the last three years, my PhD student Linda van Bommel and I have been researching the use of guardian dogs in Australian livestock industries. Our first question was: do they actually work? After interviewing more than a hundred livestock producers who use guardian dogs and visiting a series of farms for in-depth study, we found the answer. They work superbly.

Almost all farmers reported that predation dropped after they introduced guardian dogs, and in most cases it stopped completely. This was true even on very large properties of many thousands of hectares, with high dingo populations. Many farmers said that their dogs made the difference between viability and ruin for their businesses. We did a benefit-cost analysis showing that the dogs paid back their purchase and maintenance costs within a year or two.

So, the figures show that using guardian dogs is a good business decision for Australian farmers with a predator problem. The stories that individual farmers tell of their success make that obvious. But in my own conversations with farmers who use guardian dogs, I notice something else about them, something quite unusual. They are happy. Not just pleased that they have one less problem on the farm; they seem more deeply satisfied with farming life in general.

I suspect the reason for this is that farmers love working with animals, and guardian dogs provide them with a way to use animals to solve one of their biggest problems. This gives deeper satisfaction than crude technical fixes like poison could do, even if they worked.

There are lots of good things to say about this particular innovation. Because it reduces use of poison, it is clean and green. It means less animal suffering, so it is ethical. And once guardian dogs are established on a farm, they continue to work with minimal input, so it is sustainable. But maybe its most important value is that it enriches the connectedness of people and animals, and improves the lives of both.

If you would like to know more, you can download a free guide to using guardian dogs, written by Linda van Bommel.

Join the conversation

29 Comments sorted by

  1. Wil B

    B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

    Please reconcile "True innovation is rare in agriculture; a radical new solution" with "..the Maremma sheepdog that have been protecting livestock for thousands of years" Does not compute.

    We tried a maremma for a year. Didn't work at all. You should have interviewed my mother.

    Alpacas worked better.

    And farmers are happier? Seriously? is this an academic website or what?

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    1. Chris H

      Psychologist

      In reply to Wil B

      Notwithstanding the fluffy tone of the article, the info fits with other areas of research indicating many people do report higher levels of psychological well being when they interact with animals. The research I have read relates mostly to urban settings and pets/ companion animals but the principle has some overlap here. As for whether dogs or alpacas work better would be a contextual variable I'm guessing - different types of predator, different relationships between farmer and their animals, different environment and economics etc etc. Interesting stuff either way.

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    2. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Chris H

      Chris H, these are livestock farmers, I suspect they're getting their fill of animal interactions, don't you think?

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    3. Rohan Macdonald

      me

      In reply to Wil B

      Please reconcile "We tried a maremma for a year. Didn't work at all" with "They are prepared for their work by living with livestock from puppyhood, so that they bond to them rather than to people or other dogs. Because they go through their social development with livestock as their closest companions, they grow into adults who choose to live with “their” livestock and provide full-time care and protection".

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    4. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Rohan Macdonald

      Oh, I think I can do that! How about, we're not sheep? Talking about two different animals, aren't we?

      like duh.

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    5. Rohan Macdonald

      me

      In reply to Wil B

      No I was responding to your comment about sheep and maremmas. The article clearly elucidates the need for the dogs to develop social bonds with the livestock. Your comment suggested a maremma was simply introduced to the flock with expected immediate results.

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  2. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    Guardian animals is a good step. If you've managed to work out the best practice for it to work I think it needs promoting widely.

    It would certainly make more sense than the current practices. Baiting assumes the dogs are stupid and don't learn, same with traps. Shooters are costly and have to spend a long time out in the middle of nowhere to get results. The expenditure some shires have on control is ridiculous in comparison to the actual losses.

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  3. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    Pastoralists are well known for failing to desex their working dogs. WA’s Kondinin Groups National Agricultural Survey found that a mere 39% of farmers desexed dogs that were no longer needed for breeding. And each litter of bitches are killed at birth - a barbaric but avoidable practice. The question needs to be asked: “How many wild dogs are born as a result of working dogs mating with ferals?”

