Recovering from the loss of most of our sheep herd would be a long process. A herd is not built overnight, but takes years of breeding and keeping the females to replace those lost. Replacing females in the herd is a normal process, however, replacing 90% of a herd in one year is a bridge too far.
Several years past and the herd gradually grew in numbers. We seemed to dodge any more dog catastrophes, admittedly growing a little complacent. During this period as we passed into the new millenium, we began to hear tales of coyote sightings in the neighborhood. At first I was a little skeptical. Coyotes were out west not here in the Piedmont! Almost overnight, it seemed these sightings grew more numerous and closer.
Then it happened, I saw my first coyote. I was incredulous at first, taking a moment to reconcile that this was indeed a coyote. It was daytime. I thought coyotes were nocturnal. The amazing thing was the coyote was stalking the sheep, within 50 yards of them, and the herd was completely unaware of his presence. I, by sheer chance, was driving by the pasture and caught a glimpse of the coyote as it moved. Had it not moved, I’m sure I would not have seen it. I always carry a rifle in my truck. I used it, made a good shot and stopped what would have been a lost lamb.
Well of course this meant facing up to the reality of a new threat. Coyotes, unlike dogs, are hunting, seeking food. Generally the damage done by a coyote is chronic and not catastrophic. However, insidious losses over time, can cost just as much, but sneak up on you just as a predator sneaks up on your lambs. After removing the threat, I began to realize that we had probably been losing sheep here and there, unnoticed.
Over the last few years there have been more sightings and we hear the high-pitched yelping whine of coyotes at night. My dad also, retired and moved back to the farm during this time and started researching LGD’s (Livestock Guard Dogs). Most people have heard about the Great Pyrenees breed, the large white dogs that live with and guard sheep. In his research, dad ran across information on a breed called Karakachan. The Karakachan is an ancient and rare breed from Bulgaria bred specifically to guard livestock. As luck would have it, a genetics professor at Virginia Tech just up the mountain in Blacksburg, Virginia had developed an interest in LGD’s and “discovered” the Karakachans of Bulgaria. Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, in his travels, to find the ultimate LGD, settled on the characteristics of the Karakachan. Loyal yet independent, these dogs have proven to be extremely reliable protectors of livestock. They adopt their charges as part of their “pack” and are highly territorial.
Dad found a breeder, Peter and Patricia Houchin, in Patrick Springs, Virginia that had imported some Karakachans that happened to have an adult dog, Mikhail, that they wanted to sell. “Mikey” became our first LGD and has sired most of our 7 LGDs we presently have working. As you may surmise, we have been extremely happy with our Karakachans. With only around 700 left in the world, we are proud to champion these dogs and the valuable service they perform. The real measure of the our experience has been the virtual end to predator losses. No ground predator is safe in their territory. Their size, speed and keen attention to their territory is remarkable. What is equally surprising is that these dogs, even though they could easily handle a coyote physically and have handled bears on occasion, they are mostly successful through territorial exclusion. They establish their turf, patrol and mark it and each night, announce to the neighborhood their presence.
No predator dares challenge them. Easier meals are to be had else where and we sleep better knowing they are on duty.