At The Homestead – Intro
Homesteads, loosely defined as small ranches or farms where the family lives on-site, and may produce for Farmer’s Markets or solely for their family, are an important part of the agricultural community and rural culture. According to one study, farms under 2 hectares (4 acres) produce 30-34% of the world’s food supply, so there is an essential value in these smaller-scale producers that is often overlooked and minimized, including by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1973, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously said “get big or get out,” referring to the scale of farms and ranches in America. Despite this chilling statement, homesteads continue to support their families and communities and also have the potential to provide refuge for native plants and animals, and steward the natural world responsibly.
Homesteads have different needs and considerations than commercial ranching and farming operations, even when they are also operating as a business. Often our elders, kids and pets live where we produce food and raise livestock, and nature exists right alongside us. As a homesteader, you are empowered to live peacefully and purposefully with your family alongside other human neighbors and the wildlife that depend on the land you tend.
Understanding Wildlife on the Homestead
When people live in the country, or on the urban/rural fringe, they become part of the natural environment. Wildlife does not understand or respect property lines, and our homesteads may represent essential resources or be a travel corridor that species depend on. We have a responsibility to make the land we live on safer for wildlife and domestic animals and humans and to leave the land we steward better than we found it.
Some of the most important things we can do are also the simplest: keep wildlife from relying on humans or being attracted to your home. Keeping feed cleaned up, compost secure, and pet food indoors goes a long way to limit small animal presence like rats, skunks, possums and raccoons, as well as large animals like bears. Taking these steps also keeps away the animals who prey on those small scavengers, like coyotes, foxes, bobcats and mountain lions.
Keeping cats and small dogs indoors and only outside during the day with supervision keeps them safe from being preyed on, while also keeping wildlife safe from them. The same is true for poultry and other small domestic animals.
As wildfires impact the West, deer are often driven closer to humans because the fire prevention measures that protect our homes protect them too, and our irrigated lawns, fields and pastures represent much-needed water and food for them. Mountain lions follow the deer. Understanding when we can tolerate wildlife presence, and when we need to discourage them from coming near, will depend heavily on your context. The most important thing to understand is that most of us that live in mountain lion habitat have been coexisting with the species our entire lives. The increased availability of home cameras just now reveals how common their proximity to us has always been. With good husbandry and boundaries, living alongside wildlife is both statistically safe and rewarding.
Night Shelters – Securely enclosing small livestock like sheep, goats, and poultry at night is one of the best ways to protect them from any predator, both wildlife and loose dogs. On a homestead, which according to a representative from California Department of Fish and Wildlife represents the vast majority of their depredation calls, there are many options for secure night shelters. A secure barn with a roof is the traditional solution, but a mobile panel pen with a roof, or modified dog kennels work great for small flocks. Livestock trailers, sometimes with modifications to fill large open spaces with expanded mesh or rigid livestock panel material, can be an excellent way to create a predator-safe mobile structure for a homestead. Older trailers that are no longer road-worthy for long trips can have years in “retirement” in this way, with reports of perfect success even in high predator traffic areas.
Shelters should be kept clean, and brush and other cover minimized around the shelter. Mountain lions, and many other carnivores including dogs, tend to be most active hunters at dawn and dusk, so putting animals in before sunset and letting them out after the sun has fully risen is important.
Mountain lions are exceedingly cautious, wary cats. They avoid humans, and anything startling or surprising can encourage them to avoid an area. There are some tested, long-running deterrent tools on the market, and many ranchers and homesteaders use novel methods to deter wildlife, including mountain lions, with a great deal of anecdotal success. In a small homestead context, deterring prey species from spending time in your yard or near your home will also mean their predators are less likely to intrude. Never feed wildlife like deer or raccoons, and secure compost and other potential attractants to prey species.
Foxlights – Foxlights are either battery or solar-powered flashing lights suitable for large and small operations. They are not motion activated, but flash on and off randomly during the night, mimicking the presence of a human with a flashlight in the field. They have been proven in multiple studies to reduce predation, even when predators are confirmed to be present on video. They are portable and can be placed in areas of greater concern, like around night pens. They are bright and they flash all night, so a pasture close to your windows or neighbors might not be a good place for these tools.
