Yes. Coyote, wolves, bears, mountain lions, foxes, eagles, hawks, wild pigs, dogs, feral cats, and ravens kill lambs, sheep, kids, goats, calves, foals and other livestock. The losses can be substantial. In some ranch areas, losses to predators, primarily from coyote, but also from wolves, bears, mountain lions, lynx, bobcats, wolverines, eagles, and hawks are often the difference between profit and serious losses for sheep raisers. Now that coyote have spread throughout all 48 lower states, Canada and Mexico, farm flocks, including flocks in semi-rural areas, are beginning to suffer significant predation losses from coyote. Predator statistics are available to document the damage in some areas, and there are procedures to evaluate the predation on livestock and wildlife. Because large predators like bears and wolves can carry off their prey and consume prey without leaving evidence, official statistics may not reveal the full extent of losses to predators.
This FAQ is written primarily for small producers and hobby farms. I am not anti-coyote or anti-wolf or anti- any other predator. In the wild, many of these predators are beautiful and intelligent animals. The coyote and fox are valuable as a control on rodents, and wolves may help control excess deer. But as a sheep farmer, I have seen a coyote kill and disembowel a lamb. I have suffered the loss in income and the personal sense of violation when a coyote has taken bottle-fed lambs. The small producer, in particular, can ill afford losses to predators.
One shepherd who raised Rambouillets in Eastern Washington wrote that predators `were not much of a problem unless the herder got drunk, the guard dog run off or the mice died off.' The purpose of this FAQ is to suggest ways to minimize or control those risks.
In some areas, especially South Africa, but also in
portions of the Western USA, stock theft (rustling) is so
extensive that farmers and ranchers are quitting livestock enterprises
to raise game or are going out of business. Solutions to this problem
are beyond the range of this FAQ, except to suggest
that sometimes the usual suspects are not the guilty predator.
Aren't many of these losses really from dogs or coydogs?
There is little evidence that coyote cross-breed with dogs in the wild. Dogs, wolves and coyote are genetically close, but for behavior reasons coyote × dog crosses are unlikely in the wild. Much damage attributed to coydogs is probably due to domestic and feral dogs.
It is usually not difficult to identify whether an attack was by dogs or coyote. The appearance of the coyote is distinctive, with a long snout, erect ears, and a bushy tail. Their fur and stature give them the appearance of being larger than they are; typically, a mature coyote weighs 9-16 kg. (20-35 lbs), with the males generally about 2 kg (4.5 lbs) larger than the females. Western coyote are generally smaller and reddish; the eastern coyote can be a slightly larger animal, and range from black to grey/brown to strawberry blond to white. There is some evidence of coyote crossing with red wolves, which may account for the larger size of the eastern coyote. Coyote are efficient predators. Eastern coyote usually hunt alone at night. They select their victims carefully, singling out a weak member of the flock, often a sheep with a limp or a lamb. They kill efficiently and eat selectively, making an almost surgical opening and taking innards first. In the case of small lambs, they will carry away the victim. Even if they return to an undisturbed carcass, they will remove flesh methodically. Western coyote, on open range, may hunt in packs, especially for deer or cattle.
By contrast, dogs frequently attack in packs, and whether single or in a pack, they tend to run through a flock, maiming as many animals as they can catch. Animals that are not maimed or killed may be in shock from being chased. Feral dogs can be vicious in their attacks, bringing down ponies, llamas and other pets.
If you see animals scouting your flock and are not
sure whether they are coyote or dogs, look for footprints or scat.
Dog footprints are round and all four claw marks are visible; coyote
tracks are distinctly oval and only the front two claw marks are
visible. Both coyote and dogs frequently defecate near a kill: dog
feces are essentially recycled Alpo; coyote scat is usually stringy
from undigested fur, bones, feathers, and vegetable matter, and
I found a dead sheep [calf, goat]; how do I identify the killer?
Predators have distinctive styles. It is worth examining the carcass, both to decide on future protective measures, and because you may in some instances be eligible for compensation. For ranchers suffering large-scale predation, there are systematic predation evaluation procedures.
