When the Situation Gets Woolly, Call a Guard Llama

12/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Shepherds have used dogs for centuries to protect their flocks from predators, but in recent years another animal has joined the effort: the llama.

“All of a sudden that seems to be taking off. That seems to be the new marketing area for them,” said Tracey Gaul of Mountain Jam Llamas in Boyertown, Pa.

Though these camel cousins, which are native to South America’s Andes Mountains, are generally friendly with people, “they have an innate dislike of dogs,” Gaul said.

Keeping predators at bay is a serious issue for sheep farmers.

Predators killed 1,700 sheep, worth an estimated $213,000, in Pennsylvania in 2009, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Nationwide, predators took 247,000 sheep valued at $20 million that year.

Coyotes are responsible for a majority of the predatory sheep deaths across the country. Domestic dogs are responsible for almost all of the rest of the kills in the Eastern states.

Guard llamas live in the pasture with the sheep and watch out for trouble. Besides their intolerance for dogs, llamas are well-suited to guarding because they are instinctively protective of smaller livestock, Gaul said.

When llamas see new animals in their pastures, they stand erect, posture threateningly and approach the intruder.

“When somebody comes, you can see the alertness,” she said.

An advancing mature llama is often enough to scare away a coyote or dog. Llamas can grow six feet tall.

If the predator is undeterred, llamas are willing to attack. “It could get as nasty as jumping or stomping,” Gaul said.

Guarding instincts seem to be somewhat inherited, and some of Gaul’s llamas’ bloodlines have a strong guardian history.

“I guess I am breeding for (guards), although that’s not my primary intention,” she said.

Early research, such as a seminal 1994 study from Iowa State University, suggested that only one llama should be used with a flock, lest the llamas spend too much time socializing with each other and not enough time looking out for the sheep.

That thinking has changed, Gaul said.

“Now people are finding that they work best in groups,” she said.

Several llamas can more effectively protect a large pasture than a single animal, and a lone llama will be no match for a pack of dogs. Llamas form a group with their young in the middle, and they include the sheep in that safe zone.

“They kind of circle the wagons. When you have a whole a herd here, you see how it works,” she said.

Most of Gaul’s customers are from Pennsylvania, though she sold three llamas to a North Carolina farmer this summer.

“They’re very intelligent animals and very personable. You can form a really neat bond with them,” she said of the llamas.

Her llamas have even come to coexist with the family dog.

“They learn to accept what belongs” in the pasture, she said. “At times, if he gets to be annoying, they’ll show him who’s boss, but they won’t hurt him or anything.”

Chuck Leach of Leisure Acres Llamas in New Bethlehem, Pa., said a lot of people are interested in using llamas as guard animals. Over the past quarter-century, he and his wife, Sonja, have sold llamas to many owners of sheep, goats and alpacas.

“Believe it or not, we’ve actually sold some for guarding cattle,” he said.

Cows try to hide their young calves before going away to eat, but predators will still strike when the calves are left vulnerable. The llamas watch over the calves to keep that from happening.

The first guard llama the Leaches sold was to a miniature horse farmer.

“We have zero experience with that. We don’t know if they will or they won’t” work as guards, Chuck Leach told the man.

The man responded that he was confident the llama would work. He was looking to replace a guard llama that had recently died.

“They’re very effective,” Leach said.

The Leaches have never had a problem with a guard llama they sold. They offer a six-month money-back guarantee if buyers are not satisfied with their guard llama, provided the animal has not gotten sick or injured since purchase.

The only complaint Chuck Leach has received came from a woman who neglected to build trust with the llama before putting it in with the sheep.

“The llama won’t let me near my sheep,” she told him.

The buyer removed the llama from the sheep for a while, followed the Leaches’ protocols and reintroduced the llama to the sheep with better results.

“The llama will herd the sheep and keep them together and well-cared for,” he said. “They actually bond to them.”

Llamas’ herding and protecting skills are “pure instinct,” he said.

Llamas sound an alarm call when something is not right. Leach has seen a llama stare intently and run toward a dog. The dog ran away before it could be stomped or spat on.

Guard llamas do not need training, Leach said. He selects the animals by watching their interactions at Leisure Acres, which is home to 44 llamas right now.

Llamas have a pecking order like cows or people, he said. His thought process is “I think Fred will make a great guard llama because he is the dominant one in that pasture,” he said.

This hierarchy begins to show up when the llamas are 1 1/2 to 2 years old. Llamas are mature at 2 to 3 years old, he said.

Llamas are a low-maintenance predator control option. “The greatest thing about the llama is you put the llama in the pasture and then do nothing else,” Leach said.

Only female and castrated male llamas work as guards. Intact males may try to breed with the ewes, injuring or killing them, Leach said.

Scott Baer, a sheep farmer from Friedens, Pa., bought his first llama about nine years ago after he started losing animals to coyotes.

“They’re not foolproof, but I don’t know that anything is,” he said of llamas. “It really helped, but I still lost a few” sheep.

Pressure from coyotes has subsided in recent years, Baer said. He attributes that in part to the llama’s presence, but he said the coyote population seemed to spike during the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s now-discontinued push to shrink the state’s deer herd.

A smaller deer population might have pushed coyotes to other prey, he said.

Llamas have some advantages over dogs, Baer said. They do not need shots, county registration or special food. Llamas can eat or adapt to the same hay, grass and minerals as the sheep they are protecting, but dogs need to have dog food brought to them.

“Some people have said that their guard dogs from time to time take off and wander around the neighborhood,” he said.

One of Baer’s shepherd friends told him his guard dog stays with the sheep, but another said his dog occasionally goes off and kills the neighbors’ dogs. Baer did not want to take that chance.

Guard dogs can be more effective at killing coyotes, as llamas are more likely to just chase the coyote off. As a coyote gets hungrier, though, it will come back, Baer said.

Baer said he has also heard of sheep farmers using a guardian donkey, another animal occasionally used to protect sheep because of its protective instincts and animus toward dogs, but he has not used one.

Baer does not have a llama at the moment. His last two have died of meningeal worms, parasites that live naturally in deer without harming them but that kill unnatural hosts like sheep, goats and llamas.

“I will get another before spring, before lambs start being born,” Baer said.

According to Susan Schoenian of the University of Maryland Extension, animals get meningeal worms, also called brain worms, by eating infected snails and slugs. Sheep and llamas should be pastured away from snail, slug and deer habitats to minimize the risk of worms.

Guard llamas first hit the spotlight in 1994, when Iowa State Extension researchers William Franklin and Kelly Powell studied guard llama use in the Western states.

The study found that llamas and sheep usually warmed up to each other within a few hours to a week of the llama’s introduction into the pasture.

“Many producers reported that guard llamas show intense interest and attachment to young lambs,” Franklin and Powell said.

The addition of guard llamas dropped average flock losses from 11 percent to 1 percent of the herd in the studied farms. The llamas rarely ran away from danger and sometimes killed intruders like coyotes, groundhogs and muskrats.

The study found that guard llamas could occasionally be overprotective. The llamas sometimes also needed free-choice feed to be placed higher than the sheep feed because the sheep crowded out the llama.

Eighty-eight percent of study participants said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the llama’s performance.

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