LIGHTS, donkeys and alpacas are making their mark on traditional sheep producing properties as farmers hunt for an answer to young lamb predators.
Rankins Springs producers, Peter and Meegan McCarten run 4000 Merino and Merino-cross ewes on their property “Nargoon” and have had some reprieve from foxes in recent years.
But thanks to a mouse plague satisfying foxes, they want to hire somebody for three months to fight the fox burden.
The McCartens partially attribute their recent lambing percentage increase to 126 per cent to their decision to use fox lights three years ago.
A fox light is a spotlight powered by a six-volt torch battery which is attached to a star picket, fence or tree and flashes at irregular intervals to give the impression somebody is patrolling the area.
Because the lights flash irregularly it serves as a deterrent to foxes and they are less likely to attack the ewes and lambs.
Mr McCarten spent $2000 buying 50 to 60 fox lights after seeing an article about them in The Land.
The McCartens found the fox lights to be very effective in conjunction with baiting, shooting and trapping.
“Foxes are such a big concern that we’ve decided to try and employ someone for three months just to bait, trap and do the shooting as well as moving the fox lights around so they are being used where they are needed most,” Mr McCarten said.
Oberon farmer and fox light inventor Ian Whalan was awarded the end-of-year viewers’ award on the ABC’s New Inventors in 2009.
He recommends using four fox lights per 100 ewes, a ratio of one light per 25 ewes.
Along with foxlights, farmers have for some time also used other animals as “guards” for their sheep flocks.
While alpacas are the most common in Australia, American and Canadian farmers have a long history of using donkeys to protect their livestock.
The Hume Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) and National Parks Khancoban are currently running a joint trial program using donkeys to protect sheep in areas with wild dog problems.
Three jennys (female donkeys) are the first to be trialled and are being used on Robert and Sally Bulle’s property, “Ardrossan”, east of Holbrook.
Hume LHPA ranger Mic McFarlane said while alpacas could provide good protection against foxes, they were largely ineffective against wild dogs.
“The alpacas are just too light and the wild dogs end up attacking them as well,” Mr McFarlane said.
“Overseas research shows jenny donkeys are very effective protectors against coyotes and with Australia’s wild dogs only being about five kilograms heavier than coyotes, hopefully the donkeys will help minimise stock losses from wild dogs.”
The donkeys are put into a paddock with 20 to 30 sheep to bond, with more sheep gradually introduced.
One donkey is expected to be able to guard a mob of between 200 and 300 sheep.
If the donkeys helped minimise stock losses from wild dogs, they may be alternated with llamas as herd guards.
However, llamas tended to bond with another llama in a neighbouring paddock rather than the flock they were meant to guard, thus becoming less effective.
The biggest obstacle to the trial was sourcing the donkeys, as they were usually only bred in Australia for showing and sold from anywhere between $2000 and $6000.
It took eight months of searching to find the first three donkeys which were purchased for $400 each.
In contrast, there is no shortage of alpacas available to buy with prices starting from $400.
But as Rutherglen, Victoria, farmer Scott Francis found out, not every alpaca was suited for the task.
Mr Francis currently uses 13 alpacas as herd guards, but when he first bought alpacas in 2003 he had one that was too domesticated, which he gave away as a pet.
“I look for the bigger framed alpacas with sheer size and which are very cranky and a bit wild,” he said.
After Mr Francis pregnancy tests his ewes he puts the best protective alpacas with the twinning ewes.
“I usually run them in pairs and rotate them, but there are a few males who run as singles,” he said.
When new alpacas are brought onto the property, Mr Francis gives them a month to get to know the sheep.
“They’re very possessive of the sheep, but they are gentle with them to the point that you’ll go down the paddock and the young lambs will be climbing on the alpacas and playing with them,” Mr Francis said.
Bill and Annette Robbins, Traron Alpacas, Holbrook, started using alpacas as herd guards to protect their flocks from wild dogs at Tallangatta, Victoria, 23 years ago.
Mr Robbins said barren females or castrated males usually made the best herd guards.
According to Mr Robbins, alpacas can protect against wild dogs provided they are run in large numbers of up to 10.
“Alpacas are an aggressive animal – they don’t like foxes or dogs, they have great protection instincts, but they’re not aggressive towards humans, making them well suited to being herd guards,” he said.
“If a dog hesitates the alpacas will destroy it.”
So while there’s no shortage of alternative livestock protection methods out there, it also appears there’s no one magic bullet.
According to Hume LHPA ranger Mic McFarlane, farmers shouldn’t rely on herd guards solely to save their stock.
“The thing with donkeys and llamas is that they do not actually control the dogs, but they minimise loss,” he said.
“You may still have a kill or two occasionally, but when you’re losing big numbers, then any minimisation helps.”