By Tom Meade
Then the university bought Bonnie, a guard donkey.
She came to the URI campus in December 2003 after a pack of dogs had attacked the sheep. Of the 26 ewes in the flock then, 17 suffered severe puncture wounds. One was killed, and six badly injured, including one that was so seriously hurt she had to be euthanized a few weeks later.
Since the donkey’s arrival, the university has not lost a single animal, says Dave Marshall, manager of Peckham Farm. Recently, the school acquired a second donkey, named Dee.
In nearby Lebanon, Connecticut, Paul Tubey says he has seen coyotes “lurking” in the woods surrounding his Beltane Farm, but the predators have stayed away from his mixed herd of Oberhasli and La Mancha goats since he acquired a guard donkey.
How Donkeys Do Their Work
Guard donkeys can also protect farm animals from foxes and bobcats, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, but black bears, wolves and mountain lions may prey on donkeys.
Sight and Sound “Donkeys rely predominantly on sight and sound to detect intruders,” according to a bulletin from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Bold, Brassy Braying “When approached, sheep will tend to move so the guard animal is between the intruder and themselves. The donkeys' loud brays and quick pursuit will scare away predators and may also alert the shepherd.
Guard Donkey Tips
Source: Texas Department of Agriculture
"If the canines do not retreat quickly the donkeys will attack them by rising up on their hind legs and striking with both front feet. A solid blow can injure, kill or at the very least discourage the predator.”
When a visitor brought a leashed dog to URI’s Peckham Farm, Bonnie and Dee brayed menacingly as they charged to the pasture fence.
Before buying a potential guard donkey, it’s wise to test its reaction to a dog.
Know Your Donkeys
Like horses, each donkey is different from others, says Dave Marshall, a former farrier.
During lambing season this year, he had to separate the younger Dee from the sheep because the donkey was being impatient and rough with lambs.
“Bonnie, the older one, lets things happen as they happen,” Marshall says.
“Dee is an enforcer. She wants everything to happen the way she wants it to happen. But lambs can’t conform; they don’t have that in their brains. They have no real ‘flock sense.’ Dee can’t put them together; one goes this way and another goes that way, so she tries to grab them.
“Once they turn six months old, Dee will be fine, because the lambs will become part of the dynamic of the flock, and she can watch over them and feel good about it.”
Where to Get a Donkey
Donkeys are often available at livestock auctions.
“Jennies (females) are suitable for use as guard animals,” advises the Texas Department of Agriculture. “Jacks (intact males), which cost about half as much as jennies, should be gelded before use as guard animals.”
Fred Launer, an animal-science instructor at the University of Rhode Island recommends buying guard donkeys from breeders who have selected stock specifically for the donkeys’ herd-protection instincts. They may cost more, but it’s a wise investment, he says. Dee and Bonnie came from guard-donkey breeders in Pennsylvania.
Find several donkey and mule breed associations here.
Some guard-donkey users produce their own donkeys. The practice allows selection for donkeys with good guarding tendencies. In 2004, URI’s Bonnie foaled Clyde, who, after gelding, was sold to a nearby shepherd.
Donkeys and Socialization
“The donkey should be introduced to the sheep as early as possible to increase the likelihood of the donkey bonding to the flock,” according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
“Getting the sheep and donkey to accept each other as ‘flockmates’ is the first step in allowing the donkey to exhibit its true guarding instincts. Under ideal circumstances the jenny and her foal should be raised with the sheep. The weaned foal should then be left alone with the flock.
"Many believe that because donkeys are very sociable animals, they must work alone in order to effectively protect the sheep. The concern is that if the donkeys are allowed to mix with cattle, horses or other donkeys, then the sheep may be ignored.”
At Beltane Farm in Connecticut, however, Paul Tubey had to buy a pony to be a calming companion for his donkey. That is a common and sound solution for donkeys that can seem to be stressed, says URI’s Fred Launer.
Donkeys are hardy and usually require minimal care, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“Annual worming and occasional supplemental feeding during periods of poor range conditions may be all that is required,” say the experts there.
“Water should be readily available and snow or ice should not be relied on for meeting water intake needs during cold weather. Do not allow donkeys access to feed containing Rumensin, urea, or other products intended only for ruminants. Donkeys can benefit from vaccination against common equine diseases, such as tetanus and encephalitis. Veterinary care, hoof trimming and floating of teeth may be needed at times.”
Guard donkeys do not need special training, but they are easier to handle after they have become accustomed to a halter.
About the Author: Tom Meade is a writer, beekeeper and vegetable gardener in Rhode Island.
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