Protecting our alpacas
Thursday 15 October 2015 turned out to be a bleak day when we had the first of the wild dog attacks. I was in the city at work, two hours away, when I got that awful phone call. That day I lost my darling mate, Sheepie. I was heartbroken! I knew in my heart that he would have tried to fight them because that's the way he was, not one to be pushed around. He was in a paddock with ten strapping young male alpacas. Two days later, on Saturday, in the girls' paddock, opposite the boys, we found a yearling and one of the old females. Both alpacas had been isolated and trapped. Finding their mauled bodies was horrific! That meant the only safe place left was the house yard so I moved them to the house yard. Thankfully the house yard is a good size to accommodate more than 60 alpacas. You should have seen the gleeful pronking that afternoon. Most of the herd, even adults, pronked around the houseyard for a long time. I didn't know that Katie was severely injured. She had the youngest cria, seven weeks old. The muscles on Kate's back leg were torn to bits but luckily no damage to the tendons. She must have been protecting Namona, her cria.
In the meantime, I contacted the emergency number for our local Council to get help. It was a weekend so nothing could be done until Monday. With help from our friends, we patrolled at night and kept vigil by day. We could hear the dogs howling at night and you sensed with every step, that you were being watched. I placed as many sensor LED lights in as many places as I could, trying to give the alpacas a fighting chance, to be forewarned, to see the moving shadows in the dark, to get away. It was one of the longest weekends of my life. I took a couple of days off work to liaise with the Council. We discussed options and according to the ranger, there were legal and resource constraints. I offered to pay for the resources but he seemed reluctant to go down the baiting path. I was desperate! In the end, we agreed on setting traps. I had to wait till Tuesday before the traps went in.
A week later on Melbourne Cup day, Tuesday 3 November 2015, the predators killed our youngest cria, Katie's baby. She was only seven weeks old and right next to the house. My greatest concern at this point was the proximity to the house, metres from the side gate and it indicated the fearlessness of this hunting pack. I had to accept there was no safe place for the alpacas! The fence option was cost prohibitive.
At this point, I had to face the fact that this was now a forever problem. Nobody ever wants to admit this! Total eradication would be impossible especially with the trees and gullies so this led me to researching guard dogs. I discovered the maremma guardians on facebook and joined a few groups to find out more. I contacted breeders all over the state, discussed options, looking for the best fit for our scenario. Most breeders said that it was best to get pups 6-8 weeks old but owners said any age would be ok as long as we put the time into bonding them with the stock. We had lost the benefit of time and we were in trouble. We were easy pickings every few days when the pack was hungry. I decided the maremma was our best breed and commenced the search for an adult maremma.
I generally follow my instincts and I found a vague advertisement on Gumtree for a three year old, male maremma. I contacted the advertiser and explained I couldn't pick the dog up till Saturday, four days later. It was very mysterious and he told me he would send me the address when I was ready to pick him up but would not hold the dog any longer than the agreed day. Yet still I felt compelled that this was the one for me. All I knew was that he was inland, over two hours drive from the farm. Saturday finally arrived and my husband was fearful of me going to this mysterious rendezvous but I was compelled. I sent a message to the mysterious man and received the address. We hooked up the trailer in case the dog was unable to travel in the car and I headed off.
I drove more than two hours and as I came closer to the address, the land became desolate and drought ravaged. Pulling up to the front gate was devastating, seeing starving cattle and horses. I could see every rib on these emaciated animals. The trip up the long driveway was heartbreaking because even the trees were either dead or dying. This property had not enjoyed rain for several years. As I reached the house, several maremmas came out to frighten the stranger. The owner greeted me but would not shake explaining it was not appropriate for a moslem to shake hands with me. Then we walked over to the tied dog, Nowi was barking and making lots of noise but I noticed his upright tail started to wag. I could see the other maremmas were extremely thin too. The fellow told me how the female catches kangaroos for them to eat.
Nowi is short for the moslem word for "the gift". The man gave me a brief on the dog's personality. He told me how he patrolled their property and looked after the neighbours' properties as well. I asked why Nowi had dried blood around his neck and front legs. He also told me one of their cattle died the day before and he took Nowi over and told him he could eat it but Nowi sat and guarded the dead animal for a day and night. In the end, the fellow had to take the carcass away to cut it up as Nowi had no intention of eating it even though he was starving. He told me what a fine dog he was and that he had sired really good pups but they were in a situation and needed to downsize the number of animals they had. Nowi had lived on this property all his life, the gate was padlocked, and had minimal contact with outsiders. I could definitely see these poor people were in a desperate state on account of the drought. The fellow told me how they loved Nowi but could not feed their animals and wanted him to go to a good home.
