Is that a dog or a sheep?

2008-04-12 00:00

Hendrik Botha farms sheep on his farm Harmonie near Cedarville, plus he’s the chairperson of the Natal Wool Farmers’ Association and judges international sheep-shearing competitions. So it comes as a surprise to hear that not long ago he was thinking of pulling out of sheep farming.

“I was thinking of giving up because of stock theft and problem animals [predators],” he says. “My neighbours have gradually phased out sheep because of the problems. But sheep are more profitable than beef or dairy so I thought before I give up I’ll give it one more try. I considered all the possibilities and then I read about these dogs.”

The dogs in question are Anatolian sheep dogs. Originally from Turkey, they have a long history of protecting herd animals and have been successfully used in Namibia to protect livestock, mainly from predation by cheetah. In the Cedarville area the main offenders are jackal and lynx, along with roaming dog packs.

Botha is also involved with research on how to deal with problem animals and thought these dogs might be an ideal research project. Funding was obtained from various sponsors and the cost of the dogs was subsidised.

Botha and seven other members of the local farmers’ association signed up for a dog each. By then Botha had contacted breeder Jan Biljon in Viljoenskraal and ordered eight puppies.

“A couple of months later I got a call from Jan,” recalls Botha. “He said ‘your dog is ready, it’s six weeks old. But I have one rule: you must fetch it yourself, I want to teach you how to use it’.”

Botha passed on what he learnt to the other farmers and drew up a set of guidelines. In the event one of the farmers pulled out of the project and Botha decided to have two dogs.

Anatolian sheep dogs are emphatically guard dogs. “They are not sheep dogs, they don’t fetch and herd,” says Botha. “They are guard dogs, they can even be taught to look after goats. I have a friend who has two dogs, one stays with the sheep, the other with the goats.”

In training, the dog is bonded with the type of animal it will be guarding. “At first you put the puppy in a small area, well closed in with wire netting and a wall, and then you give it five sheep, preferably lambs,” says Botha. “He must learn about sheep and they must learn about him. They have to bond.”

The young dog has a kennel within the enclosure that is constructed so that the sheep cannot intrude. There it is fed and watered. “But when he’s matured a bit you take the water away and he drinks with the sheep.”

Gradually the enclosure is enlarged and more sheep added. Finally, the dog is bonded with the flock he will spend his life guarding. He has, in effect, become a sheep.

Botha recommends the training enclosure be in a quiet area away from people. “Women and children are out of bounds,” he says. “These are lovely puppies and people want to play with them, but they must not get spoilt by unnecessary human attention; they should only interact with the people who work with the sheep.” And that means the farmer and the shepherd. “The herdboy must feed him but not play with him. The dog isn’t a pet.”

Botha says that although these are working dogs they love people. “They should be allowed to bond with the herdboy and with the farmer. You must take notice of him; the dog must know you will come back again and that he is not an orphan.”

The dogs are also taught a couple of basic commands and given names. “His name is the first thing you teach him — he must have a name and know that’s him.”

Once named the dog must come when called and respond to the key command: “go to the sheep/skaap toe!”

Botha introduced his two dogs, Jan and Stoffel, to his sheep five years ago and hasn’t looked back. “I’m still farming sheep,” he says. “We’ve found they’ve had a huge impact on problem animals and on stock theft.”

If jackal or lynx appear near the flock they are chased off. “They will kill the animal if they get hold of it,” says Botha. “But they are not hunting dogs, they won’t hunt it down, they have a territory and they chase off intruders.”

Botha says the dogs are very alert to changes in health among animals in their flock. “If a sheep gets sick the dog stays with the animal. If if dies it stays with the body. The farmer or herdboy can remove the body but the dog will not let a stranger near.”

Botha recounts how Marais Bester, who also farms sheep and owns an Anatolian sheep dog, went out to his flock one day and the dog kept running off into some long grass. He followed it and found a sick sheep.

The dogs are also conscious of their own health. “If they get sick they come to you — on sick report,” says Botha.

“One of mine had an abscess in his ear. He got sick and he came home. I came out one morning and there he was waiting for me.”

This is one occasion when one is allowed to touch the dog to check on its health. “You call him, tell him to sit and feel round the neck for ticks; you mustn’t play, just feel. You must manage their health and that’s the only reason to touch them.”

Anatolian sheep dogs don’t get an entirely clean slate. “There are some negatives,” says Botha. “These dogs tend to roam and farmers who don’t farm with sheep are uncomfortable with strange dogs on their farms.”

There is also a possibility that they could turn on the sheep. “They are dogs after all,” says Botha, “and if they are joined by other dogs who start killing sheep they will get spoilt. This will usually happen in the early stages of training. If a dog does that, it has to be put down; once they have tasted blood they are permanently spoilt. This is why they need to be carefully trained. They are not domestic dogs, they must be part of the sheep on the farm.”

Bonding with the sheep is the key to the success of these dogs. “They have a mothering instinct and they love the lambs,” says Botha. “When it comes to lambing season that’s when these dogs are at their best.”

Botha says using the dogs also help keep the ecology in place. “If problem animals get wiped out, more come in and it’s worse than before. Lynx and jackal are territorial so they will keep out others.

“You’ve got to farm with nature, if you don’t then nature will give you problems — you’ll get more problem animals than before.”

Botha’s experiment in the Cedarville area seems to have paid off. There are now an estimated 30 to 40 Anatolian sheep dogs at work throughout KwaZulu-Natal.

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