The presence of predators such as wolves, bears, lynx, and golden jackals means that livestock farmers are forced to put measures in place to protect their animals from possible attacks. Protection measures are used to limit the loss of livestock.
Protection methods and theory
Although there are many different farming systems with a wide variety of livestock management methods, a farmer’s primary tasks are to feed the animals, look after their health, and keep them safe. Their aim is to build a viable farming business and earn an income from meat, milk, or cheese production.
Protecting livestock requires significant investment and a great deal of work, and farmers face many difficulties. Farmers and shepherds manage protection methods, using combinations of the various tools and adapting them over time. The goal is to find a protection plan that effectively combats predation, while remaining compatible with the livestock system in place.
In many countries, guardian dogs are the main means of protecting livestock. The use of these dogs goes back hundreds of years, but even now it is
still the most effective way of preventing attacks. These large dogs have been selected by farmers and shepherds out of necessity, for two basic
criteria: they must be useful and functional. Their role is to discourage intruders from approaching the livestock, although some dogs will move
towards the intruder if they are not deterred by the warning. Today, there are over fifty different breeds of guardian dogs across the world, as well as
many regional cross- breeds.
Bringing guardian dogs into a livestock operation is a serious personal investment that requires a great deal of knowledge. These dogs must meet several criteria in order to be reliable and fit to work, and ensuring that they are successfully integrated is not easy. They will live with the livestock throughout their entire lives, and will have to deal with a wide range of situations in order to protect the animals. Their behaviour when reacting to the various situations must be appropriate to the circumstances in order to avoid any issues. Time must be taken to observe the dog, correct its behaviour, and ensure the introduction to the flock or herd goes smoothly, as well as manage the dog on a daily basis going forward.
As a rule, these dogs are undeniably effective, although they are not infallible. They limit losses but cannot be guaranteed to prevent them entirely: as they work in a natural environment, there are many factors that can influence their effectiveness. The ability to act as livestock guardians varies between different breeds of dog, and above all between individual dogs. Moreover, shepherds and farmers often describe their dogs as “good” or “bad”, but they all have different expectations depending on their situation. The number of dogs can also vary significantly from one operation to another depending on the size of the flock or herd, the vulnerability of the grazing areas, the level of wolf attacks, zone management, human presence, and the type of animals needing protection. The aim is to have a dog or pack of dogs that can adapt to the system they are working in and is capable of responding to the threat of predation. There are other factors which can affect the dogs’ work, for example the high levels of tourism and sporting activity in pastoral areas in Western Europe. This makes it very difficult for shepherds and farmers to manage their dogs, as they are constantly on guard. Some farmers reduce the number of dogs in order to maintain a harmonious relationship between pastoralism and other activities, leaving the pack shorthanded and the animals exposed to predation.
Fencing is mainly used to keep animals in a particular grazing area in order to manage resources in terms of grass. It is an effective tool for pastoral
management in suitable areas, and can reduce the need for shepherding. Fencing can also play a role in preventing predation, provided that certain
criteria are respected in order to prevent predators from entering the pen. There are various types of fixed and portable fencing. Unfortunately, there is
no such thing as 100% predator-proof fencing; it could be described as a first line of defence within a wider system. For better protection, it is
generally used alongside other measures such as guardian dogs.
In certain pastoral systems used in specific areas, such as shepherding or supervised grazing, animals are not fenced in during the day. However, they are gathered and put in night pens or barns in the evening (apart from in certain systems where they sleep outside), and sometimes during ruminating bouts. Generally, the risk of an attack is greatest at night. Night pens are often used in mountain pastures, although guardian dogs must also be present if the fencing is to be effective. The limited enclosure also makes it easier for the dogs to protect the area.
Additional measures such as defensive shooting to kill predators or scare them away can also be used to protect livestock, and can reduce levels of predation or even eliminate it entirely.
Finally, putting these protection measures in place requires equipment and planning. In mountain grazing areas as well as on farmland, modifications have gradually been made in order to improve pastoral management. Some examples are cabins or chalets, fenced enclosures, water sources, drinking troughs, sorting and restraint pens, access routes, and brush cutting. Attacks often lead to significant structural changes to the pastoral system.
Overall, these protection measures limit predation, but they also have their own limits. Numerous natural and human factors can influence the vulnerability of a particular flock or herd and render protection measures less effective. Predators are very adaptable and pose a constant threat, which makes this an extremely difficult task: some farmers find it impossible to reduce losses despite constant efforts to protect their livestock. There are certainly elements of this phenomenon which cannot be controlled, but in order to deal with predation and keep it to manageable levels, farmers and shepherds must respond and make adjustments quickly. With a comprehensive and well-organised protection plan, the “attack/counter-attack” approach can work. Ultimately, these protection methods are the product of a wealth of knowledge held by livestock farmers and shepherds, built on many years of skill and experience.