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Using dogs to create a “landscape of fear” could help predators and livestock live together

DAILY SCIENCE

Using dogs to create a “landscape of fear” could help livestock and wild predators coexist

A study of Maremma sheepdogs in Australia found they kept predatory foxes on the move, but still able to use habitat.
March 13, 2024

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Red foxes and Maremma sheepdogs might be distant cousins by genetics. But out in the pastures, they are mortal enemies.

Originally bred centuries ago in central Italy to help shepherds keep wolves away from their flocks, the use of white-furred Maremmas has declined as predators have vanished and livestock owners have turned to more modern solutions – guns and poisons—to fend off the ones that remain.

But these sheepdogs, it turns out, have advantages that could make them an effective and more ecologically sound option, deterring foxes from attacking sheep while still leaving room for wild predators to roam.

New research in Australia “shows that guardian dogs make it possible for livestock and wild predators to share the same landscapes without conflict,” said University of Tasmania ecologist Christopher Johnson.

The potential for using one predator to scare off other predators is centuries old, as the origins of the Maremma dogs illustrates. Similar dynamics are seen in the wild, where dominant predators such as lions can scare away smaller animals that might compete for prey.

 

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But, at least in the case of guard dogs and red foxes, the exact dynamics weren’t clear. And those details matter. If the guard dogs were turning their entire territory into no-go zones for red foxes, that would mean a potentially large loss of habitat for a wild predator. If, on the other hand, the dogs altered fox behavior in a way that reduced sheep attacks while still enabling the foxes and dogs to coexist, the effect could be more subtle and, from the perspective of the foxes, less problematic.

To better understand this interplay, Johnson and colleagues visited sheep flocks in southern Australia armed with GPS-equipped collars, sensor-detecting cameras, and a lot of raw chicken necks.

The GPS trackers went on a handful of Maremmas assigned to guard sheep—1,000 merino sheep on one ranch, and 6,000 animals on another. The cameras were set up around the ranch properties where the sheep roamed, as well as on two other ranches without guard dogs that relied on more conventional measures to combat foxes such as fences and poison baits.  The chicken necks, meanwhile, were buried around the various ranches in shin deep holes with cameras trained on them. Each hole contained seven chicken necks—which red foxes apparently love—each buried at a different depth.  

By combining the dogs’ satellite-tracked movements and the foxes’ whereabouts captured on camera, the researchers were able to see how much the two overlapped. The results showed that while foxes made themselves scarcer when dogs were present, they didn’t vanish altogether.

As the number of days in which dogs appeared on a camera or where GPS showed they passed nearby rose from 0 to more than 20, the probability that a fox would show up on that same camera fell by more than half. Even five days of dog presence translated to a roughly 25% drop in the likelihood of a fox showing up at the same camera on one farm, the researchers reported in February in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

The chicken test, meanwhile, revealed that if the dogs didn’t need to confront the foxes directly to make the smaller animals less likely to sink their teeth into something. In places that dogs frequented more often, the foxes were more skittish and unwilling to dig as deep into the hole to extract more chicken necks.

The findings suggest that, in the evocative language of this scientific field, the dogs had created a “landscape of fear” in which the foxes were more jumpy and less reluctant to engage in hunting behavior that made them more vulnerable.

“This shows that we can use these dogs to help us manage the impact of predators in many different situations,” said Linda van Bommel, an ecologist associated with the University of Tasmania and the Australian National University to worked on the study. “By protecting livestock, [guard dogs] can help mitigate conflict between farmers and predators, offering a humane and effective alternative to lethal control methods.”

The approach could also provide biodiversity benefits. Other wildlife that might be preyed on by foxes—such as ground-dwelling birds—could fall under the protective shield of the dogs, the researchers note.

And while red foxes are an invasive species in Australia, similar dynamics might benefit native predators in other places. In places such as Portugal, people have begun promoting guard dogs as a way to try to reduce conflicts between ranchers and endangered wolves.

It’s an unusual twist that adding more fanged creatures onto the landscape might benefit both predators and some of their prey.

van Bommel, et. al. “Livestock guardian dogs establish a landscape of fear for wild predators: Implications for the role of guardian dogs in reducing human–wildlife conflict and supporting biodiversity conservation.” Ecological Solutions and Evidence. Feb. 19, 2024.

Photo: Maremma Sheepdog

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