Protect Your Livestock From Predators

The USDA estimates that predators (wild and domestic) cost farmers and ranchers almost $100 million annually in livestock losses. Learn how to protect your livestock from becoming prey.

by Carol Ekarius
PHOTO: John Carrel/Flickr

If you live in wolf country, and have livestock, you may have good reason to be afraid for your animals’ safety.

According to Dr. John Shivik, a Wildlife Biologist at the USDA’s Predation Ecology Field Station in Utah, there are some things you can do to reduce the impact of predators, keeping in mind that these animals are important components of ecosystems.

There is an ongoing tug-of-war between predators and wild herbivores, like deer and elk, with the balance of power being determined by the availability of forage plants.

In nature, predators feed not only on large herbivores, but also on lots of small rodents and rabbits (in fact, several studies show that rodents make up about 90 percent of the coyote’s diet). They’ll also eat insects and carrion.

When they do kill livestock or pets, predators aren’t trying to ruin your day, cut into your profit, or break your heart; they’re simply struggling to survive.

“Predators kill things for a living,” says Dr. Shivik. “That is their job.”

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While remote areas are prone to wild predator problems, in small farm towns and rurban areas (suburban/rural interface areas) domestic dogs do most of the damage (though coyotes are moving into the burbs, finding it an easy place to make a living—they’ve even been seen dodging traffic in the Bronx).

Fido and Spot don’t have to be wild, vicious or even brave to chase sheep or kill chickens: They’re simply following their natural impulse. They are capable of carrying out the hunting sequence of the their forebear, the wolf—from orienting and tracking, to stalking, chasing, herding, attacking and killing—though they usually do so for sport rather than survival.

Opportunity Knocks

Not all predators kill livestock, and when they do, they tend to be opportunistic, seeking whatever is easiest to meet their needs. In other words, they usually go for young, old, weak or sick animals first. As they become desperately hungry though (like during a drought), they become much more aggressive and will attempt to take healthy, mature animals. Since healthy animals suffer less predation, good feed and adequate healthcare pays in more ways than one.

There is no magic answer to all predator situations; each predation event includes unique circumstances, so unique responses are required. Overall, the best approach to protect your livestock (and pets) is to make predators think that eating at your house will be harder than feeding on field mice and cotton-tailed rabbits. You can do this by developing knowledge and understanding of predators, and by learning to apply non-lethal techniques that reduce predation.

Scientists refer to predation in terms of a conflict between “food-acquisition behavior” of the predators, and food-production or lifestyle behavior of humans. Reducing these conflicts requires changing either our behavior or the predators. “There are a plethora of non-lethal methods out there being advertised by both scientists and charlatans. What ultimately works though is applying common sense to the problem, and understanding that most predator conflicts will require a variety of techniques, used in combination, and tailored to the actual circumstances.

Identifying Predation And Predators

The first step is to identify the predator, but remember, sometimes predators get a bum rap. For example, a farmer comes upon the corpse of a dead animal, andbecause there are obvious bite marks, he or she assumes a predator killed it. But animals die from a number of causes, and unless you see the predator in the act of attacking a live animal, the death may have been from natural causes, with predators simply scavenging afterward.

When you suspect predator damage, assess the scene. Signs of a struggle, like drag marks, torn hair, wool or feathers left on brush or fences, or blood spread around a large area all point to predation. If there are no signs of a struggle, examination of the carcass may help.

An animal that has been fed on after it died will not bleed under the skin at the bite marks. This type of bleeding, known as subcutaneous hemorrhage, is only present when the heart was beating while the bites were inflicted.

When signs of struggle or subcutaneous hemorrhage are present, the next step is to try and confirm the kind of predator. Each species leaves its own telltale signs at a kill. For example, canid species (coyotes, dogs, wolves, foxes) tend to attack from the sides and the hindquarters, grabbing their prey under the neck, whereas cats tend to jump up on the back, biting the top of the head or back of the neck. Close examination of paw-print size and shape, tooth spacing and size, feeding habits, and pattern of killing help correctly identify the predator responsible for the kill.

