Portuguese livestock farmers once again using dogs to protect their goats and sheep from Iberian wolves, a practice that fell out of practice in the past century. Rare herding dogs are being employed as part of an innovative program aimed at protecting both the endangered wolves and the livelihoods of farmers raising flocks in the hills.
For centuries the guard dogs worked alongside farmers in the mountains, until they fell out of favor when shooting and poisoning came to be seen as a quicker and easier method of curbing wolf attacks. For the wolf conservation organization, Grupo Lobo, turning back the clock may result in a "win-win-win" situation - for dogs, farmers and wolves.
Despite the country-wide ban on killing or harming wolves since 1988, farmers still employ these extermination methods illegally from time to time. To ensure the survival of the 300 or so Iberian wolves remaining in the wild, Grupo Lobo came up with idea to revive the old guard dog breeds. "We are encouraging farmers to use traditional livestock guarding dogs once again, not only to cut down on livestock attacks which will help farmers tolerate the wolf more, but also to bring these traditional Portuguese dog breeds back from the brink," explains Silvia Ribeiro, a biologist with the conservation project.
Breeds such as the Cao de Castro Laboreiro, Cao da Serra de Estrela and Cao de Gado Transmontano were highly valued in the past for their protective instinct and innate ability to bond strongly with the animals under their care. The dogs were known to fiercely protect the flocks under their care and chase off attacking wolves. These dogs were known to known to stand between the flock and the wolf, barking and chasing a wolf away.
The dogs bond so strongly with the flock under their care that biologists at Grupo Lobo have observed female dogs that have abandoned their own puppies to suckle new-born goats. "Their behaviour is quite unlike that of herding dogs. It is part of their character and breeding to bond with and protect their flock fiercely," Ribeiro says. "They are always actively on the look-out, sniffing for signs of trouble and watching for livestock in distress."
For livestock farmers such as Alfredo Goncalves, who farms 450 goats on the edge of Peneda-Geres National Park, having one of the dogs is proving effective for him. He says he is happy to live alongside the wolves but their attacks have a serious impact on farmers livelihood. His small monthly income of approximately 500 euros ($658 dollars) depends largely on selling the goats' kids for meat.
He says he loses about 80 goats per year to wolves. When he loses a goat to a wolf attack, he says: "Government inspectors come and evaluate any kills and we are paid for our lost livestock, but often it can take one to two years and that is a long time to wait, especially in this economic climate." To help cut down on wolf attacks on his herd, Grupo Lobo gave him a two-month-old Castro Laboreiro dog called Tija. That was 18 months ago. Tija now lives with Alfredo's goats in a compound at night and stays with the flock while grazing in the mountains each day.
Tija is a surprisingly gentle and friendly dog, and is clearly valued by Alfredo: "In each wolf attack, we usually lose one or two goats," he says. "Sometimes, when the flock is grazing and small groups stray and wolves attack, we can lose 10 or more animals. It is devastating. But since the arrival of Tija, goat killings are down by a quarter." Tija has proven so effective, Alfredo has requested a second dog from Grupo Lupo. To provide full protection for a flock of 500 animals, three or four guarding dogs are needed.
Farmers that participate in the project are given dogs for free, but have a strict contract that calls for the farmer to train, care and use the dog for the purposes of guarding their livestock, and must allow Grupo Lobo to check on the dog's welfare regularly. So far, 300 dogs have been placed with 170 livestock breeders. Some farmers have been reluctant to take on the new dogs and all the costs and effort involved. Ribeiro admits: "It hasn't been plain sailing getting farmers on board. They are still having to adapt to the Iberian wolf as a protected species." The mindset is difficult to conquer. But hopefully dogs like Tija will convince farmers that man and wolf can co-exist together, with a little help from "man's best friend".
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