Gadfly – The Gadfly is a multiple alarm deterrent that is easily portable and can be used for large or small operations. It is a motion-activated alarm that incorporates flashing red lights and a high pitch sound. It is very effective and has been seen on camera deterring mountain lions effectively.
Nite Guard – Night Guards are solar-powered flashing lights that come on automatically at dusk. They are low-cost and easily mountable on posts or buildings. Many variations on the theme of a red flashing, motion-activated light exist on the market, some of which have paired lights to resemble eyes. These are less likely to negatively impact neighbors due to not including sound, using red light, and only activating with motion.
Motion-Activated Sprinklers –Some variations such as the Scarecrow have a motion-activated sprinkler accompanied by flashing lights suitable for a small homestead, barns and chicken coops, or anywhere with access to a pressurized hose. The strong squirt of water can be a very effective deterrent (like a squirt bottle for a very big cat) for any wildlife or domestic animals encroaching where they are unwelcome.
Here are some creative tools with anecdotal evidence of success that have not, to our knowledge, been tested scientifically. Many people with livestock may choose to combine these ideas with other deterrents or safety measures such as night pens or barns. Most wildlife, especially the very cautious mountain lions, are scared of anything unusual. Combining tools creates more novelty. Deterrents that rely on fear of humans may not successfully deter loose pet dogs or feral dogs, so if this is a concern in your area you will still need physical boundaries. Let us know if you have found an unconventional method that is working on your homestead!
Lights – There are many inexpensive options for wall or post-mounted lights. While all light may have some deterrent value, flashing lights and motion lights seem more effective. Unlike the options listed above that are specifically made for deterring predators, motion lights for sale to homeowners tend to be white light and have a larger radius. We know of ranchers who have used wide-angle motion detection lights mounted on fencing during calving in the presence of teenage mountain lions, which were very effective and affordable, as well as solar string lights around the perimeter of a night pen set to a flashing mode, which have lasted for years and were very affordable and effective. Many other solar or plug-in model options exist, depending on your situation.
Music and Talk Radio – Human voices and music can deter predators who avoid humans, like mountain lions. We have received reports from multiple livestock keepers that use battery-powered radios in their night pens after mountain lion depredations successfully deterred the cat from returning to the flock. In a study where sound recordings were played at mountain lion kill sites, human voices made pumas flee more frequently, take longer to return, and reduced overall feeding time by half compared to the control noise of a treefrog call (Study). Ranchers in our network have used radios with music as well, and report “Best of the 80s” as particularly effective, though talk radio is less likely to disturb neighbors or sleeping family members.
Holiday Decorations – Inflatable, LED-lighted decorations with sound create a moving, intimidating landscape feature. Many Halloween decorations are designed to startle people, and may also work on mountain lions! We have been told of successful uses of holiday decorations designed for outdoor use that incorporate light, movement, and are either fixed (a fan-inflated Christmas T. rex with lights and music) or motion activated (a Halloween spider that lights up, wiggles and shrieks with motion detection). These unconventional deterrents may work for you if you have the right sense of humor and situation.
Wind Chimes – Large wind chimes hung on barn eaves or trees within pastures have been reported to deter mountain lions and other predators. However, since the wind isn’t always blowing, a deterrent like this would be best used as a supplement to other methods.
Deterrents ON Livestock: Experiments and Traditions
Since domestic animals are the ones that need protecting from predators, it logically follows that putting the deterrent directly on these animals, instead of somewhere in the field, could be more efficient. However, most modern attempts to do this have failed or been impractical, and some, like infamous poison collars, are not only ineffective but dangerous to the environment. On the other end of the spectrum, collar bells have an ancient tradition of use in parts of the world that have coexisted alongside their native carnivores rather than extirpating them.
Bell Collars – Communal clinking of bells is a common feature of the pastoral landscape across parts of Europe who did not extirpate their native carnivores. Many sheep information websites, a few studies and even government wildlife agencies recommend bell collars as protection from predators and a way to locate flocks in brush or rocky pastures. However, there is little formal research confirming their effectiveness, and one study from Norway even implies that sheep wearing bells are killed more often by bears, though the correlation may result from higher use of bells in territory frequented by bears. While entanglement of a collar in brush can kill sheep and goats, their ancient usage and their presence in coexisting cultures and absence in extirpation cultures suggest there is value in bells. The Norwegian University of Life Sciences estimates that sound above 90 decibels could cause sheep discomfort, and loose collars can snag and become entangled, so use caution with this technique. We look forward to more research on the utility of bells beyond their addition to the pastoral atmosphere, including an experiment our Coexistence Coordinator is currently conducting with her sheep.