I walked over and stood next to Nowi and allowed him to smell my leg until he was satisfied and placed his paw on my leg. The fellow told me it was Nowi's signal of accepting me. Personally, I thought he wanted to shake my hand so I dropped my hand down to him and he curled his paw around my hand for a few minutes. I was truly overwhelmed and when I looked down at Nowi, he was looking the other way as if embarrassed to show this gentle side of himself. He was a tough, hard dog in a world that was hard. I cupped his face in my hands and respectfully asked if he would come and live with me. When it came time to go, the fellow was worried that Nowi might not get into the car but he hopped straight in and sat at the window, drinking in the sights and smells for the rest of the trip back to the farm. The trip was surreal and I could sense the love in this beautiful, majestic dog, and his total acceptance of me and the strange things that were happening to him. I had the most profound sense of something that was destined.
We finally arrived at the farm and there were still more obstacles to contend with. My husband was terrified of dogs. I spoke to several breeders about this problem prior and they all said the same thing, to trust in the maremma. They were right! When Nowi stepped out of the car, he stood quietly when I told my husband to go over to him. With great trepidation he walked up to him and Nowi stood quietly allowing my husband time to cope with his fear. Then they walked together to the pen. By the next day, my husband was in the pen with Nowi and they were sharing special moments together and it was all to Nowi's credit and empathy.
Nowi was too thin so I took him to the vet the following day on Sunday. He has wonderful teeth and appears to have no obvious issues. We were advised to get some weight on him and bring him back for blood tests in a few weeks once his weight had improved. he was only 22kg.
The next obstacle was to introduce Nowi to the alpaca herd. They had been massacred by predator dogs a week ago so it was going to be a massive leap of faith for them to accept a dog. We took Nowi for walks around the farm, staying away from the alpacas but being in their range of view. Naturally they screamed, terrified for the first couple of days but Nowi quietly walked with us. His pen was placed between both herds so they could see him at any time, day or night but we knew it would be a slow process.
He didn't utter a sound through the first week and I was concerned at his silence. People suggested that this was normal and that he was assessing his new environment. We obviously had at least one predator pack stalking. All that changed six nights later when he started to bark. I patrolled many times that night on account of Nowi's barks. It was continuous and at some stages, menacing. I could tell he meant business and he was angry. There was no placating him that night right through till daybreak. I'm certain he sent the predators packing with his barks. The following day we found a young male dog caught in one of the traps. It had the body of a dingo and strong german sherpherd markings on his head and down his back. I'm certain that they took the detour and tried to come in from the back end of the paddock because of Nowi. The CCTV camera also showed that we were dealing with at two packs and I realised that we would need a second maremma.
In the meantime, I went in search. There were many different opinions under discussion but the consensus was to get a female companion. I found an interesting female, 12m old and needing a more room to run. Apparently she barked alot so her owner felt she would be better on acreage. I arranged a pet taxi from Toowoomba to meet me in Brisbane. She came with her own bed, toys, and blankey, a vast contrast to dear Nowi. She sat quietly in the car on the two hour trip and we arrived after 9.00pm and I placed her in the pen next to Nowi. Unlike Nowi, she was nervous and it took a couple of days for her to gain confidence. We took them for walks together and she pulled at the lead, gasping in her excitement to run.
After a week, she decided that she loved alpaca middens (poo piles) and gleefully rolled in them every time she went out into a paddock. She even ate a little bit every day. Meanwhile Nowi was a calming influence on her and she played while he investigated and scented each area but she watched and sat nearby while he patrolled each paddock. I wondered when she might calm down with her high energy and dizzy running around.
After two weeks, the epiphanic moment arrived late on the Sunday afternoon. The alpacas came up to the pen for the first time and Miley sat quietly near the side to watch them.
Miley's one problem was that she enjoyed plucking the hens so we built a pallet fence extension so they could duck in to safety whenever she came by.
So after a month since Nowi's arrival and three weeks since Miley arrived, things quietened down. Nowi's barking nights are intermittent and Miley rarely barked because that's Nowi's job. The addition of the maremmas has been a good thing. Some nights are sleepless. Miley has taken over barking duties and is vigilant. She stays on alert at all times. Nowi patrols and quietly goes about his business, searching the gullies and strategically scenting the farm. He does the heavy lifting and Miley stays on alert if he needs her.
On Saturday 27 February 2016, Miley had eight beautiful pups. I decided to keep the last two, Zena and Banjo. At six weeks, Miley started to teach them to patrol the paddocks. At eight weeks, two females, Max and Frankie went to their new home on the Gold Coast to look after free ranging chickens. Kipling went to a local alpaca farm. At seven weeks, Jupiter went to Gatton to accompany their other maremma and guard sheep. At ten weeks, Princess Poppy went to a neighbouring farm to be a companion guardian and will look after a pet goat and later chickens. Archie went off to be an alpaca guardian at Wolvi. At ten weeks, Zena and Banjo started lead training.
» For more useful information about maremmas, see http://www.maremmano.com/index.htm