Calm sheep thanks to livestock guardian dogs
Location: Sexten – Italy,
Story by: Astrid Summerer
Southern Tyrol native Astrid Summerer is a part-time farmer and full-time shepherd. For many years, she has successfully worked with herding and livestock guardian dogs in Switzerland. Multiple summers she had her sheep flock right in wolf territory and did not lose even one to the predators. Summerer is advocating for objective and fact-based information about livestock protection. Her goal is to inspire shepherds in her home in Southern Tyrol to adopt her style of herd protection.
Native wildlife species are returning to their former habitats and they are protected by law. It is our job to figure out how to deal with that situation. To systematically extinct wolves again is not a solution to me. Aggressive and problematic individuals have to be removed of course, as it is also the case with domestic animals but often the blame for being labelled problematic does not lie with the animals, but with humans for allowing the likes of martins, foxes and racoons easy access to food.
“I am not for nor against the wolf. My job as a shepherd is to protect my sheep. However, I intensely studied the wolf to understand his behaviour and biology, because we can only come up with successful livestock protection measures if we are one-step ahead of the wolf.”
I completed my two-year training in Switzerland and it included field experience. I chose this specific training because the work with dogs was a part of the training. My fascination with livestock protection began 20 years ago when I was in Tuscany and saw how successfully locals worked with Abruzzo sheepdogs.
Livestock Protection: The dogs are my heroes!
There’s many different forms of livestock grazing; one always has to try what works where. Some places might make rotational grazing with constant shepherd supervision necessary, in other places simple pastures might be enough. On those pastures, a herding dog keeps the flock together and retrieves any stray sheep. This is how I worked with well-trained Border Collies on the Tschinglen-alpine pasture in the Canton Glarus.
On the Ramuz alpine pasture in the Canton Graubürden however, I spent to summers working with rotational system. Electric fences protected over 400 sheep belonging to more than 20 different owners at night and additionally I had up to seven livestock guardian dogs and three herding dogs to support me. I worked with Maremmo-Abrezzese Sheepdogs and Patous. We had that many dogs because in their first season, young ones learn from more experienced dogs. Two of the more experienced dogs stayed in the sheep pen at night, the other ones outside. Such high intensity measures are however only necessary in locations where wolves are constantly present, for example within a wolf packs territory.
It is a fact, that livestock protection is work intensive and expensive. The claim that livestock protection does not work at all is however not scientifically proved, nor is it fair towards the people who successfully implement it and whose livelihood is sheep rearing. Generally, shepherds have a calmer flock when working with dogs since the sheep know they are well treated and protected.
Livestock Protection becomes affordable when multiple sheep owners merge
Taking sheep up to alpine pastures in summer, leaving them to more or less fend for themselves, and collecting them again in autumn has nothing to do with traditional alpine pasture farming! Nowadays it is done this way to save on costs. If the animal’s welfare is a priority, shepherding is the only way to go. Because many sheep flocks are left unsupervised, many sheep die every summer from diseases, injuries and lighting. However, those losses are – as opposed to the always-discussed deaths by wolf – rarely heard about.
“For hobby farmers hiring a shepherd is often no longer profitable. However, if multiple small-scale farmers merge and are open to learning from each other’s experience and to try different models, livestock protection can almost always be successfully implemented.”
It has been claimed again and again, that livestock protection and tourism are mutually exclusive. From personal experience I cannot confirm that. In 2018 I worked on the Tschinglen alpine pasture in the Canton Glarus, a very touristic area and even though the livestock guardian dogs were with the sheep flock without supervision, there were no troubles or incidents with hikers. It is important to know, that the dogs are not only trained to protect sheep but also socialized with humans from a very early age on. Most of the dogs are born in sheep stables and consider their flock their family. Protecting them is in their genes. The dogs are very active at night and pace back and forth, but they rest throughout the day. With my Flock, the dogs split the work. When nothing out of the ordinary occurred, one dog stayed close to the sheep, while the other watched from afar. Even though more than 100 tourists could pass in a single day, the dogs did not seem bothered at all. They did not get up when they were lying down and even continued eating when they were being fed. My voice calms them down and lets them know that everything is alright. A good relationship with the shepherd is the foundation of successful livestock protection work. matter will not be resolved by anything other than conversation. I am hopeful and see change as a possibility.
A Day in the life of a shepherd
My day starts at 5am when I get up to feed the dogs. Afterwards I release the sheep from the night pen and check if they are all okay. I then take them to the respective pasture sector for the day. Those sectors are fenced off by electric netting and get swapped around every few days. An early release from the night pen is important so that the sheep have twelve to 14 hours a day to graze and roam and arrive back in the valley healthy and well fed at the end of summer. After that, I have breakfast. Every day I need to check all fences. Natural borders like cliffs, where no fences can be installed need to be considered and I have to pay attention that my sheep do not go there.
To keep my sheep save, even in fog, the typical ‘wolves weather’ I herd them to a designated bad weather paddock. I also keep them there when there is thunderstorm warning – weather can change rapidly in the mountains.
As it is important to have a homogenous herd, I constantly observe the flock and care for any ill or weak sheep. Every afternoon, the night penhas to be set up and prepared. In the evening, the flock returns to the night pen and I feed the dogs. As a shepherd, I have to adapt to the rhythm of my animals, not the other way around.
My biggest challenge working as a shepherd is the physical strain. There are no days off and work needs to be done in every weather, no matter if there is rain for days, snowfall or heavy fog. I have however never been afraid. With the dogs by my side, I always feel protected.
“I am fascinated by the animal’s contentment and satisfaction. Humans could learn so much from animals when it comes to social interactions, expectations and contentment.”
Livestock Guarding Dogs
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.
My personal perspective and hopes
“We still must make a huge educational effort, especially in southern Tyrol. It annoys me, when people debate on an emotional level without considering the facts. Livestock protection has its limits, but there is no going forward without it.”
There is no 100% guarantee and it takes constant learning and adapting. We can however learn from the experience of neighbouring countries who have successfully protected their livestock for year. We have to start implementing these concepts in our regions. Livestock guardian dogs should be subsidised by the government and livestock protection has to be supported. Switzerland for example is far ahead of Southern Tyrol in those matters. Southern Tyrol only has a few pilot projects where alpacas and llamas are used to deter foxes.
“I am convinced, that coexistence of human, livestock and large carnivores is possible. Most importantly is the willingness to allow it to happen.”
In the 2019 season, I will remain at my farm to complete the dog breeder and trainer course and then pass my knowledge on. In the near future, I would like to increasingly offer ‘farm school’ days and courses. At those courses, I work with school and kindergarten groups and teach them about livestock protection. I enjoy those trainings because children are curious, open-minded and excitable.
My biggest wish is finally finding a place in Southern Tyrol to work with my dogs.