Livestock Guardian Dogs Have Frequent Interactions With Wolves In French Alps
Hands down the single most important paper published thusfar on livestock guardian dog (LGD) interactions with wolves was just released in the Journal of Vertebrate Biology’s special issue on dogs and conservation. The paper, “Interactions between livestock guardian dogs and wolves in the southern French Alps” is from the research team led by Jean-Marc Landry.
The Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in southeastern France is the setting for the core of most conflicts between wolves and domestic sheep. The region is a stronghold for wolves, amid an inventory of 786,000 sheep.
Wolf depredation on sheep is a serious problem in the French Alps, even though the use of LGDs is widespread. Landry’s team adopted a novel approach to detecting interactions between LGDs and wolves, using thermal imaging equipment to detect and record nighttime interactions that occurred near sheep flocks during a five-year period. Landry’s CanOvis Project images are the first of their kind for understanding interactions between the warring brothers.
The recordings provide vast improvements to the knowledge that pastoralists have gained by trying to piece together information in the daylight hours after a wolf event occurring under the veil of darkness, and reinforces some of the observations of pastoralists who manage flocks and LGDs in the presence of wolves. One of those observations is the frequency of LGD-wolf interactions in areas where the species share the same range. The authors wrote “direct and indirect interactions between livestock guarding dogs and wolves were frequent at our study sites.”
Between 2013 and 2018, Landry’s team detected 530 nocturnal wolf events around the sheep flocks, with LGDs present during 90% of the events. Interestingly, wolves showed an interest toward the pastoral system in 54% of the events, representing 74% of the LGD-wolf interactions recorded. The remaining 46% of the time, wolves were present, but without indicating an interest in the pastoral system. According to the paper, “These types of wolf events could still trigger a response from the LGDs and accounted for 26% of the total LGD-wolf interactions.”
The Landry team categorized 175 LGD responses to wolf events, with agonistic behaviors (from pursuit to fighting) accounting for the greatest frequency of response (65.7%), another 25% searching for wolves, about 6% vocalizing, and 3.3% non-belligerent.
“In the majority of LGD-wolf interactions (74%), LGDs faced a single (56%) or two wolves (18%) and in only three cases (<2%) did LGDs have to face a maximum of seven wolves,” according to the paper.
But physical fights between LGDs and wolves involved significantly more LGDs and more wolves, according to the Landry paper, with an average of about 7 LGDs and 5 wolves per event, (including one involving 7 wolves and 13 LGDs!). Physical fights with wolves occurred in 9 different cases, with no LGDs wounded in these recorded events, although two sheep farmers in the same region reported three other LGDs killed by wolves during the study.
In the presence of LGDs, wolves approached sheep flocks 134 times, but resulting in no attack 65% of the time as the wolves retreated. The paper noted: “The fact that we recorded so many wolf events strongly suggests that wolves are ubiquitous in the pastoral system and that livestock guarding dogs, sheep flocks and wolves share a common living space where their activities overlap.”
The Landry team suggests that there are three variables that appeared to decrease the risk of wolf depredation: the gregariousness of the sheep, the presence of LGDs, and “the ability of the dogs to interact with wolves.”
That third variable is an important one. “Far less predation occurred where there were more interactions between wolves and the dogs,” and the presence of LGDs decreased predation risk, “even if it was not always sufficient to avoid an attack or a kill.”
The study found that LGDs-wolf interactions frequently occurred at some distance from the flock (more than 300 meters, or about 1/5th of a mile), with the dogs serving to enforce a buffer zone around the flock. When wolves were able to approach the flock, almost three of 10 attacks were in favor of the wolves. “These results suggest that once the wolves are close to the flock, it is very hard for the dogs to protect all the sheep: wolves either disturbed the flock or wounded or killed at least one individual.”
The researchers suggest that a LGD group should consist of dogs that remain the immediate vicinity of the flock to prevent direct interactions between wolves and the flock, and dogs that move in a wider radius around the flock. “Better sheep protections at our study sites thus relies in part on maintaining a buffer zone that will require wolves to confront livestock guarding dogs on two different occasions before being able to reach the flock,” according to the paper.
Lastly, the researchers concluded, “Our results indicate that interactions between livestock guarding dogs and wolves are made up of a complex suite of behaviors that are not yet fully understood. The main challenge in understanding these interactions is that many components are likely to play a role in the process and its outcome, from ecological mechanisms (e.g. habitat structure, dog/wolf pack constitution) to behavioral (e.g. dogs’ and wolves’ behavior and personalities, flock response to the canids’ behavior) and socio-historical aspects (e.g. livestock husbandry practices and farmers’ experiences in a given region.”
Although the authors caution that their results are limited to the situation inside their southern French Alps study area, what is striking to this sheep producer is how the Landry team’s results align with our own experiences in western Wyoming’s southern Wind River Mountains.
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