Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes
June 10, 2003 An unlikely lookout is standing guard over livestock across the United States. Farmers have discovered that South America's llama is a natural and effective "watchdog" to defend their animals from coyotes and other predators.
Llamas instinctively guard against canine attacks,
possibly because their natural herd instincts have wired them to chase off
Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes
On the edges of
a sheep farm, a coyote lurks, licking his chops. Suddenly, the sheep's
guardian lets out a strange cry that sounds like a rusty hinge and charges
the fence. What's this fleecy shepherd raising the alarm? A llama, better
known as a pack animal and source of meat and wool in the Andes and plains
of southern South America.
"Any place where a
coyote could come in, people are starting to use llamas," said
William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University. This method
of protecting sheep seems to have a wide appeal as a non-lethal way to
ward off predators. "It makes the wildlife biologists happy because
it's a balance of nature," he said.
Franklin has surveyed
ranchers using llamas to protect sheep, and found that llamas seem to be
earning their keep. More than half of the llama owners he contacted
reported 100 percent reduction in their predator losses after employing
the animal as a guard.
The majority of guard llamas
in the U.S. are patrolling Western ranches. But with larger predators like
coyotes moving eastward, more flock owners might be interested in llamas
South America's Camel Family
Llamas come from a family of
four-footed animals called camelids, which also include alpacas, vicuņas,
and guanacos. They are thought to share a common ancestor with the camels
and dromedaries of Africa and Asia.
Llamas were first
domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in the Peruvian highlands. Early
South American cultures bred them for size and endurance. Alpacas were
selected for their fine fibers, which could be woven into textiles.
When the Spanish brought in
new types of livestock, the llama faded into obscurity, surviving only in
the highest mountains. People hunted wild vicuņa and guanaco nearly to
extinction. Only recently has interest renewed in preserving these wild
camelids and their domesticated relatives.
Franklin began his foray into
the camelid world through his studies of vicuņas and guanacos of South
America two decades ago. He noticed that wild vicuņas could be very
aggressive toward dogs.
"They would follow them,
they would chase them, they would even kick at them sometimes,"
Franklin said. At one time, it is thought, members of the dog family may
have been major predators of camelids, so the llama's fierce response to
them may have become instinctive.
Llamas react to canids
threatening herds in a variety of ways, starting with a posture to alert
others in the herd, then sounding a special alarm cry, and often running
towards the threat, kicking and placing themselves between it and the
herd. Dogs and coyotes have been injured and even killed by llamas.
Farmers who pastured llamas
with sheep discovered that fewer sheep were lost to coyotes. Observation
soon revealed the llamas' defensive behavior in the face of predators.
Franklin got wind of
scattered groups of U.S. ranchers using llamas to protect their flocks.
"It made a lot of sense," he said. "It kind of caught on
and spread by word of mouth. People tried it and it worked," he said.
Llamas are being used to
guard a range of domestic animals from cattle to poultry. "What's
intriguing to me about what people are doing with llamas is that people
use them for so many things," Franklin said.
Franklin said that South
Americans think using llamas to guard livestock is crazy.
But it seems to be working.
Nearly 80 percent of the sheep ranchers Franklin surveyed were "very
satisfied" or "satisfied" with the guard llamas they used
to protect their sheep. Average sheep losses dropped from 26 sheep per
year to 8 sheep per year when guard llamas were put into place.
Franklin, who has kept his
own llamas, cautions that while the animals may be extremely successful,
not every situationor every llamawill work. "It's not like a
magic wand," he said.
Dan and Dale Goodyear run
Berry Acres Llamas, a llama farm in Robesonia, Pennsylvania. In 1988, Dan
Goodyear suffered a serious spinal cord injury that left the couple
searching for new activities to replace their active hobbies. They found
Now the couple travels to
shows across the country with their llamas, as well as breeding animals
for other llama lovers.
Llamas, which have been used
as therapy animals at hospitals, might seem unlikely candidates for
security jobs. "When their mind is set, they seem to be
fearless," said Dan Goodyear. "The llama is a natural guardian.
They're herd animals, so they're very aware of distractions."
Each state and area can have
different regulations for those who keep llamas. Camelids are considered
livestock animals, just like cattle and sheep.
Llamas, however, may be
easier to care for than some other four-footed farm animals. Harry Mollin,
who raises llamas at Shangrila Farm in Callaway, Virginia, said that
llamas are much more efficient in terms of feeding than other livestock.
Llama droppings can also be used as high-quality compost, he said.
These llama farms are two of
hundreds of llama breeders in the U.S. Sheila Fugina, president of the
Oregon-based Llama Association of North America (LANA), estimates that
their group has several hundred members across the country.
