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Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes

An article from June 10, 2003 by Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News.

Llamas instinctively guard against canine attacks, possibly because their natural herd instincts have wired them to chase off predators.

Photograph copyright Robert B. Stark, Haleakala Llamas and Rising Sun Fibers

Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
June 10, 2003

On the edges of a sheep farm, a coyote lurks, licking his chops. Suddenly, the sheep's guardian lets out a strange cry that sounds like a rusty hinge and charges the fence. What's this fleecy shepherd raising the alarm? A llama, better known as a pack animal and source of meat and wool in the Andes and plains of southern South America.

"Any place where a coyote could come in, people are starting to use llamas," said William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University. This method of protecting sheep seems to have a wide appeal as a non-lethal way to ward off predators. "It makes the wildlife biologists happy because it's a balance of nature," he said.

Franklin has surveyed ranchers using llamas to protect sheep, and found that llamas seem to be earning their keep. More than half of the llama owners he contacted reported 100 percent reduction in their predator losses after employing the animal as a guard.

The majority of guard llamas in the U.S. are patrolling Western ranches. But with larger predators like coyotes moving eastward, more flock owners might be interested in llamas as guardians.

South America's Camel Family

Llamas come from a family of four-footed animals called camelids, which also include alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos. They are thought to share a common ancestor with the camels and dromedaries of Africa and Asia.

Llamas were first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in the Peruvian highlands. Early South American cultures bred them for size and endurance. Alpacas were selected for their fine fibers, which could be woven into textiles.

When the Spanish brought in new types of livestock, the llama faded into obscurity, surviving only in the highest mountains. People hunted wild vicuña and guanaco nearly to extinction. Only recently has interest renewed in preserving these wild camelids and their domesticated relatives.

Franklin began his foray into the camelid world through his studies of vicuñas and guanacos of South America two decades ago. He noticed that wild vicuñas could be very aggressive toward dogs.

"They would follow them, they would chase them, they would even kick at them sometimes," Franklin said. At one time, it is thought, members of the dog family may have been major predators of camelids, so the llama's fierce response to them may have become instinctive.

Llamas react to canids threatening herds in a variety of ways, starting with a posture to alert others in the herd, then sounding a special alarm cry, and often running towards the threat, kicking and placing themselves between it and the herd. Dogs and coyotes have been injured and even killed by llamas.

Farmers who pastured llamas with sheep discovered that fewer sheep were lost to coyotes. Observation soon revealed the llamas' defensive behavior in the face of predators.

Franklin got wind of scattered groups of U.S. ranchers using llamas to protect their flocks. "It made a lot of sense," he said. "It kind of caught on and spread by word of mouth. People tried it and it worked," he said.

Llamas are being used to guard a range of domestic animals from cattle to poultry. "What's intriguing to me about what people are doing with llamas is that people use them for so many things," Franklin said.

Franklin said that South Americans think using llamas to guard livestock is crazy.

But it seems to be working. Nearly 80 percent of the sheep ranchers Franklin surveyed were "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with the guard llamas they used to protect their sheep. Average sheep losses dropped from 26 sheep per year to 8 sheep per year when guard llamas were put into place.

Franklin, who has kept his own llamas, cautions that while the animals may be extremely successful, not every situation—or every llama—will work. "It's not like a magic wand," he said.

Llama Breeders

Dan and Dale Goodyear run Berry Acres Llamas, a llama farm in Robesonia, Pennsylvania. In 1988, Dan Goodyear suffered a serious spinal cord injury that left the couple searching for new activities to replace their active hobbies. They found llamas.

Now the couple travels to shows across the country with their llamas, as well as breeding animals for other llama lovers.

Llamas, which have been used as therapy animals at hospitals, might seem unlikely candidates for security jobs. "When their mind is set, they seem to be fearless," said Dan Goodyear. "The llama is a natural guardian. They're herd animals, so they're very aware of distractions."

Each state and area can have different regulations for those who keep llamas. Camelids are considered livestock animals, just like cattle and sheep.

Llamas, however, may be easier to care for than some other four-footed farm animals. Harry Mollin, who raises llamas at Shangrila Farm in Callaway, Virginia, said that llamas are much more efficient in terms of feeding than other livestock. Llama droppings can also be used as high-quality compost, he said.

