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Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
June 10, 2003
 
On the edges of a sheep farm, a coyote lurks, licking his chops. Suddenly, the sheep's guardian lets out a strange cry that sounds like a rusty hinge and charges the fence. What's this fleecy shepherd raising the alarm? A llama, better known as a pack animal and source of meat and wool in the Andes and plains of southern South America.


"Any place where a coyote could come in, people are starting to use llamas," said William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University. This method of protecting sheep seems to have a wide appeal as a non-lethal way to ward off predators. "It makes the wildlife biologists happy because it's a balance of nature," he said.

Franklin has surveyed ranchers using llamas to protect sheep, and found that llamas seem to be earning their keep. More than half of the llama owners he contacted reported 100 percent reduction in their predator losses after employing the animal as a guard.

The majority of guard llamas in the U.S. are patrolling Western ranches. But with larger predators like coyotes moving eastward, more flock owners might be interested in llamas as guardians.

South America's Camel Family

Llamas come from a family of four-footed animals called camelids, which also include alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos. They are thought to share a common ancestor with the camels and dromedaries of Africa and Asia.

Llamas were first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in the Peruvian highlands. Early South American cultures bred them for size and endurance. Alpacas were selected for their fine fibers, which could be woven into textiles.

When the Spanish brought in new types of livestock, the llama faded into obscurity, surviving only in the highest mountains. People hunted wild vicuña and guanaco nearly to extinction. Only recently has interest renewed in preserving these wild camelids and their domesticated relatives.

Franklin began his foray into the camelid world through his studies of vicuñas and guanacos of South America two decades ago. He noticed that wild vicuñas could be very aggressive toward dogs.

"They would follow them, they would chase them, they would even kick at them sometimes," Franklin said. At one time, it is thought, members of the dog family may have been major predators of camelids, so the llama's fierce response to them may have become instinctive.

Llamas react to canids threatening herds in a variety of ways, starting with a posture to alert others in the herd, then sounding a special alarm cry, and often running towards the threat, kicking and placing themselves between it and the herd. Dogs and coyotes have been injured and even killed by llamas.

Farmers who pastured llamas with sheep discovered that fewer sheep were lost to coyotes. Observation soon revealed the llamas' defensive behavior in the face of predators.

Franklin got wind of scattered groups of U.S. ranchers using llamas to protect their flocks. "It made a lot of sense," he said. "It kind of caught on and spread by word of mouth. People tried it and it worked," he said.

Llamas are being used to guard a range of domestic animals from cattle to poultry. "What's intriguing to me about what people are doing with llamas is that people use them for so many things," Franklin said.

Franklin said that South Americans think using llamas to guard livestock is crazy.

But it seems to be working. Nearly 80 percent of the sheep ranchers Franklin surveyed were "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with the guard llamas they used to protect their sheep. Average sheep losses dropped from 26 sheep per year to 8 sheep per year when guard llamas were put into place.

Franklin, who has kept his own llamas, cautions that while the animals may be extremely successful, not every situation—or every llama—will work. "It's not like a magic wand," he said.

Llama Breeders

Dan and Dale Goodyear run Berry Acres Llamas, a llama farm in Robesonia, Pennsylvania. In 1988, Dan Goodyear suffered a serious spinal cord injury that left the couple searching for new activities to replace their active hobbies. They found llamas.

Now the couple travels to shows across the country with their llamas, as well as breeding animals for other llama lovers.

Llamas, which have been used as therapy animals at hospitals, might seem unlikely candidates for security jobs. "When their mind is set, they seem to be fearless," said Dan Goodyear. "The llama is a natural guardian. They're herd animals, so they're very aware of distractions."

Each state and area can have different regulations for those who keep llamas. Camelids are considered livestock animals, just like cattle and sheep.

Llamas, however, may be easier to care for than some other four-footed farm animals. Harry Mollin, who raises llamas at Shangrila Farm in Callaway, Virginia, said that llamas are much more efficient in terms of feeding than other livestock. Llama droppings can also be used as high-quality compost, he said.

These llama farms are two of hundreds of llama breeders in the U.S. Sheila Fugina, president of the Oregon-based Llama Association of North America (LANA), estimates that their group has several hundred members across the country.

LANA, founded in 1981, is a resource for llama owners, providing information about many of the animal's uses. Many, like Fugina, are especially interested in spinning and felting the llama's fine fiber. Others use llamas as pack animals, guardians, or family pets.

All of these uses for llamas fit into the animals' temperament, said Fugina, who also raises llamas at Shady Ridge Farm in Wisconsin. "Llamas like to have a job."

One of LANA's programs is the Llama Lifeline, which rescues llamas from difficult situations and tries to find them good homes. Recently, LANA put a large group of llamas from California with a herder in Texas. The llama guardians were so successful at their job that the rancher's grandson contacted LANA a year later, to learn how he could incorporate llamas into his own ranch.

Llamas seem to be doing well at their work, but the idea hasn't totally caught on. "I think that a lot of people who are raising livestock aren't really aware of llamas as guardians," Fugina said.
 

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