Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Livestock Guardian Experiment of 2009 - Part 1: Chester (by Courtney McDonald)

If I have learned anything during the past ten months of interning with Flying Mule Farm, it is that effective livestock protection is essential to keeping livestock. Without reliable protection, your entire flock - and therefore your business - is at risk.
When we first moved into our new rented house, Eric and I were ecstatic to finally have a little bit of pasture to keep sheep and goats on. We discussed the idea of a livestock guardian dog with our new landlords, and they seemed intrigued by the idea. We explained that the dog’s job is to bark and be aggressive towards predators. So we took Chester, a livestock guardian dog that Flying Mule Farm had used to guard the sheep. He preferred to be anywhere else than in the sheep’s paddock, however, so after awhile he was retired from the farm. I invested in some 5 foot 8 inch electric netting for our new pasture, and added two lines of electric poly tape to the existing permanent fence to create a “Chester-proof” grazing area.
So Chester was brought to his new home, and he was thrilled to have so much new territory to mark. If you have never met Chester you should know that he is one of the largest, most handsome, and sweet natured dogs on the planet. He and Eric became fast friends.
The problems began on the first night. Chester was doing a great job of barking away anything he felt didn’t belong in his vicinity. We closed the windows and had a good night’s sleep. The next day, I asked my neighbor if the barking had bothered him, and he said he hadn’t heard a thing. Ten minutes later, my landlord showed up and said (in a very nice way) that Chester’s barking had upset the neighbors and that if he barked like this every night we would have to relocate him. He agreed to give us a few days to figure out the situation, and he seemed just as eager for Chester to be able to stay as we were.
Over the next few nights Eric and I slept with one eye open, going out to the pasture every time Chester started to bark, about every hour or so. We would assure him that everything was okay and sometimes sit with him until he went to sleep. It never lasted long, though, and soon enough we knew we had to try something different. After about a week in the pasture, we started tying Chester up at night in the half-covered carport with a comfy bed to sleep on. He didn’t make a peep the first night, so we figured we had found the perfect solution. After the third night he began barking all night again, so we tried something new. We began bringing him into the well room after dark. This is a ¾ covered outdoor area just outside the door to the house. We thought that it would be enough shelter to keep him quiet. And it did, for about 3 nights. After that, he began to whine at night. Then, he began a high-pitched barking intended to let us know that he would rather be somewhere else. We felt terrible for him, not least because there are so many critters about at night on the roof and in the walls making noise that he needed to warn us about. One early morning he even got out of the well room and went to visit all of the neighbors, which wasn’t helping his case. So we began switching up the nightly routine from the well room to the carport to the pasture, to see if a change in his routine would didn’t.
Motivated by a lack of sleep and love of Chester, we decided it was a good idea to bring this gigantic, fluffy dog who had never seen the inside of a house into our bedroom at night. Again, the first night he was quiet and showed potential to be a pet. But by the second and third nights, he was on the bed, trying to climb out of the shut window above us, whimpering and stepping on our faces to get there. We decided to try him again out on the pasture. We borrowed 18 ewes from Flying Mule Farm to graze and lamb in the fall. This was the main motivation for taking Chester in the first place. We were cautiously optimistic that if Chester was back with his sheep he might calm down and bark only at real threats.
Once again, we were back outside throughout the night, reassuring him. I remember falling asleep one night in the pasture among the star thistle with my head on my knees. This whole time I harbored a lonely guilt that we were not doing the right thing, and that Chester should be in a place where he could bark freely the way he felt necessary.
On the second night with his ewes Chester escaped his Fort Knox perimeter fencing. I remember thinking “oh my gosh, he is being so quiet tonight”, only to wake up to Chester tied to a tree just outside our from door, asleep. Apparently he went for a little adventure in the middle of the night over to our landlords house! At this point Eric and I knew there was nothing else we could do. Chester’s fate was sealed. We had to give him back to Dan at Flying Mule Farm.
We still see Chester often over at Dan’s house. We even occasionally bring him over to our house for a day trip. We love Chester, but it was beyond us to make turn him into a guardian or a pet. The perfect situation is out there waiting for him, somewhere.

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