Kinetic Clip Lights – Kinetic lights are motion activated and use no batteries; their power is generated by movement. The theory behind these lights is that while walking does not trigger them, as soon as an animal runs, they turn on, which may startle away a predator and enable a human to locate the domestic animal in the dark. Their effectiveness has not been studied, and only a few products are currently on the market. The available products are marketed for dogs and horses, and cost around $20. They may not be an affordable option for large flocks, but for pets, horses, or small animal groups, they could be a useful tool. We look forward to more research and development of this idea. Many lighted collars and collar clips created for dogs can recharge via USB or batteries. We recommend these for dog walkers, but this technology has yet to be widely adapted for livestock.
Pepper Spray Collars – According to a study done in 1984 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, collars that deployed pepper spray on attacking coyotes temporarily deterred their prey attempt, but did not deter the same individuals in the future or necessarily stop their predation of sheep. No studies seem to have addressed this idea with mountain lions, and this concept seems difficult to scale due to expense and potential for mishap.
Poison Collars – Poisoned collars target a single offending predator, usually a coyote, who attacks the throat of a sheep wearing said collar. It does not protect sheep from coyotes who attack from the rear, or who kill without biting the throat. Killing predators has been proven to be ineffective at protecting livestock from harm, and has been shown to increase depredation issues rather than solve them. In addition to being ineffective to protect livestock over time, poison also travels through the ecosystem and can kill non-target species at every trophic level, especially animals that may scavenge a dead coyote or sheep. The use of these collars is indefensible.
Shock Collars… for the Carnivores – A captive population of coyotes fitted with shock collars has been successfully deterred from preying on sheep, both in the moment and for an extended period of time afterwards. This has never been attempted on mountain lions, and is obviously extremely impractical. However, even though it can’t be replicated in any wild population, this study serves to show that populations of carnivores can be taught to avoid livestock long term after a single negative experience, which gives support to the concept of hazing.
High Tech Collars of the Future – The future may contain sheep collars that alert shepherds via satellite when the flock’s heart rate rises during a predator encounter. Adapting the technology we already use in devices such as Fitbit to shepherding might seem like science fiction, but it is already underway with patents filed and prototypes under development. New coexistence tools for ancient herding lifeways are a positive sign of a peaceful future for people, livestock, and wildlife.
Guardian Dogs; Ancient Protectors and Modern Partners
History – For at least 10,000 years, people have worked alongside large guardian dogs that protected their homes, family and livestock. Art and myths from around the world depict the centrality of these dogs in ancient life, and many diverse cultures have lived with guardian dogs for millennia. They are just as important today as they were in our past, and are a very effective way to live peacefully alongside native carnivores. The livestock guardian breeds we see most commonly on farms today evolved in Eastern and Northern Europe. If you have passed a flock of sheep in a field only to see one with a big fluffy tail — that was an LGD!
Working Dogs — Herding vs Guarding – livestock guardian dog is not a herding dog. A Border Collie may move sheep around in partnership with humans, but does not stay with the flock or become part of it, and the sheep see the dog as a predator, not an ally.
Pet dogs should generally never be allowed to run loose with livestock or left unattended with them, and not all dogs can become LGDs. Dogs are pack hunting predators and many would rather chase livestock than live with them. It has taken many generations to selectively breed dogs that see sheep as a member of their family and will defend them from harm, and even sleep cuddled with newborn baby lambs and goats.
Livestock Guardian Dogs are a precious heritage from our collective ranching past and should not be confused with any other type of dog, including other working breeds.
