Livestock guarding dogs protect sheep and goats on alpine pastures in Switzerland
Location: Valens – Switzerland,
Story by: Bruno Zähner
Bruno Zähner successfully protects his sheep with livestock guarding dogs on alpine pastures – right within a wolf pack territory. The livestock protection constitutes efforts and has its challenges – but since over four years, there has not been one single depredation by wolves.
The Zanai-valley – a relatively wild side valley westwards of Valens (in the canton of St. Gallen) – forms a closed semi-circle in which sheep and goats were pastured every summer since the end 70ies. Bruno Zähner took over the alpine pastures of Zanai in 2013 – a year after the «calanda» wolf pack established itself in the region. In previous years the valley was confronted with numerous losses due to wolf depredation. Bruno Zähner was determined to protect his livestock.
On the Zanai pastures around 900 Sheep and 160 goats graze every year from early June to end of September. As the valley is vast in size, it is compartmentalized into three pasture-sections (Alp Lasa, Unterzanai and Oberzanai). Together they have a surface of around 600 hectares of which half is grazing land. The livestock also is split into three independent flocks, of which each is supervised independently by shepherds. To the lowest hut (on Alp Lasa on 2100 meters altitude) there is a narrow path. The access to the higher pastures is more difficult.
“It was clear to me since I took over the alpine pastures, that I need to protect my animals from wolf attacks”
says Bruno Zähner.
His concept is based on using shepherds, enclosures at night and livestock guarding dogs. Overall, he uses 7-9 livestock guarding dogs. The goal is to have 3 dogs per flock. He is aware, that during the years he has had a steep learning curve and that mistakes have been made. But every year his system is improving. And the result is positive: not a single sheep or goat has been killed by wolves, despite wolf observations in the valley.
Bruno Zähner thinks his livestock is still not optimally protected:
for this I would need a few more dogs. The area is just too vast for them.
But he is willing to accept the remaining risk, due to financial reasons. Some costs are covered by the state, others by himself. Overall however, the pastoral season comes down to a financial balance.
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.
His livelihood, Bruno Zähner earns with his actual farm in the lower valleys. The pastoral season on the mountains allows him to offset costs, which he would otherwise need to invest for fodder during those four months. On top of that, he is able to produce additional fodder from the alpine pastures, which also offsets costs.
A not yet fully solved problem is the husbandry of the livestock guarding dogs outside the pastoral season. “The dogs are trained to protect the flocks. But as there is no danger, they are so to say unemployed. Hence it takes additional time resources to keep them busy” says Bruno Zähner. Another challenge is the loud barking of the dogs on the winter pastures, where livestock husbandry and human settlements share the same area. Not all humans are happy about this.
AGRIDEA – a center for livestock protection
AGRIDEA is the Swiss centre for agricultural advisory and extension services. As such it promotes the exchange of knowledge and experience between people working in agricultural extension and advisory services, research, practice, administration or policy in various thematic domains. AGRIDEA established a Swiss Centre for Livestock Protection. Its main responsibility is the organisation of livestock protection measures in Switzerland. On an international level, the centre is fostering relations with a number of experts in the field of livestock protection including platforms and cooperation projects. Their CDP-Newsletter (Carnivore Damage Prevention) is one tool to share practical and scientific knowledge about livestock protection throughout Europe and beyond.
Centre for Livestock Protection and CDP-News