Coyote kill by strangulation and/or by severing the jugular vein. They attack the throat just behind the jaw and ear, clamping down on the animal's windpipe, and leaving puncture wounds below the lower jaw. Bleeding from a severed jugular vein may be subdermal. A small coyote can kill a large sheep or calf, and the process is silent; the victim cannot bleat or make noise with its throat shut. Typically, the coyote will roam around the flock, waiting for a straggler or a lamb with insufficient flocking instinct, sometimes a large, strong lamb, that tries to run. Or coyote will wait by a calving cow and snatch the newborn calf before the cow is on her feet again. Western coyote, especially in northern areas where the stock are concentrated, will often attack calving cows in packs, and wait for the afterbirth in preference to the calves. Coyote will often drag a carcass to a quiet area, and follow a distinctive eating pattern. They make an almost surgical opening in the thorax, consuming the heart, lungs, liver, and internal organs, except the stomach. They sometimes return later to pick at bones or haunches.
Wolves are usually organized pack hunters, and may leave many dead. Unlike dogs, they usually eat what they kill. In a typical wolf attack on cattle, the first bites are at the base of the tail (the wolf grabs the vulva). The second and third bites are in the flanks, generally both sides. The wolves may begin eating the cow before it has bled to death. Wolves typically immobilize a horse by grabbing the ham string. Wolves have an uncanny ability to spot the slightest limp or other weakness when they are selecting prey. Two yearling wolves can bring down a large cow elk; even healthy domestic livestock is little challenge to a wolf. They can also clear high fences and may have little fear of guard dogs. Healthy wolves in the wild do not attack humans; there have been instances of wolves conditioned to humans attacking children or other vulnerable individuals.
Dogs typically will attack many victims in a flock. The characteristic bite marks are on the flanks, rear legs, backs, or rear ends of the animals. Sometimes a pack of dogs will concentrate on the head of a victim like a pony or llama. The victims often carry multiple wounds, and frequently no portion of the animal is eaten. Sheep have been known to die from exhaustion or shock after being chased by dogs. An attack by a juvenile coyote may resemble a dog attack. Because they are smaller and less experienced, juvenile coyote tend to grab anything they can get — a leg, a back end, even an ear — leaving behind a severely injured and traumatized victim.
A bear leaves distinctive tracks and scat, and will generally maul the entire carcass, peeling back the skin, and eating the meat. Tom Tomsa of the Pennsylvania Animal Damage Control says, `Basically, it looks like a truck ran over the sheep when a bear gets done with it.'
Bobcat kills have claw marks on the carcass and subcutaneous hemorrhaging. Mountain lion kills exhibit tooth punctures, usually about two inches apart, and claw marks on the neck or shoulders. Lion and bobcat kills are often dragged some distance from the point of attack and partially or completely covered with twigs, dirt, and leaves.
Feral cats take lambs as they are being born, sometimes damaging the ewe at the same time. They have been reported as a considerable problem in Australian flocks.
Eagle talons leave distinctive puncture marks. Unlike a bear kill, the skeleton is intact; the head and neck remain attached. An eagle will frequently feed on the brain of a kill, along with meat from other portions of the carcass. Turkey vultures and buzzards are sometimes seen near a freshly dead lamb, but they are carrion-eaters, not predators; their relatively weak beaks and lack of talons leaves them incapable of grasping and killing prey; keyhole-shaped wounds in the head of a lamb are characteristic of turkey vultures. Turkey vultures and other carrion-eating birds are protected by law, and for good reason: by consuming carrion they prevent the spread of disease. Ravens will peck the head of an animal, then gouge out the eyes, ultimately killing the animal by fracturing the skull. Magpies have also been known to peck at the back of a sheep, just ahead of the pelvis, until the body cavity is open. Black-headed buzzards peck the eyes out of nannies and ewes when they are kidding/lambing, steal the newborn, and return for the carrion when the ewe or nanny dies.
The danger in temperate farm areas seems to be greatest in the late spring and early summer, when coyote kit are big enough to need solid food, but too small to hunt on their own. The mother coyote will do whatever she needs to bring them food. If the supply of her usual food, rabbits and other small mammals, is limited, the coyote will go for lambs, kids, sheep, goats, and cats. Coyote are wily and strong enough to wait while a cow is calving and disembowel the newborn calf before the cow can get up, or in northern areas of the West, where stock are often concentrated, to wait for the afterbirth.
In heavy snow areas, such as northern Canada, the worst predator pressure may come in late January and February, when the mice and other small prey are under the snow cover. Coyote and wolves will then turn to livestock, not only sheep, calves, and deer, but cows, horses, and moose.
