Skagit, Wash., farmers face a constant problem from wildlife that readily eats crops, kills livestock and generally threatens their livelihood.
Skagit farmers annually produce about $300 million worth of crops, livestock and dairy products on about 100,000 acres of land, making agriculture the top industry in the county, according to WSU Skagit County Extension data. They are continually on the watch for practical, low-cost protection methods.
While many farmers resort to building higher fences, laying traps or simply shooting encroaching wildlife, several Skagit residents have found success with a unique version of man’s best friend: livestock guardian dogs. Turkish Kangal, Great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherds are several of the breeds used to guard livestock.
Nearly any dog will bark at visitors, but livestock guardian dogs are specially bred to protect livestock with specific barks, aggressive behavior and constant alertness. A guardian dog will attack if necessary, but often its presence is enough to dissuade would-be predators.
New safety for small livestock
Laura Faley owns and operates Hidden Meadow Ranch, a family farm just south of Mount Vernon, where she raises poultry, sheep and pigs. Because her farmland stretches back into the Cascade foothills, Faley said her property and animals are often preyed on by all kinds of wild animals, including eagles, hawks, owls and coyotes.
Originally, Faley said she was resigned to accepting the occasional loss of sheep and poultry at night. Then, about three years ago, she began systematically losing her ducks.
“(We lost) all 38,” Faley said. “Nothing we did made a difference. And once the ducks were gone, we began losing the chickens. We tried lights and higher fencing, but they kept disappearing without a trace. I hurriedly sold the remainder of my chickens on Craigslist. Then the white pet rabbit disappeared from its open-top pen, and two days later, a white bottle-fed lamb.”
After more careful observation and some research, Faley determined that her farm was targeted by one or two great horned owls.
“I had no idea what to do,” she said in January. “Obviously, I couldn’t continue selling eggs. And I couldn’t risk restocking my petting farm.”
After she discovered a bloody, chewed-up collar belonging to one of her goats, Faley knew she needed to try something different. Something rather large had pushed a 4-foot hole through her back fence to eat the entire goat. A taller fence clearly wasn’t going to add enough protection.
That’s when Faley heard about livestock guardian dogs.
Although the going price for a trained adult was steep, she found a Turkish Kangal named Akili who had been returned to his trainer in Aberdeen with an injury. Faley was able to adopt the dog for free and soon put Akili to work guarding the sheep.
Within a short time, Faley acquired a second dog, Trina, to guard her poultry. Not long after, she brought in two Anatolian shepherds.
“In the two years since we added the livestock guardian dogs, we have lost no animals to predators,” Faley said, adding that she had 42 more lambs this year than ever before. “I had no idea how many I was losing to the eagles each spring.”
Protection by Great Pyrenees
Stanwood resident Linda Anderson knows the threat of losing livestock to wild animals all too well. Anderson has owned and operated Night Sky Farm for 10 years. She describes her 10-acre property as a hobby farm, with a little mix of everything: 19 chickens, four ducks, three turkeys, two geese, two miniature donkeys and three goats.
Before moving to the rural farmland, Anderson and her family lived in suburban Kenmore with a Great Pyrenees.
“We had a big backyard with fruit trees, and everything eats chickens out there,” said Anderson. “That was our first opportunity getting that dog to work.”
Anderson eventually brought in a male to keep their female company after Anderson became involved with a Pyrenees rescue group, Great Pyrenees Club of Puget Sound.
Anderson said once they moved to the 10-acre Stanwood property, her dogs were able to demonstrate how they work. She’s lost two animals in a decade.
“We brought our big male, Toby, inside because it was 17 degrees out (one night), which is actually nothing to Pyrenees,” Anderson said.
“That night a weasel got in and killed two of our ducks.”
Anderson’s dogs are gentle, at least with humans, and her female, Molly, visits her classroom weekly at Elger Bay Elementary School as a pet therapy dog.
“Molly happens to be a very ‘zen-like’ dog, so she visits my classroom of special education kids,” Anderson said.
“They read to her, and she helps calm them down a bit.”
Guardians at the ‘zoo’
Cody Connite also knows a thing or two about livestock guardian dogs, although he doesn’t run a farm. Connite and friend Kenneth Cole own and operate KC Critters, an exotic animal rescue group based in Mount Vernon.
He describes their work environment as resembling a miniature zoo. They rescue animals and perform educational shows at schools, churches, birthday parties and other venues with everything from snakes and turtles, to wallabees and more.
“We love our animals, and they are expensive, so we need something to protect them,” Connite said.
Connite’s 2-year-old Anatolian shepherd started guarding livestock about six months ago. They plan to teach him to patrol a perimeter fence they are building.
Andy also is considered a family pet who needs space to run, kind of like a linebacker in football, Connite said.
“He is fantastic. He is the sweetest dog ever,” he said. “He is fast and agile, but 150 pounds. We have nine acres here and he runs everywhere.”
One of Andy’s favorite activities is a walk in the wilderness.
“I’ve taken him on a few hikes with me, and nothing ever comes around when he’s with me,” Connite said. “Bring an Anatolian hiking and you won’t have a better companion. I’ve even heard of them rescuing people from cougars.”
Whether guarding animals, consoling children or just serving as a companion, Anderson said she would like to see more people use livestock guardian dogs, but unfortunately, she said a lot of farmers simply shoot predators to keep them off their property.
“Research generally shows that if you shoot several coyotes because they are preying on your sheep, the coyotes will actually just breed more,” she said. “If you can protect your animals without using traps, poison and shooting, that’s a lot better way to go.”
Molly (back, left), an 8-year-old Great Pyrenees, and 2 1 /2-year-old Summer watch over Linda Anderson’s chickens and goats at Night Sky Farm in Stanwood.