In 2013, sheep farmer Georg Höllbacher was one of the first in Austria to use guarding dogs to protect livestock from being attacked by wolves. Today, he is calling for more support from politicians so that others can follow his example.
"Doing nothing is not an option, otherwise sooner or later we will be shipwrecked. In order for farmers and the local people to learn to live with wolves, livestock protection is inevitable. Because whether wolves are hunted or not, they are back and there will be more.”
A small flock of brown sheep grazes on a steep pasture in Bad Vigaun. Jenny, Aris and Oreon protectively circle around them -- three magnificent Maremmano-Abruzzese guarding dogs, whose presence is both natural and reassuring for the sheep. Georg Höllbacher once brought Jenny from central Italy to the Salzburg mountains. There she gave birth to two male puppies, Aris and Oreon, right among the sheep. Since then, sheep and dogs are an inseparable family.
"In Abruzzo there is hardly a flock of sheep without guarding dogs. In Austria we have no such tradition. But dogs are a very effective protection measure, especially in high alpine terrain."
This is how Georg Höllbacher describes the main difference between Italy and Austria. However, the lack of knowledge compared to countries with traditional use of guarding dogs is not the main challenge, since know-how can be imported. One does not have to reinvent the wheel. What has to be improved are the legal conditions. Although the legislator demands livestock protection in the animal protection law, in practice farmers encounter legal hurdles and contradictions. Those need to be dissolved.
According to Höllbacher, speeding up the breeding and training of guarding dogs while simultaneously improving the legal conditions is imperative to reduce conflicts.
Livestock guarding dogs defend the herd against attacks by wolves. They feel like part of the herd and settle down with the pet owner. The dogs live permanently outside and defend "their" herd against all intruders from the outside. Well-trained livestock protection dogs are no danger to walkers and hikers, but these should lead their dogs on a leash. To make this work, well trained herd protection dogs are required, which are adapted to the type of grazing by the livestock. This requires regular checks made by experienced people so that the dogs do not start to behave incorrectly.
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Electric fences are an important foundation for protecting herds. Through the painful contact, the predators learn to stay away from farm animals. We recommend a fence system with five taut wires, at least 90 centimeters high and with a minimum voltage of 2,000 volts. It is important to remove the grass under the fence, since otherwise the electricity is permanently discharged. Holes made by lynxes and badgers must also be removed, as otherwise the wolf uses them for digging through. Some vendors specialize in fences that are very easy to assemble and disassemble mechanically - they are particularly suitable for mobile use.
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Georg Höllbacher openly admits that without more support for farmers it will be difficult to follow his example. Because it also needs the increased use of shepherds to successfully implement livestock protection with guarding dogs. Especially part-time farmers lack the necessary personnel and above all the financial means.
"In Bavaria, livestock protection measures are now one hundred percent subsidized by the state. This is exactly what is needed in Austria. It is ultimately a question of political will whether farmers are left alone to protect their herds, or whether coexistence with as little conflicts as possible is enabled with more support.”
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