If there is any danger from predators in your area, you probably
cannot count on a seasonal pattern for protection. Predators will
hunt down livestock whenever their regular food supply is short. If
they acquire a taste for sheep or goats or chickens after discovering
that fences are easy to breach and penned livestock are easy to kill,
they will be back until the fences are secure enough to keep them out,
or you have guard animals to protect your
What do I do if I see a coyote (or a pack of dogs) chasing my sheep?
In most communities, the laws are clear on this situation. Whether the predator is a coyote, wolf, or a toy poodle from down the road, you have the right to shoot an animal that is chasing your stock in your pasture. It isn't fun to shoot a neighbor's pet dog, but once an animal gets a taste for sheep, or a passion for chasing sheep, you may find that you have no choice. Pet owners often won't believe their pets are instinctive predators. `Little Boopsy wouldn't chase sheep,' they will insist. `She's a _______ [pet, darling, sissy, sweetie].' Unless the owner agrees to keep the dog safely restrained, or you have dog-proof fences, you can be fairly sure the dog will be back.
Some flock owners have discovered that the only solution to dogs
in the pasture is to `shoot quick, bury deep, and don't talk'
rather than face the arguments, lawsuits, and retaliation of
unbelieving pet owners. Sometimes, a neighbor's dog can be trained
not to chase sheep or other livestock. Vigilance and a strong
deterrent, such as a few loads of .22 birdshot in the backside, seems
to be the most successful approach.
In many jurisdictions, you are entitled to compensation if your stock is killed or wounded by wild predators or dogs. In Connecticut, as one example, the state will compensate coyote losses if you can prove that you had adequate fencing in place, which they define as four-foot high woven-wire fencing in good condition, if you prove that the loss was greater than one hundred dollars, and if a wildlife agent certifies that it was a coyote kill. In some cases they will require a necropsy to determine that the animal did not die of natural causes. Local jurisdictions often have funds to compensate losses to dogs. Be prepared to document the value of the stock when you file a claim.
If you lose animals to predators, be careful in burying or
otherwise disposing of the remains. Some carrion-eaters are capable
of digging down several feet. Lime and stones on the remains before a
hole is filled in are a good idea. In the winter, in hard-frozen
ground, you may have to cover remains with heavy stones.
What kind of fence does it take to stop coyote and dogs?
Tall, strong, and without weak points. Coyote are smart and persistent. They can and will find the holes in a fence. They can jump a 48-inch fence. In one night they can dig under a fence in soils where you had a devilish time digging fence post holes. At seaside or lakeside pastures, they will swim around fences that end in deep water.
In most terrain, a good five-foot fence built of woven wire topped with several strands of barbed wire and with a strand of barbed wire at ground level will stop coyote. So will a well-built five-foot high high-tension electric fence. If dry soils mean you need alternating hot/ground wires, make sure the wire nearest the ground and the top wire are hot. To avoid sags and loose wire that a coyote can crawl under, you will need stout, well-set corner posts, and fences tensioned enough to remain taut in winter and summer. Be especially careful with gates; coyote will find an open gate or even a weak latch.
The most important step in building coyote-proof fences is to set the posts well. Posts that are not deep enough to hold up against wire tension or freezing will leave a fence vulnerable to sags. In stony soils, digging fence holes deep enough to go below the frost line can be a chore. Tractor-mounted augurs that are quick on some soils bog down or break shearpins at an intolerable rate on stony soils. Often the best solution is to hire a post-driver, or to use the bucket on a tractor or large loader as a hammer to drive the post. Filling the bucket with stone will make it more effective. A manual post-driver can be used to drive line posts.
On many farms where coyote-proof fencing of all of the pastures is
impractical, too expensive, or impossible to maintain, an alternate is
to provide a coyote-proof yard where the animals can be penned at
night and where the most vulnerable animals, such as lambs, can be
confined. Lights may help deter coyote, although coyote have been
known to sneak into a well-lighted barnyard.
Is there a way to make old fences coyote-proof?
Some farms have had success with electric scare wires built outside existing fences. Coyote explore with their noses close to the ground, and will approach a fence at ground height. Installing an electric scare wire eight inches off the ground, and perhaps another wire or two at the height of the fence, just outside an existing fence, may deter predators. For a stone wall or low woven-wire fence, you can install one or two hot wires and one grounded wire over the existing fence or wall. In some instances terrain or ownership problems make it impossible to install a scare wire outside the existing fence. You can put one inside, but it will probably work to trap the predators inside your pasture. The trapped predator will be easier to shoot, but you may sustain losses in the process.