LANA, founded in 1981, is a
resource for llama owners, providing information about many of the
animal's uses. Many, like Fugina, are especially interested in spinning
and felting the llama's fine fiber. Others use llamas as pack animals,
guardians, or family pets.
All of these uses for llamas
fit into the animals' temperament, said Fugina, who also raises llamas at
Shady Ridge Farm in Wisconsin. "Llamas like to have a job."
One of LANA's programs is the
Llama Lifeline, which rescues llamas from difficult situations and tries
to find them good homes. Recently, LANA put a large group of llamas from
California with a herder in Texas. The llama guardians were so successful
at their job that the rancher's grandson contacted LANA a year later, to
learn how he could incorporate llamas into his own ranch.
Llamas seem to be doing well
at their work, but the idea hasn't totally caught on. "I think that a
lot of people who are raising livestock aren't really aware of llamas as
guardians," Fugina said.
Guard llamas offer a viable, nonlethal alternative for reducing predation, while requiring no training and little care.
Coyote predation is a serious problem for the sheep industry. The traditional approach to controlling predator losses has been to trap and poison coyotes. During this study, 145 sheep producers using guard llamas were interviewed to determine characteristics of the guard llamas and husbandry practices. Some of the results include:
Although questions remain to be answered, guard llamas are a viable, non-lethal alternative for reducing predation, requiring no training and little care.
Make no mistake about it: coyotes kill sheep. In fact, predation is a leading cause of sheep mortality and represents a serious problem for the sheep industry. Sheep losses due to predation in the United States were more than $83 million in 1987, up from $72 million in 1986 and $69 million in 1985. The losses in 1987 represent 5 percent of the total sheep population in the United States. Lambs are particularly vulnerable. Lamb losses from predation average 9 percent and vary from 3 percent to 14 percent of the lambs.
Sheep are found in every state of the union, and losses due to predation vary. In Iowa, the state with the largest number of sheep operations, intensive field studies revealed that 41 percent of all sheep losses were from canine predators (coyotes and dogs). Sheep scientist Clair Terrill calculated economic losses due to predation. In Texas, the state with the largest number of sheep, predation was responsible for 14 percent to 69 percent of all sheep losses. Texas also led the nation in economic loss due to predation on sheep ($12 million) followed by California ($9 million), Wyoming ($7 million), Iowa ($6 million), Utah ($6 million), and Colorado ($5 million).
For an industry operating on a low profit margin, losses due to predation have resulted not only in reduced revenue for the producer, but also in higher prices paid by the consumer for meat and wool products. Predation is a real problem with a major impact on the sheep industry.
Recently, the search for a simple, non-lethal technique to prevent coyote predation has led to the experimental and field use of guard animals. The ideal guard animal should protect sheep against coyote predation while requiring minimal training, care, and maintenance. It should stay with and not disrupt the flock, and live long enough to be cost effective. A variety of guard animals currently in use includes dogs, donkeys, kangaroos, ostriches, and llamas. Of these, guard dogs are by far the most common.
During the past decade and a half, with the birth and growth of the llama industry in North America, llamas were occasionally pastured with sheep. To the surprise of owners, they noticed fewer sheep were being lost to coyotes. As the word spread, producers started experimenting with guard llamas. Today, their use in North America is on the increase, but guard llamas still number only in the hundreds.
Before producers obtained their guard llamas, they had been losing an average of 26 sheep per year to predation, or about 11 percent of their flocks. After obtaining their llamas, the producers' losses dropped significantly to an average of 8 head per year, or about 1 percent; half of the producers had their losses reduced to zero. Eighty percent of the producers rate their guard llama's ability to reduce predation losses of their sheep as "very effective" or "effective."
Nearly 80% of the sheep producers reported that they are either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their guard llamas. Predator control and easy maintenance are cited as the top benefits. Two-thirds of the producers report no disadvantages with their guard llamas, and 85 percent indicate they would recommend guard llamas to others.
Some producers report no savings by having a guard llama, while one purebred producer saves an average of $20,000 per year. An average annual savings of $1,034 was reported by 86 producers.
Introduction of llamas to sheep
Do guard llamas really work?
Current use of guard llamas
How and why do llamas protect sheep?
What works best?
Cautions and problems
Guard llamas vs. guard dogs
Not a panacea
This brochure entitled "Guard Llamas", is a 12 page study on the subject of "Do Guard Llamas really work?", published by Iowa State University.
Copies may* be available from:
Extension Distribution Center
119 Printing & Publications Bldg.
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
*Please note this was published in June, 1993
A Match Made In Heaven
A true story...a llama guarding sheep