    And as with working dogs, desexing guardian dogs is not compulsory. The pastoralist and the “regulator” need to take some responsibility for the wild dog plague including feral critters (born of working dogs) that suffer an agonising fate from the use of the heinous 1080 bait.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley you are making several leaps and accusations there.

      Feral dogs are generally the source of wild dog and interbred dingoes. Feral being the term for dogs that are roaming free. Find me a farmer or pastrolist who doesn't have their dogs under control, including housing or chaining them up at night.

      Oh, and instead of 1080, what would you prefer was used to try and stop all the deaths of native animals? What would you prefer was used to try and stop the deaths of all the non-native animals? Feral dogs and cats are rife in rural areas, they are a problem that need to be dealt with.

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    2. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Thank you for the advice Tim. I hail from the mining and pastoral region of WA therefore I actually happen to know the definition of “feral.” I also understand that the Australian cattle dog and kelpie carry the dingo gene.

      I have witnessed pastoralists’ working dogs tethered to their beds which are 44 gallon steel drums, come rain, hail or heatwaves exceeding 40oC though author Jane Duckworth writes that working dogs are often tethered to a tree. Are you inferring that pastoralists are under…

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      So you've just agreed with my statements and then gone on to blame my organisation (the organisation that actually combats this issue) with doing nothing.

      Firstly: you cite Bill Little, who clearly missed the memo about making sure his dogs didn't eat the baits.
      Secondly: eradication programs have been successful where applied properly. Unfortunately they have not been done properly as not everyone gets on board.
      Thirdly: you blame my organisation, you blame 1080, you blame dogs, you blame DEC, you accuse everyone of wiping out native fauna. Blame without any solutions. Would you prefer to not even bother controlling the numbers of wild dogs?

      There is an answer to the wild dog problem, but it would be far nastier than 1080 and would need wide coordination. On the plus side it would only take a few days. It'll never happen though.

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    4. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Bit of a problem re feral animal and also declared plant management. Who pays for what gains? If the community directly assists land holders to manage these problems and these problems have reached their full ecological extent, the problem for each land holder can be regarded as that particular manager’s problem. Cattle are less affected by wild dogs than sheep so are public funds for control programs a form of subsidy?

      If an alien pest/weed become established, by all means eradicate them…

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    5. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to John Holmes

      And as you know John, eradication is always hard once a population is established. So literally eradication isn't the game as much as population control.

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    6. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      That’s a load of old cobblers Tim. Bill Little’s dogs were baited on a stock route. 1080 baits have been picked up by pets in caravan parks, wildlife parks, private properties, bush tracks, reserves and in national parks which belong to everyone not just a livestock industry that farms introduced species.

      Are you implying that the owners of 1080 victims are illiterate and can’t read poison bait signs? Your preferred bait has killed horses, kangaroos, birds including raptors and other endangered…

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    7. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Dogs used to die of strychnine poisoning is many places as well. Most often due to straying on to properties not owned by the dogs owner. Of course there was odd person or so like the infamous Alice Spring dog poisoner who would throw baits about the town and into back yards and other inappropriate areras. (1970's). Problem is that of managing the baits appropriately.

      I feel that you have missed the point of my comments. Where 1080 is a natural occurring toxin to which the local wildlife…

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    8. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to John Holmes

      John, I am aware that some species (including carnivorous marsupials) in WA have had evolutionary exposure to naturally occurring fluoroacetate and are more tolerant to the toxin than some from eastern Australia. However it is presumed they acquired this tolerance through feeding on prey which had fed on plants containing fluoroacetate. One must ask then why the maligned but predatory dingo has not had the same evolutionary exposure and remains intolerant to 1080, considering the latest research…

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  4. Marian Macdonald

    logged in via Twitter

    We have two Maremmas on our dairy farm in Gippsland but rather than using them to protect against predators, we're trying to scare off macropods. So far, it works a bit. The dogs are so well bonded to our calves, they don't want to roam far enough to scare away the roos. Still happy to experiment with further training though.

