Living in the Northwoods within the boundaries of the Chequamegon National Forest offers glimpses of a plethora of wild fauna. From the elegant sandhill cranes that nest in our fields to the portly beaver trying to dam up the creek, from the tiniest ruby-throated hummingbird to the specked white-tailed fawn, wildlife abounds. But there are certain types of wildlife that can make a farmer nervous, including foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, and other roaming creatures that would be happy to have lamb-on-the-hoof for dinner.
Now, I enjoy all the types of wildlife and don’t mind having wolves in the woods…they can have all the cotton-tail rabbits they want! But I’m not in the business of raising their dinners for them. Sorry folks, lamb is not on the menu for the wild canines tonight. So, the question then is how to create boundaries that are humane for both domestic and wild animals yet keep the sheep safe from predation.
We do, of course, have a rigorous system of electric fences, with high tensile perimeters and Electronet mesh fences for individual, movable paddocks for rotational grazing. But having a second line of defense is always the best strategy.
There are many traditional methods for protecting sheep in the pasture. An integral part of the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle was to keep personal watch over the sheep, with a wooden flute to pass the time and a herding dog for company. While this does sound rather relaxing, I’m afraid that the demands of keeping the farm and the new Creamery & Café running leave little room for lounging with the sheep all day.
If a human is not available for guarding, then there are a variety of animals that can be of service to the flock. A favored choice is guard dogs, especially the Great Pyrenees, with its thick, white, mop-like coat. These hip-high dogs live with the flock full-time and look remarkably like the sheep themselves! But, when defending against wolves, more than one dog is required. Wolves are wily enough to send a scout at one end of the field to distract the guard dog, while the other members of the pack attack the sheep from the opposite side. At least three, if not more, guard dogs must be on the lookout for their flock. One of the problems with this model, however, is that recent genetic decoding proves that all dogs are direct descendents of wolves. The instinct to herd and guard is only a thin veneer away from the instinct to hunt, and we have heard some terrible stories about guard dogs turning on the sheep—ensuing in a heartbreaking and bloody mess.
What about other four-legged creatures? Another option is llamas, which stand tall above the sheep and keep watch, as well as spit and stomp. Llamas are known for their character edge (as well as lovely fleeces) and serve diligently for smaller predators like foxes and coyotes. But a Vermont sheep farm where Kara interned found that the llamas did not stand up to a pack of wolves—retreating to the barn and leaving the sheep to their fate. Wolves prove a formidable foe!
This brings us to the animal that became the protectorate of choice on our farm—a donkey. Donkeys are tall, like the llamas, and come with radar-big ears and alert eyes. With strong teeth and hooves for stomping, kicking, biting, and throwing, they face their natural predators with a ferocity that proves their adeptness at surviving in rugged, desert landscapes. There is even a YouTube video of a donkey “kicking ass” against a cougar! The donkey’s tremendous bray also alerts predators of its presence and alerts us of impending dangers.
Not all donkeys are created equal, however. For guarding purposes, it is important to have a standard-sized donkey. While miniature donkeys are as adorable as Eeyore, they do not have enough strength and size to defend against predators, and the ride-able mammoth donkeys are too big and slow for the job. About the size of a horse, standard donkeys are agile and formidable. Alongside size, however, the next important trait is character. A petting-zoo caliber of donkey is unlikely to turn suddenly battle-fierce, whereas donkeys who are wild rescues (or close to those roots) have learned what it takes to stay alive. And wild donkeys, by nature, are the standard size.
Our guard donkey Belle came into our lives quite serendipitously. We had just decided that a donkey was the right match for our farm and were voicing this idea to the folks at the feedmill, when someone spoke up, “I just might know someone who has a donkey looking for a home!,” jotted down a phone number, and suggested we try giving these folks a ring. Just the other day, they had been at the shop and mentioned the donkey. It turned out that this family had a donkey after all, as well as a few horses, and were in the process of moving to a new location, where the donkey would not be able to join them.
Belle was known for her feisty personally. Even the ferrier, who trims her hooves several times a year, will remark at how she bucked and resisted his care as a teenager. I think they call it stubborn, but the trait may also be attributed to her wild-rescue parents. Either way, coming to our farm was like coming to donkey spa, with lots of space to run around as her paddock followed that of the sheep. Because she is the only equine on the farm, Belle adopted the sheep as her clan—braying as each new lamb is born and taking her job of guarding seriously. Nothing bothers Belle worse than when she cannot see her sheep—that and the threat of predators.
My personal theory is that donkeys attained their name from their bray, which when you really listen sounds much more like DON-key, DON-key, than hee-haw. While the words stay the same, Belle has shown us that there are different brays for different circumstances. There is a bray for “I’m hungry, will ANYBODY feed me?” There is another for “HELLO! Someone is driving their ATV around the edge of the field and I can SEE them!” And there is yet another one, all to its own, which means, “DANGER, there are PREDATORS!!!”
The last proved its worth one evening when Belle sounded her alarm call. Apparently, the sheep knew that all the bellering was to warn of an impending attack and flocked tightly together in fear. We dropped whatever it was we were doing in the garden and rushed out to the field to let the sheep into the barn, managing to just get Belle in as well as a wolf circled the edge of the perimeter fence, looking for a way in. It was a close encounter! Subsequently, the wolf tracks have moved from running right past our back door to diverting around the farm altogether—evidence that this natural, harmonious way to set boundaries with the local wildlife is working.
So, next time you’re over for a visit, I’m sure we’ll have our donkey on duty, and she’ll probably proclaim an audible announcement of your arrival. She’s out there working to keep everything in order, just like the rest of us. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com