Managing the Maremma

Location: Hughenden, Qld.

Enterprise: Telemon Droughtmaster stud and commerical cow herds

Producer: Ninian, Ann and Jack Stewart-Moore

Soil type: Grey cracking soils

Pasture type: Native (Mitchell Grass Downs)

In 2000, wild dogs almost had the Stewart-Moores beat. Exclusion fencing and baiting programs had failed to reduce attacks that were claiming 60% of their lamb drop and costing almost $30,000 a year in production losses. The future of one of Australia’s most northern sheep flocks looked bleak – until the family turned to guardian dogs.

The Stewart-Moore family has plenty of experience when it comes to using Maremmas for stock protection. Ninian, Ann and son, Jack, have been using and breeding guardian dogs on ‘Dunluce’, near Hughenden, since 2002.

“We have learnt a lot but feel like we’ve only scratched the surface,” Ninian said. “There’s so much we don’t know about their instincts, how to train each individual to get the best out of them and why they sometimes fail.”

Earlier this year, the Stewart-Moores decided to sell-off their sheep enterprise and concentrate on their Droughtmaster stud and commercial herd.

“Oddly enough, it wasn’t the dogs that beat us,” Ninian said. “The Maremmas solved that problem, our sheep losses were less than 3%, almost all from natural causes.” He said the nail in the coffin was unsustainably low weaning rates, about 50%, for the past decade which was no longer profitable.

“We did workshops, we tried every strategy we could think of,” Ninian said. “We introduced Dohne Merinos to breed larger, more robust sheep, we spike fed, changed the time of year we joined, lambed and shore. I always knew the further north you took a Merino, the less productive it became and that marginality eventually took its toll.”

Still on the job, with the sheep gone, the Stewart-Moores sold some of their dogs but plan to improve their success at bonding them with cattle.

“When we had sheep we had mixed success bonding the dogs with cattle,” Ninian said. “Sometimes we ran cows and calves beside sheep so the cattle got the benefit of the flock protection and we also bonded dogs with young cattle weaners.

“By introducing the dogs to the weaners I hoped they would accept the dogs as companions for life but we found by the time they had their second calf, the cows became too strong and discouraged their presence. The dogs would eventually take the easier option and return to the sheep.”

Ninian hopes now, with the sheep gone, the dogs will form stronger bonds with the cattle.

Here, Ninian shares some of his experience.

How much did it cost you to get started?

About $20,000 which included 24 dogs and a mobile trailer. It worked out about $1/ sheep at the time.

You say you more than recouped that outlay in the first year, how did you know or measure that?

Our adult sheep losses fell from 15% the year before we introduced Maremmas to 7% the year after and then 3% the year after that.

How do you introduce guardian dogs to sheep, particularly when there has been a history of wild dog attacks?

Locking the dogs in a small paddock or yard with the sheep at first and just monitoring them is a good idea. However, we found because Maremmas have an indirect disposition amongst sheep, eg tail down, ears down, eyes averted, unlike a hunting dog with ears pricked and eye contac, sheep tend to be nonplussed or even curious. It usually takes one to three days for the sheep to get their confidence and it helps to use more placid dogs during this phase.

How do you work out how many dogs you need and how much effect do terrain and paddock size have on that?

Big question and we have only our experience to go by. We believe if you only have one dog they are susceptible to a pack attack and if you have a few dogs per mob, say four or more, it becomes a play group rather than a proper security team. I feel two–three dogs per mob is a good number, whether that is for 200 sheep or 2,000. Obviously one dog will work smaller mobs well. Terrain and paddock size have a huge bearing on all this. We know our Maremmas (from GPS collaring) will travel up to 15km overnight to check out a disturbance which is fine in our 1,200ha paddocks but perhaps not so suitable if you’re a Victorian producer. This is why bonding of your dogs to their mob is so crucial. I think there’s plenty of room for more researching this area.

How do you start training them?

I prefer to use the term ‘bonding’. They need to express their instincts. It starts with pups being born in the right environment and their imprinting begins before they open their eyes and continues until they are old enough to de-sex at about seven months old. If pups are not home-bred, the earlier they are transferred to their working environment, the better, say at weaning age, eight weeks. Young dogs need a lot of monitoring which is why pups bought ready to work can be expensive. The breeders will have put a lot of time into them if they’ve done it right.

Are there any guidelines as to how to match up working pairs or small groups of dogs? Does gender matter?

I don’t think gender matters as long as all free-range dogs are de-sexed. It is more important to balance personality types, for example, combining an outgoing dog likely to meet danger head on with one that herds the mob away from perceived danger. In our experience these personality types occur across both genders.

Do they need housing and how do you feed them?

They don’t need housing as such, but they do need a secure area where they can access food. We always have a tub of dog biscuits in a feeding station which is designed for the dogs to jump in and access but to keep ruminants, birds and rain out. Sometimes sheep will learn to jump into them too so in those cases we put a couple of gates in front of it so the dogs can crawl under the gate and then jump into the feeding station.

What sort of basic care do they need?

They need to be wormed regularly and occasionally matted hair needs clipping away.

What was the biggest challenge for you when you first bought the Maremmas?

I think it was getting over needing to be their best friend. It’s a totally different relationship to the traditional working dog most producers are used to.

 

This article first appeared in the October 2014 edition of MLA’s member publication, Feedback magazine.

For more information on training guardian dogs visit the free online resource Guardian Dogs – Best Practice Manual for the use of Livestock Guardian Dogs at http://www.invasiveanimals.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Guardian-Dogs-web.pdf?1e1d06 

Hughenden, Qld.
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