The major electric fence companies have stand-off insulators to install a
scare wire fence on existing wooden or metal fence posts.
Can I shoot or trap predators before they cause trouble?
Coyote are smart enough to be tough to trap. Some farmers have had luck with snare traps installed in holes in fences, or with No. 3 or No. 4 leghold traps. One experienced trapper recommends a #3 double long spring trap with offset jaws. Often traps will get juveniles, and coyote who have lost a foot to a trap are notorious livestock killers. Live trap boxes which catch the animal unharmed may be effective for dogs or bobcats; they are not effective for coyote.
You may have better luck with a gun. I shot two coyote in our pastures at Maple Lawn Farm, missed a couple of others, and frequently saw coyote on our hayfield and on the stone walls, sometimes even in daylight. Our guard donkey once set up a coyote for me to shoot.
If you're willing to leave a kill in place and undisturbed, and if you can stake out a good hiding place downwind from the kill, you may have some luck shooting a coyote revisiting the kill on the next night. A coyote can only hold about five pounds of food in its stomach, and will often return to an undisturbed previous kill.
If you see a coyote acting strange during the day, suspect rabies and use your gun. Then call the local EPA or other agency in charge of confirming rabies cases; they will want the head of the animal. Rabies seems to be more prevalent in raccoons and foxes than in the larger predators.
A coyote is not a large animal. A .243 Winchester is more than adequate even for a long shot to a distant corner of a pasture. A shotgun with #4 buckshot will do the job out to 40 yards range. Some hunters have special whistles and lures to call coyote by imitating wounded animals, and you may be able to persuade a hunter to search for the coyote in your area. Coyote are territorial animals. If you trap or shoot the coyote that are attacking your flock or herd, others will probably move into the territory.
There is some evidence that coyote respect the territorial
markings of foxes, at least until the food supply is extremely short.
You may discover that in trapping or shooting foxes you are inviting
coyotes to fill their place.
What guard animals can protect my flock?
Guard donkeys, guard dogs, and guard llamas have all been used successfully to protect livestock. The choice depends on the livestock being protected, local terrain, acreage, predator threats, budget, and personal preference. Whichever animal you choose, count on some training, extra feed, vet care, and housing expenses. Some donkeys and llamas do not take well to guarding; there are many stories of llamas who don't like sheep and keep apart from the flock they are supposed to guard; donkeys who chase the sheep they are supposed to guard; and dogs that never quite learn their job.
In some cases you may need more than a single guard animal to protect a flock. Guard dogs can work together to patrol large areas and to fight off marauding packs of feral dogs, coyote, or wolves that would overwhelm a single guard dog. Dogs and llamas sometimes can be trained to work together.
Guard animals can be effective, but in some situations, packs of
coyotes will defeat the most diligent guard animals. If you are
following an aggressive rotational grazing program, with flocks in
several paddocks at the same time, you may need a guard animal for
each paddock. Sometimes, even in a small field, a single guard animal
can be overwhelmed. There are documented instances of coyote packs
dividing, with one group surrounding and killing a guard dog while the
rest of the pack attacked the unprotected flock.
How do guard donkeys protect a flock?
Donkeys have been used for centuries to protect sheep and other herding animals. Donkeys are extremely intelligent, with acute hearing (there is a reason for those big ears) and sight, and they are conservative by nature: they do not like change in their surroundings, and will drive off a coyote or stray dog as much because it is an intruder as from any instinctive dislike of canines.
At Maple Lawn Farm, our flock of Cotswold sheep was guarded for 10 years by Rosie, a donkey who came to our farm with no experience of sheep. She was four years old and had never seen a sheep before coming to the farm.
Once here, Rosie quickly established a routine. Whenever the flock was rotated to a new pasture, Rosie insisted on conducting a perimeter check; she ran at top speed around the inside of the walls of the pasture (we were in Southeast Connecticut, with stone-walled pastures), before finally braying her All Clear. When a coyote snuck into a pasture, Rosie had a rehearsed battle plan. She first herded the sheep into a tight formation, running around them and nudging them until she was satisfied that they were safe. She then mounted her attack, squaring off against the intruder, and trying first her front hooves, then a biting attack, and finally the karate kick with her back hooves. Coyote are smart enough to retreat in the face of an attack by a 500 pound donkey. Twice Rosie set up coyote that I was able to shoot.