How a Livestock Guardian Dog Works – Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) work to protect livestock and coexist with predators in several key ways. Like all canids, dogs are highly social. Dogs specifically bred to live with and protect livestock transfer that protective social impulse to the livestock, and work with the shepherd out of the love and connection that humans have always formed in the partnership between humans and dogs. LGDs deter predators with their scent, their physical presence, their bark, and rarely, their physical intervention. Dogs that work in teams tend to work in shifts, or take on different roles. Some dogs run the perimeter of fence lines, some tend to hang close with the flock. Mountain lions are incredibly cautious animals that will almost never risk injury that could prevent them from hunting successfully again. While a single dog could conceivably fall prey to a mountain lion, dogs in pairs are almost never going to be challenged. LGDs will chase predators away from the flock, but almost never catch them. This is in the best interests of both dogs and wildlife! LGDs are not intended to go out and kill wildlife, they are a deterrent tool that convinces wildlife that seeking out livestock as prey is a bad choice for them.
Mountain Lions and LGDs – Livestock Guardian Dogs can be highly effective at reducing or eliminating livestock losses to carnivores while not harming the wildlife. The primary tool of the dog is their bark and appearance. Mountain Lions are known for their caution, and while if corned they may attack as a last resort, they will almost never risk a direct confrontation with a big dog.
Mountain lions may not entirely leave the area dogs are present in, but presence is not the same as harm. Our goal should not be to eliminate carnivore presence on the working landscape, it should be to limit or entirely prevent conflict. A landscape where predators are allowed to persist and pursue their natural prey can have many benefits to agriculture producers, from reducing competition for forage to improving watershed retention by preventing the overgrazing of streams by deer and elk. Unlike shooting, trapping and poisoning, guardian dogs allow producers to benefit from a landscape occupied by predators while minimizing depredations. LGDs are very effective at accomplishing that goal.
On a small homestead, in combination with other tools like electric fence or lights, a single dog may be perfectly effective. On a big rangeland a team of two or more dogs is most effective. A popular training theory is that these dogs should be staggered ages and have their own socialization time with the livestock when young, to avoid “littermate syndrome” which is when the dogs bond to each other rather than the livestock.
Dogs must be able to see the livestock to effectively protect them. In heavy brush or large pastures, a single dog might not be able to deter a lion from taking a lamb that wanders out of sight near to the fence line. On a homestead walking the flock to a barn for the night is an additional layer of protection and shelter, which has the added benefit of reducing barking in more densely populated areas.
Common Breeds and Appearance – There are dozens of breeds of Livestock Guardians, but most in the US will be large stocky dogs with white coats. Great Pyrenees are the most common of these and the most integrated into pet homes in the US, but are not the only fluffy white LGD; for example, the Maremma has a similar appearance. Eastern European LGDs can be taller and leaner with more variation in coat color, often sandy but sometimes brindle or dark. LGDs often have spiral tails, sometimes carried high over their backs.
Typical Eastern European breed dogs like Anatolian, Akbash and Kangal are more active and may be less social while Pyrenees and Maremma can be stockier, a bit less energetic and more social, and more suited for homesteads with a lot of human presence. While trends can be observed, when it comes to personality there is more variation within breeds than there is between them. They are all individuals and vary widely even within litters.
Many of these dogs on working ranches are crossbred breeds of LGDs, but LGDs crossed with other types of dogs, like Border Collies, are generally not used, though they can make great pets. If you’re an observer and trying to tell if a dog is an LGD or not, look at the sheep, not the dog! If the sheep are calmly grazing, chewing their cud, or milling around the dog, it’s likely they’re an LGD, even if the dog has unusual coloring.
Caring for a Working Dog
Livestock Guardian Dogs need some different kinds of care than pet dogs, so this section focuses on some of those distinctions. Forming a good working relationship with a reputable breeder or rescue, and a good farm vet, is essential and will provide more information.
Identification – LGDs evolved to have territories miles across and are notorious for roaming. Good fencing is essential, and so is clear and up to date identification (collars and tags), just in case. They should be microchipped AND have clear info with an address and phone number on their collar. Some dogs are tattooed, though this is less common in the US.
Fencing – Fencing must be tall enough and tight enough to contain your dog. Some dogs will stay happily in mobile electric mesh fencing used for rotational grazing. Signage informing the public that there is a working dog on the premises is very important. Do not expect people to understand how to interact with a working dog and communicate as clearly as possible your boundaries and expectations.
