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Guard donkeys and other livestock guardians

By Kit Donner
Posted Wednesday, June 25, 2008

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Bonlee, NC - For best advice about guardian animals with sheep or goats in Chatham, you should call the county ag agent. He is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.

Is a guard animal necessary with goats or sheep? Some people do get away without them, but in many parts of Chatham a guard animal is a very good idea.

If you are going to use a guard animal, it is most effective if you get the guard animal before you start losing livestock - deterring a killer dog pack, coyotes, or other predators that have already decided that your flock is their dining room / larder is harder than deterring them before they are successful. Plus a flock that has been decimated may never stop spooking and teaching their young to spook.

People use donkeys, llamas, and certain dogs, and have had success with any of them. I prefer and recommend donkeys the most highly of these alternatives.

No matter what type of animal you get to guard sheep and / or goats, you have to be careful about the actual individual.

Many donkeys do an extremely good job of guarding goats and / or sheep. A few donkeys will kill goats or sheep, but this is extremely rare - it is still worth telling the person you are getting the donkey from why you want a donkey, just in case. Usually one donkey works best at least initially, so that the donkey is lonely enough to become attached to the sheep or goats. Once the bond between the donkey and goats is established it seems to be pretty durable, so you may be able to add a second donkey if you want to later.

One drawback is that some occasional donkeys won't learn that your dogs are not a threat to the sheep or goats (assuming that you have dogs that are well behaved around livestock.) Most donkeys will learn to tolerate you working with the goats when you need to.

Both problems (over zealous guarding and killing rather than protecting the stock) seem to be more common with either llamas or dogs than they are with donkeys. And the donkeys tend to be very hardy and relatively easy to keep and live a long time and are affordable - a lot more than llamas, and more than many guardian breed puppies.

But the final decision about a guardian animal may depend on what animal you like. Some people prefer guardian dogs because they like the dogs and don't like donkeys or llamas. Some people want llamas for the novelty. Some people in some parts of the country swear by llamas as being the only animal that can handle cougars, but that doesn't seem to be a factor in Chatham, thank goodness. There are actually people that like llamas too, and spend enough time interacting with their llamas that the llamas are socialized and reasonably behaved around people, but too many people who have llamas as guard animals unfortunately haven't taken the time to get their llamas used to people - so be careful to get a nice llama if you decide to get one or the llama may protect the goats from you. (Same with donkeys and dogs, but usually to a lesser extent because the llamas are very very capable, dangerous fighters that outweigh you by a lot.)

Some people also keep a cow or steer with their goats to deter dogs and coyotes and to make more effective use of the grazing. Cattle and sheep don't mix particularly well because sheep eat the grass too short for the cattle, but cattle and goats can be kept together. The cattle don't seem to be as deliberately protective of the goats as a guardian dog, donkey, or llama, but will often run off stray dogs or coyotes if they have a calf, or even just to run them off, so if you are thinking about getting a cow or steer and keeping the goats in the same pasture, that may be good enough.

It also depends on the goats, and on how and where you are keeping them. Obviously, pygmy goats and other small goats and weaned youngsters without adults are more vulnerable than health active larger adults with formidable horns, and small groups are more vulnerable than large groups and goats right by your house during the day if you are home and in a sturdy barn when you are away or asleep are less vulnerable than goats that are in isolated areas. And it depends on whether you are planning to have the goats as pets or livestock that is an economic asset or whether you are just trying to get some underbrush cleared quickly and then plan to get rid of the goats - I don't recommend leaving goats vulnerable to dogs and coyotes under any circumstances, but there are people who don't find the cost and trouble of a guardian animal worth while because they don't really care about the goats.

In addition to asking on the chatlist about where to get donkeys you can check the Ag Review (online, or I think it is still available by mail by asking your county ag agent), or post on the bulletin boards at feed stores, and even grocery stores. Use online search engines for breeders, clubs, and even animal rescue organizations which don't just get dogs and cats. Depending on how far you are willing to go, how much you want to spend, whether you want to do anything with your donkey besides have it be a guardian (riding, driving, plowing, packing and camping, showing, breeding, you name it) there are all sorts of places to get donkeys, and all sorts of donkeys, from minature to mammouth, pedigreed to mutts.

A weanling donkey won't initially provide much protection, nor will a really ancient one, nor some of the really minature ones, but just about anything else is a possibility, depending on your particular situation.

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