Brookfield Farm lies three-quarter miles up a disused logging road
in the foothills of the cascades in northwest Washington state near the town of Maple Falls. Our closest human neighbor is a half-mile away as the bee flies. We share our lands will wildlife from snakes and deer to cougars and bear. We can do this because we have always had at least one livestock guard dog working along side us.
Livestock Guard Dogs are special breeds and crossbreeds of dogs who, as you might guess, guard livestock. They do not herd. They do not bond to humans, although they usually like their owners. These dogs bond to their livestock. One can find them at work thoughout the world: from the Canada to Argentina, from Europe to Botswana. These effective guardians are on watch 24/7. They are traditionally used with sheep, goats, and cattle. At Brookfield Farm we find they work well with our goats and honeybees.
They guard our beehives because they consider the beehives part of their herd’s territory, not because they bond with the bees.
We began with these very large, somewhat noisy but peaceful guardians when we were a fiber farm: Jacob Sheep, Shetland Sheep, and Cashmere Goats. Now that I only have 6 goats, our livestock guard dog protects the goats and the beehives. I have found bear scat within 200 feet of our hives, but only one bear ever got close enough to push a lid slightly off axis before the dog appeared. The bear quickly left and did not return. The bees were not disturbed.
Who are these effective guardians?
Livestock guard dogs are large dogs: 100 to 150 pounds full grown. They have been bred for centuries to guard livestock. They may be Maremmas, originally from northern Italy, Shar Planinetz,
originally from what was Yugoslavia, Great Pyrenees, from northern Spain, Anatolians, from the area around Turkey, Navajo Livestock Guard Dogs, from the Navajo Nation. There are more breeds, but these seem to be the most common in the United States.
One can find purebred livestock guard dogs or crossbreeds. They are both wonderful, as long as they come from working families. When buying a livestock guard dog, always go to meet the breeders and see the dogs as they live and guard their livestock. Be prepared to pay. A good livestock guard dog can cost from $300 to $1,500 in the U.S.
Bonding in the barn and bee yard
These dogs do not herd. They live with livestock, and consider
themselves part of the herd or flock. They may wonder when they’ll get horns, or why their family has strange feet, but they know they are part of the group. They are raised with livestock from the time they are pups. Owners may give praise and pats, but the pups are never brought into a human house or go for walks. They hang with the animals.
If pups travel to a new home they usually move just after they are weaned. It can be a bit traumatic at first – possibly more to the new human owner than the dog. The little pup, which can weigh 35 pounds at 3 months, must fit into the group. Which means the herd disciplines it. I’ve seen a pup get rolled across a barn for getting in an ewe’s face. The pups learn quickly that they are not the top animal.
At the hives, the bees are in charge of the discipline. The pups the pups soon learn to walk gently among the hives unless they need to quickly place themselves between the hives and a predator.
A Noisy Peace
As the dogs mature their instinct to defend their “family” and territory
becomes clear. They will sit apart from their herd or flock and watch, especially during peak hunting times: 2 hours before and after sunrise and sunset. They patrol through out the night and are constantly on guard for incoming predators. They snooze in the middle of the day, when predators are also “off duty”.
Should a predator approach, they begin to bark, loudly. The barking will drive most predators away. Should the predator approach, the livestock guard dog will place itself between the herd/flock and bounce around barking. Most predators, be they coyote, bear, cougar, or human seem to figure that it would be easier to go elsewhere than confront a berserk 100+ pound dog. If the predator keeps coming these dogs will fight. We once had to have the vet remove a cougar claw from the face of one of our Tempus. He was fine. The cougar left. (Between guard duties, Tempus often enjoyed a few dance sets.
Our dogs do not bond with the honeybees. The beehives at Brookfield Farm are near the pastures, so the dogs we have owned simply consider the hives part of the livestock’s land. As such, they figure the bears should not be near the hives. If a bear approaches, the dog will bark, then race at it. At this point the bear usually goes away. Once it leaves, these dogs settle back to watching the herd/flock and land. They do not chase predators once the invader leaves the area.
In all the years of keeping goats, sheep, and honeybees in the middle of a forested farm that includes wildlife corridors for large predators, we have never harmed or killed any carnivore. Mice are another story. I do set mousetraps and the “guard cats” do patrol and eat the small vermin that can trouble a beehive.
We have had a succession of dogs.
The sad part about these sweet, effective guardians is that, as with all large breeds, they have an 8 to 10 year life span. Thus in 15 years at the farm, we are now onto our 4th livestock guard dog. They have full, fun lives, but it is always sad when they leave us. Our “Primo”, a Great Pyrenees X Maremma cross, recently died. “Mojo”, a maremma, has just arrived. He’s yet to meet the bees in full flight, but he’s already visited the hives and knows they are part of his watch. It is a relief to have him, but I still miss my big guy. Thus this blog is dedicated to Tempus and his successor, Primo, who gave me years of joy and let us share our wilderness home with the native wildlife.
Find and Find Out More
Ads often appear in the Capital Press (Northwest U.S.) http://www.capitalpress.com
General Information and a discussion group: http://www.lgd.org
A List of livestock guard dogs with links: http://caninebreeds.bulldoginformation.com/flock-livestock-guard-dogs.html
A US Department of Agriculture on-line pamphlet about livestock guard dogs:http://www.nal.usda.gov/awic/companimals/guarddogs/guarddogs.htm