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Keeping Sheep Safe

Keeping Sheep Safe

Here at the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, the sheep help us sleep at night, whether we’re counting them; nestling under cozy comforters made from their fleeces; or resting our heads on a scrumptious wool pillow.

But how do our farmers sleep, when sheep are such delectable prey for so many predators come nightfall?  Depending on where a sheep farmer lives, his or her flock are potential victims of coyotes, dogs, bears, mountain lions, or wolves.  Aside from flocking together, sheep have little ability to defend themselves from an attack.

Flocking Together

In the past, the traditional solution was to trap and shoot, regardless of whether the predators were protected species.  “Shoot, shovel and shut-up,” was the slogan often bandied about by ranchers.  But as farming has entered a new generation, where we’re understanding that the ecological health of the land is tied to the biological health of the animals, that slogan has been passed up for better options.

These days, how do farmers keep their sheep safe?

“The first line of defense is biodiversity,” says Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm, one of the family farms that partners with Frankenmuth for processing their wool products.  “Studies have shown that if you shoot predators like coyotes, their populations will surge back stronger than ever.  So while you and your sheep might get a few nights’ rest, the problem is only going to get worse later on.”  Today, many farmers recognize that the biological health of their grazing lands, especially their hedgerows, goes a long way to slowing down predators. Biodiversity in the hedgerows — where lots of smaller wildlife can thrive if the soils and plant life are healthy, means the predators can get what they need, without crossing over the fence to the farmers’ sheep.

But still.  We all know lamb is really delicious.  And while squirrels and field mice might keep most predators sated on a day-to-day basis, how long can they resist the thought of lamb carpaccio?  What then?

Increasingly, modern farmers are leaving the guns locked away.  Instead, they’re turning toward a practice more ancient than gunfire: the use of guardian livestock.  These can be specially-trained guard dogs, donkeys, even llamas and alpacas.  All of these animals can live with the flocks, providing protection in unique ways distinctive to their species.  Guard dogs mark their territories, bark and charge at predators.  Donkeys brey loudly and kick; and llamas, instinctively vigilant, will charge and kick.  Are there any preferences?

Pug the Alpaca

It all depends on the farm.  A farm with extensive pastures and a heavy predator problem might need dogs, while one with wide flat fields and ample surrounding wild habitat might do best with a donkey.  But what about those mountainous farms and rolling pastures?  “That’s where the llamas and alpacas come in!” says Hayes.  These critters are native to the Andes, and their instinctive watchfulness and ability to navigate rough ground makes them wonderful predator control for Sap Bush Hollow.  Many farmers also like them because they subsist on the same diet as sheep:  good pasture. 

“But in truth, I’d say it has been the combination of animals that has worked best for us,” says Hayes.  In the early days when her family first moved to Sap Bush Hollow and the fields were more depleted, predators were a bigger problem.  The family started with grazing multiple species together, finding that having sheep and cattle in the same pasture was a helpful deterrant.  When they separated out the cattle, they introduced guard dogs to the flock.  As the health of the land and soils improved, the main predator, coyotes, were able to co-exist more easily. There was ample wildlife to hunt and sustain them without invading the sheep pastures.   But when they cross over the creek looking for take out, Sap Bush Hollow has an arsenal of guardians at the ready.  Pug, the farm alpaca, lives with the flock.  Geese and guinea fowl travel with the livestock too, sounding loud alarms, waking up the dogs, and alerting everyone that there’s a problem.  With all that cacophony, the coyote almost always turns quick and heads for home.

A dog and alpaca keeping the flock safe

“My Mom says she’s learned that a noisy farm at night is the way she sleeps best,” says Hayes.  “Because she knows that everyone out there is doing their job and keeping safe. She just rolls over with her wool comforter, snuggles down into her wool pillow, and slumbers on.” 

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