Vet Care – Working dogs need shots, spay/neuter, and basic vet care. Some care, like shots, can be performed by your visiting ranch vet. Heartworm prevention, flea and tick treatment, deworming and annual Leptospirosis and Bordetella vaccinations are especially important for dogs who spend the majority of their lives outdoors. Rabies and DAP vaccines are administered every 3 years. These are especially important for working dogs that may have contact with wildlife. Even if your dogs are not in contact with other dogs, they are still at risk for contracting disease from their environment as well as from your shoes and clothing. Flea and tick treatment is important for preventing chronic itching as well as diseases carried by fleas and ticks, keeping your guardian dogs healthy and comfortable.
Coat care – LGDs coats are thick and often hide injuries or buried thorns and can easily mat around collars, causing sores. Rotate and check collars every time you interact with your dog and make sure to thoroughly pet them, checking through their fur for thorns or injuries. They can be very stoic and may not complain, so be sure to look them over regularly. Thorns and grass seeds are especially dangerous in their noses and between their toe pads. Your dogs should socialize early by having their paws touched and pads checked. Doing these checks early in their life will help them get used to the routine. Any dog that is head shaking and sneezing excessively (also can be a sign of worms) should be seen by a vet. A dog that is licking their paws excessively should be checked for any signs of seeds or thorns, usually accompanied by redness and inflammation, which needs to be treated by a veterinarian. Their coats insulate them from sun as well as rain and they generally shouldn’t be shaved in the summer. Some badly kept coats mat and need to be seen by a groomer. In the spring your dog may shed their double coat. Brush out that fur!
Diet – Livestock guardian dogs should be fed a high-quality diet suitable for a working breed. Ask your vet or breeder for specific recommendations, but generally assume that a full-time working dog needs more calories than a pet dog, especially in cold weather. Many large dogs benefit from joint supplements with glucosamine.
Dewclaws – Many Great Pyrenees and Pyr crosses have dewclaws, which are sometimes removed surgically at the same time as spay/neuter. If not removed these extra claws need to be kept trimmed and prevented from growing into a spiral and even when trimmed they can catch and tear, and should be regularly checked.
Insurance – Pet insurance and liability insurance are important tools for a working LGD. Pet insurance helps cover expensive emergencies as well as regular care. LGDs can be covered in your farm insurance policy, but it may exempt bites specifically. A release of liability, in addition to insurance, is a helpful tool to set expectations and limit potential litigation if you are grazing your flock on anyone else’s land and will be bringing your dog(s).
Shelter – Protection from the elements is important for all animals, but don’t expect your LGD to use it when you think they should! Their coat protects them from cold and heat and many of them love the rain and snow. They can’t be allowed to stay wet with no ability to get dry and need shelter in extreme cold and shade from the sun. Their shelter needs to be with their animals, or they usually won’t leave the flock to use it.
Training – It is a common misconception that LGDs need either no training or highly specialized training. The truth may be somewhere in the middle. While LGDs will guard instinctively, they need socialization with humans to ensure they can be worked with and see a vet calmly. It is okay to bond with your LGD. There is a trend in American ranching to avoid bonding or socialization with your LGD puppy, but it is not supported by pastoral cultures around the world and is more likely to produce an unapproachable dog which could become difficult to give medical care to, or even a liability. For most of us ranchers, a dog bite lawsuit is a bigger threat to our business than a percentage of lambs lost to predators and it is not normal or desirable for LGDs to be dangerously aggressive.
Just leaving a puppy alone with a flock can result in the puppy becoming prey themselves, being injured by stock, becoming fearful of humans, playing too rough with stock, or other negative outcomes. While early bonding with stock is important it should happen in a controlled environment with stable mature animals that are used to dogs. Puppies should never be left without protection or shelter at night. Some, though not all, modern LGD trainers now endorse bringing a puppy inside the house at night for at least their first six months and leaving them in an adjacent barn stall to the stock at night thereafter.
LGDs are notorious for wandering and many love playing “keep away” when they get out or need to be vetted. It is absolutely critical that you train your dog to come to you. Early consistent training with treats makes it much easier down the line when you have a tight schedule and need to leash your dog without playing tag.
Many LGDs will not be reliable alone with livestock until they are around two years old. They should not be left alone if they are chasing, wool pulling, or in any way playing with livestock. LGDs must see the livestock as part of their family, but must also learn that they can’t play with them the way they do with other dogs. That distinction takes time to develop, so supervised time with the stock is essential. An LGD is a long-term investment, and a cultural shift for you and the flock, who also have to learn to trust the dog. The work is worth it and will get easier with time- the best training tool for a puppy is a mature, well-trained mentor dog!
