Livestock guardian dogs traditionally used to protect herd animals from predators are now also being hailed as a way to conserve the animals they are trained to scare off
WOLVES were once common in Portugal. As in other parts of Europe, they have been persecuted almost out of existence, with their range reduced by 80 per cent and numbers down to just 300 or so. Even now, when it is illegal to kill wolves, farmers still poison or shoot them to protect livestock.
Biologist Silvia Ribeiro is on a mission to change that. To help farmers coexist peacefully with wolves, she uses an ally from the past: livestock guardian dogs. For millennia, these dogs worked alongside shepherds to protect herds against wolves and bears that roamed in many regions of Europe and Asia. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, when such predators were largely exterminated, most guardian dogs lost their jobs and the breeds nearly went extinct. In the past 25 years, Ribeiro brought back four of them, placing 675 pups with herds of goats, sheep and cattle. The aim isn’t simply to protect livestock, but to conserve wolves too.
Ribeiro’s work is part of a much bigger trend. Around the world, as the rewilding movement grows and predators return to or expand their ranges, guardian dogs are enjoying an unexpected revival. They are even being put to new uses, such as guarding penguins and marsupials in Australia. To increase the success of this venture, Ribeiro and other scientists are rediscovering what it takes to make a good guardian dog. But they also want to know whether they really can change how farmers perceive predators, reducing livestock deaths and averting revenge killings – and whether using them …