Non-Lethal Predator Control

Although Wile E. Coyote may have looked the fool in his encounters with the Road Runner, he’s not a good example of the species, or predators in general. Since it is the “job” of predators to kill, they are intelligent, curious, and most of all, adaptable. Consequently, changing their behavior—though it may be possible—is harder than changing your own.

Becky Weed is a livestock producer in Montana who has learned how to successfully adjust her behavior, and she has built a very successful marketing strategy around it. As a founding member of “predator-friendly” wool, a co-op that brands and markets an environmentally friendly product, she has seen her business grow steadily.

Becky and her husband, David, didn’t grow up on farms, but in the 1980s they started raising sheep in Montana and have been farming full time since 1993. Early on they lost 20 percent of their flock to coyotes. They called an Animal Damage Control agent, who shot and trapped a few coyotes, but as Becky says, “We knew we couldn’t kill all the coyotes that came through, and we didn’t want to, even if we could.” They began looking at alternatives and started using guardian animals (first burros, and now llamas). The llamas, in conjunction with other techniques, like moving pastures seasonally to reduce predation, have definitely helped, though Becky acknowledges that there are no guarantees. “We did have some problems with a mountain lion on the pasture we were running one flock on near the base of the mountain. We moved the flock to another pasture closer to home, and that ended the problem.”

Guardian Animals For Sheep And Goats

For thousands of years, farmers in Europe and Asia used guardian dogs to protect their sheep and goats. However, during the early 1900s farmers switched from using guardian animals to protect their flocks and herds, to using guns, poison and traps. Now, farmers like Becky and David are showing that the old approach is still practical.

Killings usually occur at night or in very early morning, when you’re normally asleep. A guardian animal is on duty 24 hours a day, and alert and protective during the hours of greatest danger. Few guardian animals actually kill predators, but their presence and behavior reduces or prevents attacks. They may chase a trespassing dog or coyote, but should not chase them far. Chasing for a prolonged distance (or time) would be considered faulty behavior, as the guardian should stay near the herd, flock or homeplace—between your animals and danger.

Dogs are probably the most common guardian animals, but donkeys, ponies, mules, and llamas are used for protecting sheep and goats. (Some people even use geese to guard sheep; though they may not be effective against wild predators, they may do the trick with domestic dogs.)

Guardian dogs are raised very differently than pets; as puppies they are bonded to the animals they are going to protect, not to human family members, though they must be handled enough that you can safely feed them, take them to the vet, isolate them when you will be working with the stock, et cetera. Although certain breeds are characteristically used, not all individuals within those breeds are suitable.

Where coyotes and domestic dogs are the problem, one or two guardian dogs are sufficient to protect a farm flock, but if wolves or other large predators are of major concern, dogs may or may not work. Although some producers report success with three to five dogs warding off large predators, Dr. Shivik says, “in the Western United States, guardian dogs are often killed by large predators, particularly wolves.”

Wolves are territorial, with each pack staking out an area, and defending it against other packs. Dr. Shivik speculates that the wolves may consider the guardian dogs as another wolf pack, so they attack as part of a territorial response. Yet he adds, “In Europe they have had success with guard dogs protecting stock from wolves. We need to research what the difference is between the European and U.S. approaches to figure out if there is something we are doing wrong.”

Donkeys and llamas, which live longer than dogs, and don’t require special feed, really dislike coyotes and dogs, but tend to be scared of, or even vulnerable to, larger predators. In the United States, these likable critters can be picked up for anywhere between $50 and $500; a bargain compared to good guardian dogs, which usually start at $500. Like dogs, these guardians are best purchased early and raised with the flock or herd they will protect. A single female or gelded animal is less likely to harass the animals it is meant to protect than multiple animals or intact males, and it will stay with the flock for companionship. If you use a herding dog for working your animals, the guardian may interfere with its ability to work.

Whichever type of guardian you’re considering, remember the following: 1) The guardian needs to bond with the animals it’s protecting, and bonding can take time; 2) Guardians should be introduced slowly, across a fence. It’s usually easiest to make the introduction in a small area rather than in a large pasture; and 3) Each animal is an individual, and will react differently in different situations. Some individuals don’t make good guardians!