Donkeys are easy to care for — good grazing or hay and water is all they need — and delightful barnyard pets, if you accept that they are clever and rigid. For us, Rosie's Rules were part of the farm routine. Some of her rules were helpful, such as when she insisted that small lambs not wander more than an arbitrary distance from the barn; watching a donkey, whose head is three times the size of a lamb, nudge the lamb back toward the barn is a delight. Other rules were less charming. Rosie would not allow a white sheep to eat hay next to her at a feeder. Colored sheep and lambs were allowed. She also insisted on being present when lambs are born. The first sound every lamb born at the farm heard was Rosie's loud bray, announcing the birth to the world. When visitors come, Rosie positioned herself between a visitor and her lambs. Rosie also built what we called on-deck circles in the pastures, cleared areas where she could roll over to scratch her back.
Quirks aside, except for one year when a coyote snuck in and
grabbed two bottle-baby lambs, we suffered no predator losses when
Rosie was on guard. But not all donkeys are instinctive guards. Some
will ignore an intruder, and there are stories of donkeys who run away
from intruders, and donkeys who attack the sheep and goats they are
supposed to protect. If you're shopping for a guard donkey, stay away
from intact (stallion) jacks in favor of a gelded jack or a jenny
(female). Some breeders test and/or train donkeys for guard duty and
will sell them with an agreement that will allow you to exchange the
donkey for another if it doesn't work out as a guard. Remember too
that a jenny with a foal may be too busy to watch a flock. Even a
jenny in season is thinking more about jacks than about coyote. Two
donkeys together may spend their time playing donkey games instead of
watching for predators.
How about guard dogs?
Guard dogs have been used to protect flocks from prehistoric times. The breeds used have ranged from mix-breed dogs used by native Americans in the American west to the traditional guard dog species: Akbash (Turkey), Maremma (Italy), Komondor and Kuvasz (Hungary), Liptok or Chuvatch (Czechoslovkia), Tatra or Podhalanski (Poland), Ovcharka (Caucasus), Shar Planinetz (Yugoslavia), and the Great Pyrenees (France). By tradition most guard breeds are light-colored; the light colored dogs are all-but-invisible to predators when they bed down with the flock, and they are easily distinguished by a shepherd from darker-colored coyotes, wolves, or other predators.
Guard dogs have been bred and trained to enhance a trio of traits. To be effective, the guard dog must bond with the animals it is protecting, it must be courageous in the face of a predator, and it must accept the responsibility of its job. The dog lives day and night with the flock it is protecting, and can be stand-offish toward people. Despite this essential independence, the owner needs to establish him or herself as the alpha figure in the dog's world.
Guard dogs have a repertoire of techniques to defend their flocks from predators. They are sensitive and primitive enough to be able to read the intent of a predator, and to use the minimum measures necessary to defend the territory and flock. Attacking the predator is the last resort, after other measures have failed. The first line of defense is a perimeter marking with feces and urine that warns predators to Stay out!. If the markings do not deter a prowling predator, the guard dog will warn the predator with a staccato bark that announces Stay where you are; I can see/smell/hear you. If that fails, the bark escalates to a loud warning. If the predator persists in the face of the warnings, the guard dog will advance and charge at the predator, barking. The next step is a shoulder blow to the predator, saying, I can expose your jugular and kill you if you persist. The final defensive action could include killing the predator.
Guard dogs are bonded with the flocks they are supposed to protect by being introduced to stock as puppies, generally from 8 to 12 weeks. Once bonded, dogs accept the animals they are guarding as equals, or even as dominant. It takes some training and patience to get the bond right; puppies are playful, and will sometimes chase, bite, or even kill stock. Eventually, a good guard dog learns its role, and will acknowledge an irate ewe guarding her lambs by moving away, lying down, or averting its eyes. Guard dogs live with the stock they guard, bedding down with the sheep. Most guard dogs are fed with the stock. Sometimes stock will eat the dog's food, although most dogs learn to protect their food.
