Coyotes and dogs had been a major problem at the University of Rhode Island’s Peckham Farm, home to a prize-winning flock of Dorset sheep. Then the university bought Bonnie, a guard donkey.
She came to the URI campus in December 2003 after a pack of dogs had attacked the sheep. Of the 26 ewes in the flock then, 17 suffered severe puncture wounds. One was killed, and six were badly injured, including one so seriously hurt she had to be euthanized a few weeks later.
Since the guard donkey’s arrival, the university has not lost a single animal, says Dave Marshall, Peckham Farm manager, so the school acquired a second guard donkey, named Dee.
In nearby Lebanon, Conn., Paul Tubey says he's seen coyotes lurking in the woods surrounding his Beltane Farm, but the predators have stayed away from his mixed herd of Oberhasli and LaMancha goats since he acquired a guard donkey.
Guard Donkeys at Work
In addition to dogs or coyotes, guard donkeys can also protect farm animals against foxes and bobcats, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, but black bears, wolves and mountain lions might prey on donkeys.
"Donkeys rely predominantly on sight and sound to detect intruders,” according to a bulletin from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. "When approached, sheep will tend to move so the guard animal is between the intruder and themselves. The donkeys' loud brays and quick pursuit will scare away predators and may also alert the shepherd.
Usually, a donkey will confront the predator and run it out of the pasture.
"If the canines do not retreat quickly, the donkeys will attack them by rising up on their hind legs and striking with both front feet," the bulletin says. "A solid blow can injure, kill or at the very least discourage the predator.”
When a visitor brought a leashed dog to URI’s Peckham Farm, Bonnie and Dee brayed menacingly as they charged to the pasture fence. Before buying a potential guard donkey, it’s wise to test its reaction to a dog.
Know Your Donkeys
Like horses, each donkey is different from others, says Dave Marshall, a former farrier. During lambing season, he had to separate Dee from the sheep because the younger guard donkey was being impatient and rough with lambs.
"Bonnie, the older one, lets things happen as they happen,” Marshall says. "Dee is an enforcer. She wants everything to happen the way she wants it to happen, but lambs can’t conform; they don’t have that in their brains. They have no real ‘flock sense.’ Dee can’t put them together; one goes this way and another goes that way, so she tries to grab them.
Marshall says Dee will have an easier time controlling the sheep once they turn 6 months old because the lambs will become part of the dynamic of the flock.
Where to Get a Donkey
Donkeys are often available at livestock auctions or by reaching out to donkey and mule breed associations.
"Jennies (females) are suitable for use as guard animals,” according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. "Jacks (intact males), which cost about half as much as jennies, should be gelded before use as guard animals.”
Fred Launer, an animal-science instructor at URI, recommends buying guard donkeys from breeders who have selected stock specifically for the donkeys’ herd-protection instincts. The donkeys might cost more, but it’s a wise investment, he says. Dee and Bonnie came from guard-donkey breeders in Pennsylvania.
Some guard-donkey owners breed their own donkeys. The practice allows selection for donkeys with good guarding tendencies. In 2004, URI’s Bonnie foaled Clyde, who after gelding, was sold to a nearby shepherd.
Donkeys and Socialization
"The donkey should be introduced to the sheep as early as possible to increase the likelihood of the donkey bonding to the flock,” according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. "Getting the sheep and donkey to accept each other as ‘flockmates’ is the first step in allowing the donkey to exhibit its true guarding instincts. Under ideal circumstances the jenny and her foal should be raised with the sheep. The weaned foal should then be left alone with the flock."
Donkeys are very sociable animals, though, so many think that in order to effectively do their jobs, they need to work alone. Farmers worry that if the donkeys are allowed to mix with cattle, horses or other donkeys, then the sheep will be ignored. At Beltane Farm, however, Tubey had to buy a pony to be a calming companion for his donkey, a common and sound solution for donkeys that can seem to be stressed, says URI’s Fred Launer.
Donkeys are hardy and usually require minimal care.
"Annual worming and occasional supplemental feeding during periods of poor range conditions may be all that is required,” according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. "Water should be readily available and snow or ice should not be relied on for meeting water intake needs during cold weather. Do not allow donkeys access to feed containing Rumensin, urea or other products intended only for ruminants. Donkeys can benefit from vaccination against common equine diseases, such as tetanus and encephalitis. Veterinary care, hoof trimming and floating of teeth may be needed at times.”
Guard donkeys do not need special training, but they're easier to handle after they have become accustomed to a halter.
Guard Donkey Tips
If you think adding a guard donkey to your menagerie is in your future, use these tips from the Texas Department of Agriculture to find the best animal to fit your farms needs.
- Select guard donkeys from medium- to large-sized stock. Do not use extremely small or miniature donkeys.
- Do not acquire a donkey that cannot be culled or sold if it fails to perform properly.
- Use jennies or geldings. Do not use jacks as guard animals because they are frequently aggressive to other livestock and might kill sheep or goats.
- Test a prospective guard donkey's guarding response by challenging the donkey with a dog in a corral or small pasture.
- Use only one donkey or jenny and her foal per pasture.
- Isolate guard donkeys from horses, mules and other donkeys.
- To increase the probability of bonding, raise donkeys with sheep or goats from birth or place them with their charges at weaning.
- Raise guard donkeys away from dogs. Avoid the use of herding dogs around donkeys.
- Monitor the use of guard donkeys at lambing or kidding as some donkeys might be aggressive or overly possessive to newborns. Remove donkeys temporarily if necessary.
- For best results, use donkeys in small (less than 600 acres), open pastures with no more than 200 sheep or goats. Large pastures, rough terrain, dense brush, too large a herd, and scattered sheep or goats all lessen the effectiveness of guard donkeys.
About the Author: Tom Meade is a writer, beekeeper and vegetable gardener in Rhode Island.