Physical Barriers Agains Predators

Fencing and enclosures are designed to place a physical barrier between the predator and its prey. “Exclusionary devices can be as simple as an easily-strung electric-energized temporary corral, or as complex and expensive as a dingo-proof fence stretching from one side of Australia to the other,” says Dr. Shivik.

Fences designed to keep predators out are more expensive than those just designed to keep stock in, so they are rarely cost-effective for large areas. Night penning is a cost-effective fencing approach that works well, especially for small and medium-sized operations; it involves bringing animals back into a small, predator-fenced area in the evening. Adding lights to night pens increases the effectiveness of the pens.

Since young animals are most vulnerable, having babies near the farmstead house reduces predation, particularly if mother animals can be moved into a shed or barn near parturition. Buildings are also crucial for keeping small animals, like poultry and rabbits, which are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators, ranging from raccoons and opossums to large predators.

Husbandry Approaches

Predators tend to kill livestock more frequently at certain times of year or in certain places. Coyotes kill more in April, May and June, when they are trying to feed their pups, than they do at other times of the year; adjusting breeding schedules to have babies hitting the ground slightly before, or after, the coyote pups are creating a demand, seems to reduce losses.

Certain pastures and range areas may be particularly vulnerable to predation due to physical features, like wooded-riparian corridors that provide access and coverage for predators. Becky’s lion story is a prime example: Adjacent to the mountain, it had good tree cover for the cat to stalk from. But big cats tend to track over a fairly large range, so by moving the flock for a while the lion will hopefully move on.

Multi-species grazing can reduce some problems, and actually uses feed more effectively. For example, sheep and goats are far more vulnerable to predation than cattle, so by mixing them together to form a “flerd” you will get protection and be able to carry more animals per acre while reducing losses.

Changing Predator Behavior

Another approach to averting predators is by using repellants that rely on either “disruptive,” or “aversive,” stimuli. When using disruptive stimuli, you are simply trying to scare the animals away. The problem is that the critters usually become used to—or desensitized to—the stimuli, and begin ignoring it, and the simpler the stimuli, the quicker this occurs. For example, placing a light in a field, or playing a radio loud at night, may deter predators for a day or two, but that’s about it. Intermittent and cycling devices (say a light or a radio on a timer that turns on and off frequently) may extend the time it takes, but these too fail to keep predators at bay for long. Many companies are selling chemical and odor repellants, but research indicates that these also have a limited life, and they are usually only effective in a small area. In spite of their limitations, these techniques may be used for short, critical periods and in changing combinations, to afford some protection. The more randomly they can be applied, the better they’ll work.

Aversive stimuli ideally eliminates unwanted behavior, but it is often logistically difficult to do. An example is the electronic training collars that dog owners use. These give a small shock when the dog crosses a buried perimeter fence, or starts barking. The dog learns not to cross a certain point, or bark, and after a while it doesn’t need the collar for reminder. Training devices, in theory, could work for predators too, but Wile E. isn’t necessarily cooperative when it comes to having a collar put on. Another approach to aversive stimuli that scientists have studied is Conditioned Taste Aversion (CTA). CTA uses a less-than-lethal poison that is fed to a predator after it has consumed a type of food; the poison causes illness and the illness causes an intense aversion to the flavor of the food. It was first studied in the 1970s, and seemed promising, but again, it’s hard to implement in the field.

Predator Laws

All wild predators are protected or controlled by federal and state laws and regulations. If you have, or suspect you have, a problem with wild predators, call the Animal Damage Control office of the USDA, or your state’s “Wildlife” office, to learn about specific remedies and laws in your area.

Local law enforcement or your local animal control agency should be able to tell you the county’s dog laws, or better yet, give you a copy of the county or state laws. You may find that they are strict and well spelled out, but lack enforcement. Most states allow a livestock owner to recoup payment from a dog’s owner for both damage and deaths to livestock. If a dog is chasing and/or killing livestock, promptly contact your local sheriff or animal-control officer. They can assist you in determining the owner of the dog (or dogs), impound them, and press charges on your behalf against the owner.

There is hope for the future, with the public coming to understand that if we want to have predators in the wild, we need to help producers. That help is coming in the form of higher prices for niche marketed products, compensation from government agencies and environmental groups for actual losses, and more research into non-lethal control methods.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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