Throughout the years, I have had many people ask me questions about guardian animals for their flock of sheep. Llamas, donkeys, and certain breeds of dogs all make excellent guards against outside predators. Each guardian animal has their own unique way of protecting their flock. Before purchasing a guardian, I suggest learning as much as you can about each one, and then evaluating which will work best in your particular situation.
I have decided to run a series of blogs posts dedicated to the different kinds of guardian animals. Today, I have invited Jennifer King of the Sachem Farm in Connecticut to talk with us about her guard donkey, Georgia.
Tell us a little about your farm and flock of sheep.
I live in the Northwest Hills of Connecticut surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in New England. Yup, I’m a lucky girl! The farm has been in my family since 1787 and used to be a dairy. I decided raising sheep would be my life in 1973 (I was 7) when I fell in love with them on a family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. Although I was fully sheep-smitten that day long ago, I didn’t actually get sheep until 2010, at the age of 44.
Why did you decide to get a guard animal?
Living on the farm most of my life I knew full and well that we have predators as much of our farm is surrounded by wooded acreage. I’ve seen coyotes, bobcats, fox, and a mountain lion, once, despite that the state of CT is adamant that they’re not here. There’s no mistaking that tail, they’re most definitely here. If I’d spent my childhood surrounded by sheep, instead of cows, I’d have probably been more relaxed about their safety from predators. As it stands, I was a nervous wreck when our sheep came to the farm.
Why did you choose a miniature donkey as a guard animal?
My hunt for a LGA (livestock guardian animal) began with my first stop at a llama farm, but I just don’t care for llamas. I felt a livestock guardian dog was not a good fit due to the close proximity of neighbors. So a donkey it was!
Where did you find your donkey?
I found Georgia via Craigslist on a farm less than an hour away. She’d just been born, so I’d have to wait till she was weened get her. The owner of the farm was sweet and said I could visit when I wanted. Georgia’s mom is a small standard and her dad is a mini. I’d heard that minis were good protectors and also figured that a full size donkey for someone with no actual donkey experience might be pushing it a bit. I fell in love with Georgia immediately and couldn’t wait for her to join our farm. My hope was that if Georgia grew up with the sheep she’d grow into herself as a guardian to them. Donkeys are territorial and have the reputation of being very devoted to their charges.
How did Georgia react once you brought her home to your farm?
From the start she was very rambunctious….but in a good way and causing no harm. I could tell immediately that she considered herself superior to the sheep but could also see she cared for them and craved their company. To this day Georgia is extremely uncomfortable if separated from the flock, even for a moment.
What does Georgia do when she senses danger?
Georgia is super vigilant and alert, she will always see you before the sheep even pick up their heads from grazing. She brays loudly when a stranger comes in the yard, could be a greeting but sounds more like an warning alarm at times. One evening I looked out to the barnyard at dusk and saw the entire flock huddled together and being kept at the fence line by Georgia. I’d never seen this type of flock formation before and was concerned enough to go out and investigate. When I got to them I asked Georgia what was going on but she was too busy doing her job to answer. It wasn’t until I shined my flashlight into our lower pasture that I saw two yellow eyes shining back at me. Donkeys have an inherent dislike of canines. If a strange dog comes up the the fence-line Georgia will either stomp a threatening hoof or remove the sheep. She seems to understand that our border collie Breckin is a family pet and not to be trifled with.
Is raising a donkey difficult?
I would consider Georgia an easy keeper. I brush her occasionally in the spring to help her shed her winter coat but this is mostly to keep her looking pretty. She eats and sleeps alongside the sheep with the only difference being that Georgia consumes a lot more water than the sheep do. During the hot summer months I fill a 44 gal. stock tank twice a day. I did opt for the vet to give her a rabies shot and my vet has recommended that I have her teeth floated when she is fully mature, which will be this summer on her 4th birthday. Donkeys teeth need floating which simply is to smooth and contour them with a file. If a donkeys teeth grow unevenly and aren’t floated they can have difficulty and be underweight.
What kind of personality does Georgia have?
Prior to owning a donkey I never would have guessed that they’d be reasonable but Georgia is. One of her favorite spring and summertime activities is running around like a mad woman, just for kicks. Typically the younger ewes and lambs join in the fun but the elders just seem irritated by her exuberance. She’s super smart! The sheep defer to Georgia and that’s just how she likes it. I can tell she cares for them but in a house-mother kind of way. She’s suspicious of all strangers and approaches them first to make sure they don’t need to be dealt with. She’s cautious if someone wants to touch her and usually takes a while to warm up to people she doesn’t know….unless that person has a treat, in which case she’ll take up residence in your back pocket lickety-split. I love having Georgia, she’s a gem. Truth be told, she gets more attention than the sheep.
You also run a bed and breakfast with people coming and going all the time. How does Georgia react to strangers?
If people are calm and respectful of her space and duties then she’ll tolerate a visit. If, for example, there are children that are loud and moving quickly she’ll view it as a threat and remove the sheep for the area.
Northern Vermont Llama Company and Farm-Lindsay Chandler’s farm raises miniature donkeys as well as llamas.