These llama farms are two of hundreds of llama breeders in the U.S. Sheila Fugina, president of the Oregon-based Llama Association of North America (LANA), estimates that their group has several hundred members across the country.

LANA, founded in 1981, is a resource for llama owners, providing information about many of the animal's uses. Many, like Fugina, are especially interested in spinning and felting the llama's fine fiber. Others use llamas as pack animals, guardians, or family pets.

All of these uses for llamas fit into the animals' temperament, said Fugina, who also raises llamas at Shady Ridge Farm in Wisconsin. "Llamas like to have a job."

One of LANA's programs is the Llama Lifeline, which rescues llamas from difficult situations and tries to find them good homes. Recently, LANA put a large group of llamas from California with a herder in Texas. The llama guardians were so successful at their job that the rancher's grandson contacted LANA a year later, to learn how he could incorporate llamas into his own ranch.

Llamas seem to be doing well at their work, but the idea hasn't totally caught on. "I think that a lot of people who are raising livestock aren't really aware of llamas as guardians," Fugina said.


Guard Llamas

by Dr. William L. Franklin and Kelly J. Powell

Iowa State University   June 1993

A Research Report funded in part by Rocky Mountain Llama & Alpaca Association
Reprinted from RMLA newsletter

Guard llamas offer a viable, nonlethal alternative for reducing predation, while requiring no training and little care.

Coyote predation is a serious problem for the sheep industry. The traditional approach to controlling predator losses has been to trap and poison coyotes. During this study, 145 sheep producers using guard llamas were interviewed to determine characteristics of the guard llamas and husbandry practices. Some of the results include:

Most introductions require only a few days or less for the sheep and llama to adjust to each other.

The average ranch uses one gelded male llama pastured with 250 to 300 sheep in 250 to 300 acres.

Sheep and lamb losses averaged 26 head per year (11% of the flock) before using guard llamas and 8 head per year (1% of the flock) after.

More than half of guard llama owners report 100 percent reduction in predator losses.

Llamas are introduced to sheep and pastured with sheep under a variety of situations, few of which affect the number of sheep lost to predators.

Multiple guard llamas are not as effective as one llama
Ranchers report an average annual savings of $1,034 and 86% say they would recommend guard llamas to others.

Protectiveness of sheep and easy maintenance are the two most commonly cited advantages.

Problems encountered include aggressiveness and attempted breeding of ewes, overprotection of flock, and sheep interference with llama feeding.

Overall, llamas are effective guards with high sheep producer satisfaction.


Although questions remain to be answered, guard llamas are a viable, non-lethal alternative for reducing predation, requiring no training and little care.

Coyote predation on sheep

Make no mistake about it: coyotes kill sheep. In fact, predation is a leading cause of sheep mortality and represents a serious problem for the sheep industry. Sheep losses due to predation in the United States were more than $83 million in 1987, up from $72 million in 1986 and $69 million in 1985. The losses in 1987 represent 5 percent of the total sheep population in the United States. Lambs are particularly vulnerable. Lamb losses from predation average 9 percent and vary from 3 percent to 14 percent of the lambs.

Sheep are found in every state of the union, and losses due to predation vary. In Iowa, the state with the largest number of sheep operations, intensive field studies revealed that 41 percent of all sheep losses were from canine predators (coyotes and dogs). Sheep scientist Clair Terrill calculated economic losses due to predation. In Texas, the state with the largest number of sheep, predation was responsible for 14 percent to 69 percent of all sheep losses. Texas also led the nation in economic loss due to predation on sheep ($12 million) followed by California ($9 million), Wyoming ($7 million), Iowa ($6 million), Utah ($6 million), and Colorado ($5 million).

For an industry operating on a low profit margin, losses due to predation have resulted not only in reduced revenue for the producer, but also in higher prices paid by the consumer for meat and wool products. Predation is a real problem with a major impact on the sheep industry.

Guard animals

Recently, the search for a simple, non-lethal technique to prevent coyote predation has led to the experimental and field use of guard animals. The ideal guard animal should protect sheep against coyote predation while requiring minimal training, care, and maintenance. It should stay with and not disrupt the flock, and live long enough to be cost effective. A variety of guard animals currently in use includes dogs, donkeys, kangaroos, ostriches, and llamas. Of these, guard dogs are by far the most common.