    One thing I am sure of is that the Maremmas are not making me a happy farmer ;). Suggest the author got a little carried away with the romanticism of farming with guardians at that point!

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  5. Judit Szabo

    Research Fellow, Threatened Bird Conservation at Charles Darwin University

    Maremma and other breeds have also successfully been used to protect native birds (such as little penguins and other seabirds) from foxes

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  6. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    From painful experience, please ensure that these dogs have not locked on to protecting the homestead. If so, please let the expected visitor know how to alert the occupants so that they can get to the door to knock. Very amiable looking dogs, but too big to argue with.

    The data quoted for 180 is totally incorrect for South Western Australia where it is a naturally occurring toxin in about 30 species of Gastrolobiums mostly with names like 'Box poison' etc.. My Grandparents would not eat…

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  7. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    Above - Opps - '1080' not '180', my question, when do you out grow dyslexia?

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  8. phil andrew

    luthier

    Some good points have been made on all sides of this discussion. I have often heard and read that 1080 dose not cause secondary poisoning of native animals. I find this too hard to believe when I have picked up several cadavers of Wedge Tail Eagles in and around areas where 1080 had been recently used. I dont believe in coincidence.....
    The facts still remain that there are more animals lost in transport related incidents than through predation, but as this happens off the farmers property I guess…

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    1. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to phil andrew

      Where was that? Also did you lose stock from native poison plants in uncleared bush?

      The SW of WA is where these poison plants are native. I suspect that they are also one of the reasons that mobs of feral goats did not appear in what is now the wheat belt after the first settlers moved in.

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    2. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to phil andrew

      Take 2.

      If eagles are traveling long distances, they may not be a local resident population so any local tolerance may be dissipated, hence deaths. Any studies on the movement of eagles in Aust. or of local marker genes?

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    3. phil andrew

      luthier

      In reply to John Holmes

      Hi John, the Wedgies I found were in the Southern Highlands of N.S.W. during the 1990s. To the best of my knowledge the plants in question are not endemic to the eastern states. The really annoying part is that none of the local animal welfare organisations were interested in these deaths, I cannot help but think that they knew the possibility of secondary poisoning.

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  9. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Interesting to sit reading all this, tells me a lot about the difficulty people still have in coming to terms with the overall reality of farming in this landscape.

    I know one bloke who called himself a farmer, came out with plenty of cash so I'm told from hiring stage lighting to big rock concert organisers in the UK and purchased a block down there in the southwest. He decided he was going to run sheep, which he did, brought in some nice stock in fact, but after a year or so started counting…

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    1. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Yes well as the late Henry Schapper wrote: “WA has not enforced ecologically sustainable productivity on the management of its publicly-owned rangelands. Whereas the land-use managers - whether of pastoral leases or agricultural freehold - are culpable for the resource degradation they tolerate or have caused, society is culpable for allowing those who have over-cropped, over-grazed, over-cleared and are continuing to do so.

      “The common public good seems to have been neglected by government…

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    2. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Your point taken, Shirley, except that firstly you neglect to mention that our imported colonial system, rather than considering core impacts of its own behaviour seeks rather to attribute blame, and secondly you conveniently forget that dogs are a human companion species, and that their condition reflects human condition.

      We are each a gregarious or flocking species. Dogs do not see themselves as members of the human race, but for those humans they are raised with as their fellow pack animals…

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    3. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      By the way, Wagga Wagga means 'place of the crows' - waaaaga waaaaga . . .

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    4. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Plus je vois les hommes, plus j'admire les chiens.

      Translate: The more I see of men, the better I like dogs.

      (Blaise Pascal - French mathematician, writer and philosopher)

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