Guard dogs are by disposition independent. Most will make their rounds at some time during the day, and spend a good deal of time at a favorite spot where they can watch the flock and the surroundings. It takes training and experience to teach a guard dog to accept pets and other adults, while not losing its instinctive wariness toward predators. When it spots an intruder, the dog will position itself between the intruder and the flock and make threatening gestures toward the intruder. If the intruder does not withdraw, the dog will attack. These are brave dogs, not afraid to attack predators much larger than themselves. Komondors have been known to kill wolves.
Some potential problems with guard dogs include wandering, chasing or playing with stock, and dogs that are territorial rather than bonded to the flock. The early training of the dog needs to take place in an enclosure so the dog learns not to wander. Some dogs later need a strand of electric fencing around the pasture to remind them where they should stay. Animals that chase or play with stock must be curbed immediately; the challenge, sometimes, is to teach a dog how to hold its own against aggressive sheep or goats. There are also cases of dogs with territorial instincts. A territorial dog can do a good job as a guard, as long as the flock doesn't move to a new grazing area while the dog is protecting the old turf. Finally, coyote or other predators can overwhelm even the best guard dogs; in some instances guard dogs may solve a coyote problem for a number of years, until the number of coyotes is so great that losses return to pre-guard dog levels. A guard dog may be successful against some large predators, even small cougars, but a full-grown cougar, wolves, and other large predators may overwhelm a trusted guard dog.
Guard dogs are not pets. To do their job, they need to have a
primary identity and bond with the flock they protect, rather than
with the owner or family of the owner. Trying to mix the roles will
confuse the dog, and lessen or destroy the effectiveness of the dog as
a guard. For more information on guard dogs, see the On
Guard listing of WWW pages, the USDA
publication Livestock Guarding Dogs: Protecting Sheep from
Predators (USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin
No. 588), or the livestock
guard dog site.
How about a guard llama?
Llamas are intelligent, instinctively dislike canines, and are capable of protecting a flock from some predator attacks. A tall, alert 300-pound llama can be intimidating to a coyote. Because they are ruminants, llamas can eat the same diet as a flock of sheep or goats they are guarding. They can be expensive to purchase, and in most areas vets have little experience with llamas. A guard llama should always be gelded. It is generally recommended that llamas not be gelded before one year of age because of problems in the growth of leg bones if the male hormones are not available.
Although the snorting and stomping of a llama can be
an effective deterrent against a prowling coyote, llamas can
themselves be vulnerable to packs of coyotes, dogs, wolves, and
cougars. Many llama breeders now refuse to sell llamas as livestock
guards because their guarding manner — out of natural curiosity,
a llama walks
toward a marauding predator — can increase their
vulnerability. Many sheep farms have had good luck with llamas as
guard animals, but See Llamas as Guardians for some negative experiences
with guard llamas. Some llama breeders use guard dogs for their
Can any animals protect themselves?
Recent research at the Texas A&M University
Research Station in Sonora, Texas and at New Mexico State University
has found that sheep and cattle will bond when grazed together, so the
cattle serve as natural protectors for the sheep. The same experiment
has not worked as well with goats, which lack a strong flocking
instinct. Co-grazing cattle and sheep may also provide excellent
utilization of pasture resources, as the cattle eat the coarse growth
and the sheep eat the lower and finer growth. (See the Pasture FAQ for
more information on pasture utilization.) Even in a mixed herd, cows
can be susceptible to losses of newborn calves from bold coyote.
What killed my chickens and what can I do about it?
The usual predators of chickens are raccoons, foxes, weasels, and coyote. If you find an explosion of feathers, the culprit was probably a raccoon or fox, although owls and hawks have been known to grab chickens. Raccoons will go after caged animals, pulling a head or feet through the fence and eating them. They are very adept with their paws, and will often drag off a bird and eat all of the meat, leaving an almost intact carcass. If you find dead chickens with wounds around the neck and the crop eaten, the likely culprit is a weasel. Weasels will sometimes try to drag the carcass of the chicken through a small hole. Dogs will kill a chicken and often not eat it. Opossums and skunks rob eggs and will eat chicks. Spreading finely powdered lime around the chicken coop may show up identifiable foot prints, or snake tracks, of the predator.
Scarecrows and similar devices are rarely effective against determined chicken predators. Jerry Fry, in Missouri, keeps a scarecrow in his chicken yard, and each evening changes the position of the scarecrow and puts his sweaty shirt from that day on the scarecrow, claiming that no downwind predator will ever come close to the area. Blinking red lights, like the Niteguard may help against owls. Some chicken owners report that a radio in the coop playing country & western music deters weasels, foxes, and raccoons.
