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It takes a special critter to guard sheep

By A Contributor

Mary Mertz

My donkey died last fall. He was old. When we bought him, he was already in his late twenties. That was over 10 years ago.

We purchased Junior to guard our sheep. Surprisingly enough, donkeys can bond with a flock and can do a great job of protecting them from predators. Some, however, are better at the task than others. Junior never really caught on to the idea of chasing away animals. By the time my husband figured out Junior wasn’t going to be the asset he had hoped for, I had fallen in love with the creature and refused to let him be returned. Junior made me laugh every time he let loose with his loud and ridiculous bray.

I didn’t know anything about guard animals when I first came to our farm.  I also didn’t know anything about coyotes, which happen to be the No.1 predator of sheep in Kansas. It seems that the past year was an exceptionally good one for the growth of the coyote population. Many days and nights you could hear the packs yelping and howling throughout the valley. There were noticeably more coyotes running across fields and running across the road in front of my car. There were also noticeably more gunshots popping off in the distance than usual. 

In the late winter and early spring when our ewes are lambing, having a guard animal is especially important. Finding a good one, however, isn’t as easy as you would think. When Junior failed at the post, my husband decided to try his luck with a llama. Her name was Dolly. Yes, Dolly Llama. Unfortunately, the only predator I ever saw this silly-looking beast attack was a 4-pound Yorkie that had slipped under the electric fence and began to aggressively wage war against her. The Yorkie survived, but as the pet’s owner frequently reminded me for years afterward, it was forever “llamatized.” The llama eventually became our second piece of live yard art.

Bonnie came after Dolly.  She is a big white Maremma, and, fortunately, she’s the best guard dog a modern-day shepherd like my husband could want. She is a beautiful dog, resembling a cross between a Great Pyrenees and a polar bear. She stays contentedly with the flock whether up in the pasture in the spring or at the barnyard in the winter. Nothing gets between her and her sheep.

I am grateful for Bonnie and relieved that my husband finally found something that worked, because I think he was talking about looking into emus next. 

On a side note, a couple of months after Junior died, my husband came home from a sheep sale with a young donkey in his trailer. My new donkey is named Della, and she is only 2 years old. If all goes well, she could live another 40 years. It is strange when you realize one of your animals could very well outlive you. My husband said he bought Della because she was so pretty. Every time he tells me I look pretty now, I have a whole new perspective of what that means to him.

Mary Mertz lives east of Manhattan and works for River Creek Farms, her family’s farming operation.

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