On the farm, working like a dog

Sep. 07, 2013 @ 12:00 PM

South Durham Farmers' Market’s Bruno has spent his nine years protecting the lives of others. At all times he remains diligently alert to threats and willing to clash with a hodgepodge of formidable vermin. He follows in the footsteps of his father, the original guardian, but now he is the patriarch of a large family with many of his offspring having also entered the family business. Bruno is one of nine livestock guard dogs on Fickle Creek Farm in Efland.

Fickle Creek Farm’s livestock are all free-ranging and pasture-raised, but with this unfettered freedom comes risk. Chickens and ducks might be picked off by a stealthy fox or eggs might be snatched by a roguish raccoon. Sheep and calves must be kept safe from stalking coyotes, wild dogs and the occasional bobcat. A farmer’s eyes cannot be everywhere at once, but luckily, they don’t have to be.

Our species struck an ancient bargain with the most interested members of the canine species: Help us and protect us, and we will do the same for you.  We no longer compete with each other for prey; instead, we cooperate to keep livestock safe to the mutual benefit of both species.

There are two standard categories of working farm dogs: livestock guardians and herders. Bruno, a Great Pyrenees, is a member of the former. Guardian dogs are placed with the flock or herd at a young age to encourage them to bond with the livestock. They must be aggressive towards intruders, but gentle with their flock. Until the dog has reached maturity (approximately 2 years old), they need to be well supervised, especially among smaller animals, like chickens.

Livestock guardians rarely have to physically engage potential predators. Most are quickly deterred by the urine and fecal evidence of a large carnivore in the vicinity, and the rest will back down when confronted with a guardian’s barks and growls; however, there is the occasional exception. Ben Bergmann, co-owner of Fickle Creek Farm, has seen Jake, son of Bruno, more than once proudly prancing the perimeter of the paddock with a possum locked in his maw, looking for more raiders.

Herding dogs are much smaller than the guardians, but also more active, agile and responsive to training. Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Australian Cattle Dogs are traditional herding breeds. Herding behavior redirects a dog’s hunting instinct towards guiding the livestock. Herders use nips to drive the livestock onward and intense stare downs to head off forward movement or straying individuals. They are sometimes used for poultry flocks, but more often for cattle, sheep and goat herds.  Samantha Gasson of Bull City Farm is currently training her two Australian Shepherds, Flo and Bellatrix, to herd sheep and cattle.

Much of the pasture-raised meat available at the South Durham Farmers’ Market is made possible by these hardworking farm dogs. Bergmann said, “We literally could not farm the way we do without them.”  These dogs allow farmers to eschew permanent enclosures, guns or animal traps, and still keep the livestock safe. Plus, nothing beats the satisfaction of working alongside your best friend.

Elizabeth Zander is market manager of the South Durham Farmers' Market. Her column appears every other week in The Durham Herald.