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Panel offers pros, cons on use of guardian animals

By JANE PRIMERANO
AFP Correspondent

NEW BRUNSWICK (March 15, 2017) —When Lucia Huebner of Beechtree Farm in Hopewell got what she termed “the call,” she knew she was qualified to moderate a panel on guardian animals at the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey Winter Conference.
“The call” was a late-night notification that three of her sheep were killed by coyotes.
Four stock farmers shared their stories of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to protecting livestock from predators.
Jessica Isbrecht of Green Duchess Farm, Franklin Township, advised against getting geese on Craigslist, but much of the farmers’ advice was more subtle and individualized.
The other three farmers use dogs. Isbrecht said keeping dogs is expensive, so she looked for alternatives. Hence the Craigslist geese. She said she has also used donkeys and alpacas.
P.J. Murphy, who farms in Pittstown, breeds meat goats.
He has about 100 does right now. “I have gone through different dog breeds; now I only use dogs I breed myself,” he said.
The breed of choice for Jon McConaughy of Double Brook Farm in Hopewell and Meg Paska, known as Farmer Meg, in Somerset County is the Maremma, a breed from a part of southwestern Tuscany bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea.
They are known as a livestock guardian dog, skilled at protecting sheep from wolves, and are still abundant in that area of Italy even though there are fewer sheep there than in the past. McConaughy also has a Great Pyrenees puppy “on the way up.”
The Great Pyrenees is related to the Maremma.
A website on the breed describes them: “The Great Pyrenees’s goal in life is to protect the sheep, goats, livestock, people, children, grass, flowers, the moon, the lawn furniture, bird feeders from any real or imagined predators that may intrude on your personal space.”
Both breeds are large, white dogs with double coats.
McCounaghy said the Great Pyrenees is more aloof.
Paska’s farm is 20 acres up against a county park and the river, so she knew her 150 laying hens would be in danger from predation.
“We have foxes, raptors, coyotes,” she said, adding predation dropped when she brought in the dogs.
She said she got as much information as possible with the goal of having two well-trained dogs she could run the farm with as well as train new dogs.
“I took two females from the same litter, so there is lots of competition. . .it takes a lot of time and patience.” She said a hawk killed a chicken when the dogs were pups.
She showed the dead bird to the dogs and they understood.
Double Brook is a much larger spread, 500 acres with 300 breeder ewes, 500 pigs and 1,500 turkeys. He observes his guardian dogs doing their jobs.
McCounaghy also uses two border collies for herding and says both types of dog know their jobs. The herding dogs live with the family.
“Like labs, the Maremmas need a lot of interaction with people,” McCounaghy said. He said one of his dogs is aggressive with people the other is good with everyone. “They will guard when asked and will guard different things.”
He explained it takes 18 months to bring up a puppy with the help of an adult dog.
Murphy said dogs don’t really settle until they are about 3-years-old.
He had donkeys at one point.
“I had read about them. Some will guard and some won’t. They are bad interviewees.”
He complained donkeys “are not sure what they need to do. Donkeys are out for themselves. Dogs know the difference between what they are supposed to protect and a predator.”
Murphy said his mother had a donkey on her farm and he tried one, but he prefers dogs.
He rented property 15 miles away from where he lived, so he knew he would have a coyote problem. But he brought in a dog from West Virginia that had not been trained.
“I need to have a dog I can handle,” Murphy said. He said he doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy that guardian dogs shouldn’t be touched. He said they have to have certain traits, a balance between their protective and prey drive, so they need human contact. “You’re the boss,” he said. “You need to teach them to manage different stock.”
Isbrecht has 100 acres which abuts 200 acres of grassland preserve which creates a big predator problem for her.
She has a pet dog, a spaniel who originally lived in the city.
“He had no idea what to make of the geese, but it only took one time of the geese coming after him for him to know what he is up against.”
The four farmers talked about people coming onto their properties.
Murphy said trail riders come through his property and a dog went after them. He has since put up signs” “Dogs working, do not go near fence.”
Paska said a lot of people visit her farm because she holds yoga retreats. She has up to 25 people every weekend, including children. Her dogs were bred on a family farm which she says helps.
Isbrecht said she has one goose she always needs to keep an eye on. “Never turn your back on them and make sure you have a lot of padding on.”