Pretty much anyone who farms or raises livestock in Maine has a story about a too close for comfort wildlife encounter.
“It’s a big issue,” Cindy Kilgore, livestock specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said. “It depends on what you’ve got for livestock and what is going to eat it.”
Several years ago Kilgore said she lost several lambs to predation and suspects the culprit was a female black bear with cubs.
“The lambs were decapitated, and we followed the trail of wool and blood,” Kilgore said. “That lead us to believe it was a bear. A coyote would have taken the whole carcass and not torn it apart along the way.”
These encounters are part of farming in Maine, Kilgore said, but they don’t always have to end in disaster for the domesticated animals or crops.
Wildlife vs domestic animals
Maine has very specific laws when it comes to dealing with so-called “nuisance animals” and wildlife.
Under the law, a wild animal or wild turkey can be killed if found in the act of “attacking, worrying or wounding that person’s domestic animals or domestic birds, or destroying that person’s property.”
The law also requires the incident be reported to the Maine Warden Service.
But according to Kilgore, when it comes to wildlife and livestock, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure.
“Woven wire fencing can be a good deterrent,” she said. “But then again, some animals are smart enough to climb over it.”
The most vulnerable livestock are the tiny animals such as smaller poultry and newborn animals, Kilgore said. “Anything under 10 pounds can be taken by eagles,” she said. “And frankly, newborn lambs or goats are free game when it comes to any predator.”
The smart thing to do, she said, is to keep newborn livestock in an enclosed barn. When it comes to poultry such as chickens, ducks and geese, the major predation is from wild canines, Kilgore said.
“It’s usually coyotes or fox that go after chickens,” she said. “So free-range chickens don’t seem to have a long life span sometimes if you have fox or coyotes around.”
Fencing, secure pens or barns are again the best options for keeping feathered livestock safe and off a predator’s menu.
It’s not a bad idea to supplement fencing with “guardian animals” that will keep a watchful eye over a flock or herd, Kilgore said. Dogs are the first thing a person things when looking for an animal that will protect livestock, and Kilgore said they can be a good option, provided the farmer and neighbors don’t mind the barking.
“‘Other guardian’ animals can work really well,” Kilgore said. “For example, donkeys hate dogs and can kill a dog or coyote faster than you can blink. Llamas are the same.”
That’s right — guard donkeys and llamas.
If anyone knows the value of these animals, it’s Lisa Webster at North Star Sheep Farm in Windham.
“For the first 25 years here we had llamas, and they did an excellent job protecting our herds,” Webster said. “When our last llama died of old age, and our breeder retired, we went with donkeys six years ago.”
Initially, Webster said, the plan was one donkey.
“I asked my husband if I could have a donkey,” Webster said. “He said, ‘We already have two horses, so why not?’”
However, the perfect donkey was in Michigan and came with four friends, Webster recalled with a laugh.
“Off to Michigan we went [and] in the time between my husband saying yes to ‘Can I have a donkey?’ and our getting home, three had babies, so we went from the one to eight donkeys,” she said. “He said that is the fastest zero to 100 I have ever done to him, but we are super happy with the donkeys and have had no problems with wildlife killing sheep or lambs since having them.”
Not only are donkeys and llamas fierce protectors of “their” flocks, Kilgore said they are also excellent early warning systems.
“They are very alert,” she said. “If you see a donkey or llama with its ears up there is something out there.”
Kilgore has her own guard donkey out with her cattle and said in the past it has been very good with her sheep.
Webster said her flock of 1,000 sheep are split among three pastured farms with each having “packs” of two or three donkeys on patrol.
“We are having no issues with predators,” she said. “If a domestic dog, coyote or fox even tries anything the donkeys will kick and stomp them to protect their flock.”
Working with, not against wild animals
Webster also works with nature to keep her animals safe.
“That can make a huge difference,” she said. “We run ‘escape alleys’ between our pastures so the wild animals have a natural way to move from point A to point B to point C.”
The location of the Webster property also helps, Webster said.
“I’m fortunate that all of my farms were farms pre-Revolutionary War,” she said. “They have always been farms, so we are not making farmland out of forest.”
Not modifying the land or disrupting nature makes living and raising livestock that much easier, Webster said. Ultimately, Webster said, she most enjoys the live and let live relationship when it comes to wildlife — to a point.
“The more we work with nature and let everyone do their own thing, the better it is,” she said. “As long as they behave and we behave we all make out fine.”
Farmers, Webster said, can have a good or adversarial relationship with wildlife.
“I believe you need to work with wildlife and go from there,” she said.
The bottom line, according to Kilgore, is to be vigilant when raising livestock in a state known for healthy wildlife populations.
“If you know you have a problem, take some precautions,” she said. “Having animals is part of farming, and wildlife eating small animals can unfortunately be part of farming.”
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