An excellent resource for learning more is: predator-friendly-ranching.blogspot.com
A Note on Barking – Livestock Guardian Dogs are nighttime barkers, which is a key way that they communicate their presence to wildlife. They will bark at specific threats in a more intense way, but may also bark throughout the night, especially at dawn and dusk, as a kind of territorial communication. If you have close neighbors, they might not appreciate this! Communicating with people around you about your plans to have an LGD and the benefit to the community may help, and knowing the law is important too. If your property is zoned for Agriculture, a working dog’s barking may be protected by Right to Farm laws, and many cases made by neighbors have been decided in the dog’s favor. However, many people keeping small livestock are not zoned for Agriculture, and their working dog may fall under the laws for pet dogs barking.
Bark collars are NOT a good option. Punishing a dog for behavior it was specifically bred for and is part of its job as guardian is confusing for the dog at best, cruel at worst. They also tend to have limited usefulness as dogs habituate to them.
If nighttime barking is a big issue for you, in the experience of ranchers in our network LGDs tend to bark enough to control the space they can actually see, and not much more unless something is happening. If the dog is put into a night shelter with the flock at night, and cannot see out, they tend to bark very little if at all. We have received reports that when brought inside at night, some LGDs are totally silent despite being constant nighttime barkers when outside.
Other Guardian Animals
Donkeys – Donkeys are reported as highly effective guardians for small ruminants against canids, from coyotes to dogs, but are not reported as effective against mountain lions, so their utility remains unknown. A relevant detail for homesteaders is that donkeys are very loud, and may be aggressive. They have the benefit of eating grass rather than dog food, and falling under different insurance categories than guardian dogs, but they can’t eat rich pasture like cover crops that sheep and goats often graze without risking bloat, and ultimately, they are a prey animal themselves in the wrong circumstances.
Llamas – Llamas can alert the flock when a predator is nearby, but cannot be considered an effective guardian when keeping small ruminants like sheep and goats in mountain lion territory. Llamas are the primary prey of South American mountain lions, and have been preyed upon by mountain lions on many occasions on farms.
Lambing & Calving – The most vulnerable time for livestock is during lambing and calving. Mountain lions almost never prey on cattle, but all manner of predators, from feral dogs, to coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions to raptors and ravens can be attracted to the smell of blood and vulnerable newborn lambs. Ideally small ruminants should lamb in a secure barn, which has a number of additional benefits, such as preventing losses due to hypothermia, lamb loss or confusion among ewes, and ease for the shepherd of record keeping and veterinary aid. If this is not possible for a sheep flock, or when calving a group of cattle, bringing the herd or flock as close into ranch headquarters as possible, increasing human presence, and adding deterrents such as gadfly devices, flashing motion lights, or guardian dogs is beneficial. In addition to these physical and psychological deterrents, lambing or calving in the Fall rather than the Spring seems to encourage lower predation rates, because predators tend to have the most stress and pressure to find prey in the Spring due to their own reproductive cycle.
Working Hours – Mountain lions are most active at dawn and dusk. Keeping animals enclosed until the sun is fully up, and inside a barn, field shelter or night pen before dusk, can greatly reduce opportunities for conflicts. Limiting farm work during those hours on the wild interfaces, and reducing noise and disruption, gives resident carnivores a safe time to cross your land and hunt their native prey without coming into conflict with you.
Community – Mountain lions have territories that can cover 25-400 square miles, so most of us live on land that is only a small part of the range a mountain lion depends on. Talking to your neighbors and getting on the same page about your approach to coexistence is one of the best measures you can take to ensure long term safety for your local lions and your homestead. In studies and personal accounts, we see over and over again that the most conflict occurs after a mountain lion is killed- both due to new lions moving in to claim the vacant territory, and starving cubs left orphaned taking desperate measures to survive… by attacking our livestock.
Healthy mountain lions almost never attack humans or livestock, so the safest we can be is to ensure that our local community of lions stays stable and healthy. That is a community project that requires communication, good husbandry, and commitment.