The only effective protection against most chicken predators is to lock the chickens in a safe coop at night. Secure wire fencing, either with the bottom buried or with a strand of barbed wire along the ground, and with no holes or weak points, will do the job against raccoons and foxes. Raccoons especially are clever enough to scout a fence for a weak spot. PVC fencing on heavy rebar posts (surplus mine roof bolts, for example), is effective for fowl, especially with electric scare wires at 2 inches and 7 inches off the ground around the exterior perimeter. PVC fencing 5.5 feet high, with a pattern roughly like a chain-link fence, has been used to protect and hold chickens, emus, guineas, peafowl, and geese. One supplier of PVC fencing is BF Products in Harrisburg PA (1.800.255.8397).
If the problem is weasels, you will need either solid walls and doors for the coop, or a fine mesh fencing like hardware cloth. A weasel can get through a quarter-sized hole, and when one gets into a coop they can do a lot of killing in one night.
Netting over a fenced-in run may be necessary to deter hawks and owls. Be sure to put some visible barrier up with the netting, such as surveyors tape; otherwise the netting may be invisible to the raptors, especially at night.
If your own dog is the problem, some farms have reported success in teaching a dog not to chase chickens by tying a dead chicken around the dog's neck for a few days. It is also possible to train a dog to not chase chickens. There are reports of Anatolian shepherd dogs trained to guard poultry, and Anne Williams, in Darien, Connecticut, has trained her huge Irish wolfhounds to round up the chickens each day and bring them into the coop. The dogs carry the chickens in their mouths and hardly ruffle a feather.
An alternative to coops, which works in some areas, especially with
tough breeds of chickens like Modern Games, is to allow the chickens
to roost in nearby trees. If you can't always get home to lock them
in a coop, or if predators have terrorized free-ranging chickens so
they're reluctant to go into a coop at night, allowing them to roost
in trees may protect them from most predators. Chickens roosting in
trees are vulnerable to owls, racccoons, and occasionally foxes,
bobcats, or bold feral cats.
What about poison baits and sterilization?
The air-dropped baiting programs used extensively in some countries, like Australia, are sharply restricted in the U.S. The USDA Experimental Range Station at Dubois, Idaho and other agencies have done extensive research on predators. They built experimental fences and put bitches in heat behind them to see what would hold a coyote or dog. They have experimented extensively with poison baits and sterilization drugs, often dropped by air.
From the 1940s until the late 1960s, the Humane Coyote-Getter, a baited device which uses a small charge in a .38 Special cartridge to fire sodium cyanide powder into the mouth of an exploring coyote, was popular. The Coyote-Getter has now been banned by the EPA. The replacement is the M-44, a mechanical device which fires a plastic capsule of sodium cyanide. The devices are baited with a fetid scent, and are very selective for canines. The exploring dog or coyote pulls upward on the device, triggering the charge. Recent restrictions, imposed by the EPA in 1975, sharply curtail the use of these devices.
Toxic collars, which are attached to sheep and kill a coyote attacking the sheep, are a relatively new innovation, authorized in many areas, such as Virginia. A number of toxicants have been tested; Compound 1080, sodium monofluoroacetate, is the most promising. The disadvantage of the collars is cost, around $18 per collar; the difficulty of keeping the collars on, especially on lambs that are the most likely victims; and coyote sensitivity to the `oddness' of the sheep wearing collars,
Toxic chemical baits are not registered by the EPA,
and while potentially effective are not selective. Sterilizing or
fertility-reducing drugs have also been tested. Many of these
poisoning techniques are not safe for small producers and hobby farms.
Even rat and mouse poisons are dangerous to use in a farm setting,
because cats and other pets, or livestock, may accidentally ingest the
poison or poisoned animals. Poison techniques, such as collars or the
M-44 explosive devices, cannot be used in conjunction with guard dogs.
Who wrote this FAQ?
The author is Ronald Florence, PhD, a novelist and historian who raised Cotswold sheep in Stonington, Connecticut. Additional information was provided by
This document is copyright 1994-2003 by Ronald Florence. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or link this page to your WWW page, as long as this copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not copy this FAQ or any portion of it to a WWW page, or print it in any publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without the express written permission of the author; this restriction includes but is not limited to print, digital media, and electronic transmission.
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