Trials and tribulations of guardian animals

Feral donkeys from western NSW are helping Upper Hunter sheep producers in the fight against wild dogs. Photo: Hunter LLS
Feral donkeys from western NSW are helping Upper Hunter sheep producers in the fight against wild dogs. Photo: Hunter LLS

Feral donkeys with no training were given to farmers to combat dogs attacks - and now the old school tactics are paying off 12 months later.

Hunter Local Land Services (LLS) purchased five feral donkeys from western NSW and placed them on sheep properties in the Upper Hunter known to have issues with wild dogs.

They were placed with landholders who were proactive in managing and controlling wild dog activity, but still unfortunately suffer attacks.

These donkeys (a mix of jack and jills) were introduced to individual flocks of sheep to bond so they could kick, bite and smother wild dogs that threaten their flock.

Prior to the program, Simon Deery from The Glen near Scone, had a dog attack every six to eight weeks but in 12 months of the project there had only been one attack. And while the donkeys have produced positive results with no dog attacks, he said the program was not without its challenges.

When the donkey arrived at their property, it went back into the bush to hide because it was feral. But eventually he said they managed to coax her out where she mated up with the sheep and had been there ever since.

As the donkey was wild, he said initially it was challenging moving the donkey and sheep flock from A to B and they had no respect for fences.

"I didn't use my work dogs for a while in case there was a mishap, so I used motorbikes and had to go from a small motorbike to a larger one to catch up with the donkey," he said.

"Now she is broken in we easily get from A to B and yarding is fine."

Another hurdle was the jenny that arrived was in foal and when it was born they had some dead lambs but not from dog attacks.

"Upon closer inspection we found the foal was loving the lambs to death," he said.

"He wasn't trying to hurt the lambs but he was nosing them around in the first couple of hours of birth and was paying so much attention to it, the lamb didn't get time to eat. So we have weaned that foal and are going to see how it grows up as to how it will work with the flock."

Mr Deery said the donkey along with ongoing baiting and trapping programs with the LLS had helped stop attacks.

"Everything is another tool in the tool box," he said.

"Companion animals certainly prove to be useful in management of attacks and the one good thing about them is they look after themselves. They act as guardians once they bond with the flock, as they will do anything to protect their 'family'."

Hunter Local Land Services biosecurity officer Richard Ali said if producers wanted to get back into sheep in the Upper Hunter, then now was an opportune time as they could have confidence there were other land managers and LLS there to assist.

Finding the right guardian animal

Guardian animals are a key tool for pest management but Hunter Local Land Services' biosecurity officer Richard Ali says you have to "find the right fit to suit you".

"Don't just find a donkey on Gumtree, go and talk to someone who has the breed of whatever you are chasing," Mr Ali said.

He said donkeys suited sheep and were used in cattle but exhibited less bonding than they did with sheep.

"Pet donkeys can work but feral donkeys are more athletic and robust and have more stamina to take on dogs,' he said.

Mr Ali said alpacas only ward off foxes but not wild dogs from sheep and poultry, while llamas were good for sheep and poultry but were hard to obtain.

He added Maremma dogs were more commonly used with sheep and poultry.

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