By Guest Blogger: Louise Liebenberg
We, Eric Verstappen and Louise Liebenberg are practicing predator friendly ranching methods on our sheep ranch the “Grazerie” in High Prairie, Ab. Being “Predator Friendly” does not mean that we are some tree hugging, bunny loving, animal rights fanatics. It goes beyond that, it is about responsibility, wildlife stewardship, biodiversity and simply about sharing the land with the wildlife that inhabits this country.
We own 480 acres of our own land and then rent additional pasture and hay land. Our ranch is at the end of a gravel road and on a dead end road. We are surrounded by bush and forest, and are close to the Winagami Provincial Park. Our land is only half open and the rest is bush. We have, at the moment about 700 ewes, and want to grow to about 1000 ewes. During the summer months we let the ewes graze in the bush. We have 50 red and black Angus cattle. We run between 8 and 10 Sarplaninac livestock guardian dogs and have border collies to do the stock work for us. We also have some chickens for eggs, a few cats and some horses.
To us, being predator friendly is about finding ways to be able to ranch and co-exist with our wild neighbours. It is about finding a balance between ranching and sustainable conservation. We respect wildlife and understand the need to share the land. We realise the importance of all species, particularly the role that keystone predators play in the environment; wolves keep elk populations moving and healthy, coyotes play an important role in rodent control and other top predators are influential in preserving riparian areas, grasslands and other ecosystems, which, in turn impacts songbirds, beavers and insects. This interconnectedness is what drives us to ranch in a manner that allows for co-existence and I must admit my heart always beats a bit quicker when we see a wolf crossing our ranch, a bear with her babies or watching the coyotes hunting for mice.
For us, and a growing number of ranchers, we recognize that conventional “lethal” control is not sustainable nor is it efficient, more and more ranchers are looking for alternative ways to ranch with predators.
Good livestock management is the key to being able to ranch with wolves, bears, cougars, coyotes or even with cheetahs, elephants and snow leopards in other continents.
We utilise various approaches to persuade predators to go elsewhere, some examples of this would be the use of guardian dogs, herding dogs, fencing, corralling, and protecting the young or weak animals. We are constantly looking for new ways to reduce conflict with predators. We are proactive in reading new research, trying different approaches and progressive in the implementation of better management practices.
Our guardian dogs, are probably the most effective “tool” we utilise to protect our flock. The guardian dogs live 24/7/365 in with the stock. These are formidable dogs. I would not say that our dogs are “predator friendly”, given the chance they would probably want to kill a coyote. Understanding what these dogs do and how they do this is and the effects it has on the choices those predators make, is essential to being able to ranch this way. Don’t get me wrong, we do not want our dogs brawling with the predators, their primary job is to try to encourage the predators to go on past our ranch. The dogs make it clear that catching a lamb in their pasture in their territory, is a high risk endeavor. To most predators this is just too difficult, and they run the risk of being seriously injured. A serious injury for a wild animal has often deadly consequences for that animal. It is about choices that the predator makes, if he is out looking for an easy meal then that’s not what he will find at our ranch as our sheep are guarded by large strong dogs, it will have to negotiate fences, sometimes electric fences, will need to hunt in daylight as our animals are corralled at night, they will have to risk as seeing them (they do not know we don’t own a gun..) etc. The risks of catching a lamb here is high and that meal is just not so easy anymore.
We are the first Canadian ranch to be certified under the Predator Friendly ® label and we are proud of this.
As a result of this certification we could now market our lamb meat under this Certified Predator Friendly® label. We would like consumers to be aware that certain ranchers do find ways to produce beef or lamb (and other products such as honey) without having a negative impact on the native wildlife in the region. A producer’s decision to reduce conflict with predators often leads to a range of successful husbandry techniques and the use of adaptive management practices.
Considering that even organic certification and other sustainable forms of agriculture generally overlook predator-friendly practices. Organic programs do nominally include biodiversity conservation practices however these are rarely monitored or enforced. By this certification we would like to provoke consumers to consider the impact of their food choices on native wildlife. Often people do not stand still that their honey, lamb and beef was produced also at the expense of the lives of local wildlife and often at the expense of the tax payer. Many do not realise that, indirectly through taxes, they pay towards bounty programs and similar extermination programs. Many ranchers (not all) feel that it is the government’s responsibility to solve their predation problems; they feel they have the right to be able to ranch without the threat of predation. I believe that ranchers have a responsibility to protect their stock; but not at the expense of the wildlife or tax payer. It requires work, management and costs but most of all, it requires a desire and drive to want to do things differently.
As the Predator Friendly organization is in the process of merging with the more international Wildlife Friendly organization, the Grazerie will soon also be applying for certification under this global organization.
All photos are courtesy of Louise Liebenberg.