Lessons to be learned from the continent
The use of guardian dogs to prevent lamb losses through predators has been hitting the press in recent weeks with a falconry in Inverness-shire having acquired 2 Maremma dogs to train to protect sheep from the threat of sea eagles, a major cause of “black loss” (unexplained lamb losses) on many Scottish farms and crofts in the aim to help farmers to reduce lamb losses and help both species coexist.
As part of the Eurosheep Project, a knowledge sharing network bringing together researchers, advisors and farmers within Europe funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, I recently visited Turkey and France where guardian dogs were a major topic of discussion and key to the success of their sheep industry.
While the main predator challenge to the flocks in both Turkey and the south of France was wolves, learning from their experiences dealing with predators could benefit Scottish sheep producers.
Running a guardian dog with the sheep flock was standard practice in the majority of sheep flocks in Turkey due to the high level of wolf attacks in the country and the free roaming nature of flocks. The two main breeds we saw during our visit were the Kangal and Anatolian shepherd dogs.
Young Kangal Shepherd dog in Turkey
Both these breeds were large dogs and reach weights of up to 65kg commonly. They were loyal to their owners but wary of strangers which was understandable due to their protective nature. The dogs all typically had a dark muzzle and light body similar the majority of sheep breeds in the country to allow the dogs to blend with the flock.
Wolves were reintroduced into France in the late 1980s with the first official sighting in the early 1990s. They are a protected species leaving little options for farmers to protect their flocks. During our visit in May, we visited various farmers all running guardian dogs with the flock in the hope to reduce losses.
The breed favoured in the region was the Italian Maremma sheepdog breed, a large white protection dog (up to 45kg) renowned for being loyal to the flock and gentle with humans, however, protective against unknown predators.
One farm we visited had lost 10 ewes since January to wolves, with a neighbour losing 65. The difference was undoubtedly due to the strong team of dogs, showing them to be effective. All dogs were imported from Italy and trained with the flock from the puppy with the help of government funded training schemes.
Maremma dogs protecting their flock grazing woodland in France
Predator loss in the UK
In the UK, depending on location, farmers face a number of predators to sheep flocks including sea eagles, foxes, badgers, and domestic dogs.
A 2019 ScotGov study found 37% of farmers surveyed reported sheep to be attacked, chased, or killed by wildlife. Sea eagles have also been identified as contributing to high levels of “black loss” on Scottish hill farms, which is some cases can equate to between 20-50% of lamb losses from birth to weaning.
The financial impact
Losses of both sheep and lambs to predators and “black loss” are of severe economic impact on a sheep farming business. Not only through death but a worrying instance can reduce overall flock performance linked to abortions, reduced feed intakes, reduced weight gain and fertility issues.
“Black loss” of 35% in a 600-ewe Scottish blackface hill flock scanning 110% equates to 231 lambs lost. Given that at a current ‘old’ season lamb liveweight prices of ~£85 per head that equates to a total loss in potential value of £19,635, having sheep guard dogs deserves more than a passing thought.
Lorna Shaw; 07796 615719
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