Watching the flock by night – how one dog saved the day.
As Christmas approaches we’re reminded often of shepherds watching their flocks by night. But is a tale from 2,000 odd years ago something to be described in the 21st Century? Louise Freckelton, and her partner David Bray think it is.
They run a small scale farm business on a property near Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales. Alongside this growing business is a conservation area under a Nature Conservation Trust (NCT) covenant that formally protects the critically endangered Box Gum Grassy Woodland.
But it is the daily threat to her small flock of Dorper sheep that keep them up at night wondering how many lambs will make it through in what can be compared to the zombie apocalypse with constant violent assaults by foxes and wild dogs.
“In our first year we lost 20% of the lambs to animal attacks”, Louise recalls.
It is a story familiar to many graziers managing animals. The threat of wild animal attacks is ever present. Thinking of how to deal with the problem in keeping with their ethical farm management approach, they turned their minds to some kind of guardian animal.
“We actually started with Alpacas but they need a line of sight to the flock and in hilly country like ours, they just didn’t cut it”.
Then they found Maremmas.
While records of a “white defence dog” go back centuries, even to the Roman Empire, the first registration of the Maremmas as a breed was in Italy in 1898. Since then they have expanded across the world and are used extensively as stock guardians in Australia, the United States and Canada.
“They don’t look like a predator”, says Louise, “They have floppy ears as opposed to pricked up ears of wolves, wild dogs and foxes. And they think this is part of the reason various kinds of stock have been able to bond with them”.
Indeed, in a world first, in Warnambool in Victoria, a program using Maremmas was set up to protect a population of little penguins in 2006. The program later went on to win an Australian Government Coast Care Award.
But while they appear to be a silver bullet for stock protection, farmers with stories of dogs running off or being very aggressive to humans have also emerged suggesting Maremmas may not be the cure-all some had hoped.
“Training is key”, Louise says, “Some fit in straight away while others need very particular training”.
Louise says that it was patience and positive reinforcement that made her prize Maremma, Pepe, her star performer on the farm.
“One of the challenges I had was that he was too enthusiastic with the flock and would bound up to them which would startle them. I had to get him to be a calm influence on the flock so I would accompany him with a very long lead through the paddock and plot a path in the middle of the flock where there was a wide gap. If he got too close, we’d drop and just hang quietly in the paddock again before moving on”.
This took a good few months and included walking up to the top of the hill so he could learn where the best vantage point was and also walking the boundaries to learn where the property ended and the neighbour’s began.
“Training is a must”, Louise says, “If you want an effective guardian dog, you have to spend the time with them initially. Now that Pepe is trained we are just so incredibly confident with him out there”.
It’s even led to Pepe saving lambs abandoned by the ewes. “One day we came across an abandoned lamb and Pepe sat with it, cleaned it until it was standing and before we knew it the little lamb was trying to suckle him!”
On another occasion they took him his breakfast one morning and there was no sign of him.
“Next thing we heard barking up the valley. David & I raced up to find Pepe with a young fox baled up and he was lunging at it. It was great to see him in action”, Louise recalls.
Like any dog, Maremmas also have basic dog needs with good food, a brush now and then and the occasional clip.
“Because he sleeps out in the paddock, some of his hair can get a bit dreadlocked and can use a trim”.
Louise also uses regular flea treatments and they’re not in a tick area so haven’t had to deal with that problem.
And her advice to other farmers thinking of a Maremma?
“They’re very intelligent, but don’t dump them in a paddock and expect it to work. They need time. But it’s worth it. They’ll work until they die; they are that dedicated to what they do. And whatever you do, don’t buy one as an urban animal for the kids. They are spectacularly unsuited to that task”.
And how’s the flock looking now with Pepe keeping watch? “
“We’ve lost one lamb this year, which is a vast improvement on the losses we took the first year”.
For more information in Maremmas or other guardian animals that could be alternatives, check out this link http://www.pestsmart.org.au/guardian-dogs
To learn more about Highfield Farm and Woodland go to http://www.highfieldfarmwoodland.com
For NCT media enquiries or interviews contact James Forbes on 0448 806 128 or email email@example.com