During the past decade and a half, with the birth and growth of the llama industry in North America, llamas were occasionally pastured with sheep. To the surprise of owners, they noticed fewer sheep were being lost to coyotes. As the word spread, producers started experimenting with guard llamas. Today, their use in North America is on the increase, but guard llamas still number only in the hundreds.

Did sheep losses decline?

Before producers obtained their guard llamas, they had been losing an average of 26 sheep per year to predation, or about 11 percent of their flocks. After obtaining their llamas, the producers' losses dropped significantly to an average of 8 head per year, or about 1 percent; half of the producers had their losses reduced to zero. Eighty percent of the producers rate their guard llama's ability to reduce predation losses of their sheep as "very effective" or "effective."

Owner satisfaction, cost and savings

Nearly 80% of the sheep producers reported that they are either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their guard llamas. Predator control and easy maintenance are cited as the top benefits. Two-thirds of the producers report no disadvantages with their guard llamas, and 85 percent indicate they would recommend guard llamas to others.

Some producers report no savings by having a guard llama, while one purebred producer saves an average of $20,000 per year. An average annual savings of $1,034 was reported by 86 producers.

....Futher topics covered in the brochure are.....

Reducing coyote predation
Traditional approaches
Non-lethal approaches
Introduction of llamas to sheep
Do guard llamas really work?
Current use of guard llamas
How and why do llamas protect sheep?
What works best?
Cautions and problems
Guard llamas vs. guard dogs
Not a panacea

This brochure entitled "Guard Llamas", is a 12 page study on the subject of "Do Guard Llamas really work?", published by Iowa State University.

Copies may* be available from:

                                Extension Distribution Center

                                119 Printing & Publications Bldg.

                                Iowa State University

                                Ames, IA  50011 

Phone:  515-294-5247  

     *Please note this was published in June, 1993


A Match Made In Heaven

A true story...a llama guarding sheep


One day I had a call from a 70-year-old lady who lives on a sheep ranch. She said that there are two things she has always wanted ... a 4-wheel drive pick-up and a llama. Her husband said that was nonsense because they didn't need either. He died 6 months ago and now she has a Ford 4-wheel drive pick-up and was on the phone pricing out a llama.

Meka was not a show llama, nor friendly, nor woolly. In fact, he didn't get along with people or other llamas. The other boys in the field would pick on him and he always lost. He was definitely low man on the totem pole. He needed a new home.

I delivered Meka to the sheep ranch with the elderly lady with the pick-up truck late one evening. She was excited and her daughter and grandchildren were there for the big event. They tried to pet him, but Meka, being Meka, just danced away from them at the end of a firmly held lead. I released him into a corral where the sheep had been herded for the night. Coyotes are an ever present threat to sheep in the high mountains of Colorado.

Would he spook the sheep or would the sheep spook him? Maybe Meka would jump the fence and if so, this trip would be a waste. Meka was mildly curious and the sheep were mildly cautious. So far it looked promising. The plan was for Meka to spend the night in the corral, then be released the next morning with the sheep into an 80-acre pasture. I left with my fingers crossed.

That was two years ago. The lady with her 4-wheel drive pick-up and a guard llama are doing well. She has not lost any of her flock to coyotes now that Meka is on the job. The pasture fence is along a major highway and he keeps his flock safely away from the fence. If a perceived threat approaches (stray dog, coyote, etc.), he will position himself between the intruder and his herd.

Every night, when the lady comes out at 7:00 p.m. to open the gate to the corral, Meka will herd the sheep in. He's become her only ranch hand, a friend, and a guard llama with a purpose.

Llamas have a strong herd instinct and they like being with others of their own species. After being taken from their llama herd and placed with the sheep, they will adopt the sheep as their new herd. Being the largest of that new herd, they become dominant and protective. This protective instinct really kicks in at lambing. The llamas will eat the same forage as the sheep do. If the sheep are wormed or vaccinated, be sure to include the llama.

Research has shown us that llamas are effective at guarding sheep 95% of the time. Losses due to coyote or dogs dropped to zero on half of the sheep ranches with llamas. I feel that the llamas should be a castrated male at least 2-1/2 years old. Younger males will work as well but it may take them longer to become fully effective. Llamas suitable for guarding may be purchased for $500 to $1,200 (or less).