Move over Shep and meet Blitzen, a stretched-neck, shaggy-haired llama and the new top dog on Sid and Kathie Rayfield’s sheep farm.
Blitzen is a guard llama, the latest four-legged weapon against mutton-loving coyotes and wild dogs.
“Llamas are big, smart and have been known to kill coyotes by stomping them to death,” said Bonner County llama breeder Ken Rose. “They are becoming very popular right now as sheep guards. And it’s all an instinctive thing. There is no training.”
In the last six years, Rose has sold about two dozen llamas to sheep ranchers in Montana, Idaho and Washington.
Kathie Rayfield bought one two years ago to watch over her flock of 15 ewes on 160 wooded acres south of Sandpoint. The Rayfields didn’t want coyotes and mountain lions taking a bite out of their wool business.
“We have herding dogs but were always worried about the coyotes. Some have come quite close,” she said.
There hasn’t been a problem since Blitzen arrived. He’s alerted the family to trouble several times. When the llama senses danger, he herds the sheep to a safe place, stands between the flock and the predator and lets out a piercing shriek.
“It’s an incredibly loud shrill, a very eerie, eerie sound,” Rayfield said. “It sort of sounds like 500 sheep going through a wire fence combined with a rooster getting chased by a dog. When I hear him, I pay attention.”
The noise itself usually sends coyotes scampering. If not, the llama stretches its neck high in the air and charges, sometimes rearing up on its hind legs like a bucking horse.
“It’s quite a sight,” Rayfield said.
Yet llamas are gentle with people and sheep. Rayfield’s flock was lambing last week. Three-hour-old lambs rested on straw next to their mother. Blitzen immediately went to sniff the newborns and bond, while the mother lamb stamped her feet to ward off the nearby sheep dogs.
“The first time I was real wary about Blitzen being in with the new lambs and I separated them,” Rayfield said. “That was a mistake.”
The llama broke down the pen wall to get back with the flock.
“He’s their protector, almost like a baby sitter,” Rayfield said.
Only one llama is used with a flock of sheep. If more than one is introduced, the llamas bond with each other and ignore the sheep. It takes only a week of having the sheep and llama penned together before the llama takes over and becomes king sheep.
Unlike sheep dogs, guard llamas need no special training. Llamas have a natural herding instinct and are territorial, said Doyle Markham, an adjunct biology professor at Idaho State University.
He’s studied guard llamas since 1986 and raises the critters himself. He has piles of statistics showing sheep ranchers cut losses from coyotes and other predators by 100 percent after buying a llama.
“Guard llamas are catching on very fast. They are being used all over the United States now,” he said.
A guard llama costs $300 to $800 and lives 10 to 20 years. Trained guard dogs can cost from $200 to $600. But about 50 percent of farm dogs die within three years from accidents or disease.
Llamas need no special food or care. They graze with the sheep and receive the same vaccinations.
“They are very thrifty,” Markham said.
Karen Ososki has a guard llama on her organic farm near Sandpoint. She shears the animal along with her 31 sheep and uses its wool.
“He does double duty,” Ososki laughed. “Llamas have great hair.”
Ososki and her husband, Karl, bought their llama in July. They wanted to keep away coyotes that regularly stalked their property. Because their farm is organic, they can’t use chemicals to poison the predators and really didn’t want to kill any coyotes.
“We could walk within 10 feet of them (coyotes) and yell and scream and they wouldn’t run away,” Karl said. “Since the llama has been here we haven’t seen any coyotes.”
“Sheep ranchers using llamas will tell you the most amazing stories you have ever heard,” added Markham. This year he’s had calls from people in 25 states telling him llama tales and seeking advice.
A man in Chester, Idaho, told Markham he watched a neighbor’s llama back a flock of sheep into a safe corner. Then the animal fought off two Siberian huskies, “wheeling and striking at them.”
Young, inexperienced llamas even chase stray cats and marmots until they’re sure the critters aren’t a threat to the sheep.
Ososki’s llama gathers the herd together whenever a visitor comes to the house or if a neighbor’s dog wanders in.
Neutered male llamas are the most effective. An uncastrated male sometimes will try to mate with the sheep and injure them.
“Guard llamas have been used in South America for a long time,” said Rose, the llama breeder. “The idea is just starting to take off here and llamas are becoming livestock on the farm like anything else.”
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