Predators that threaten domestic sheep, goats, and livestock vary depending on the geographical region and habitat. Some common predators that may pose a risk to these animals include coyotes, cougars, wolves, feral dogs, and hawks, to name a few.
Read on as we examine these predators and how to implement proper management practices to protect animals from predation.
- 1 Do Coyotes Really Kill Sheep?
- 2 Aren’t Many of these Losses Really From Dogs or Coydogs?
- 3 I Found a Dead Sheep [calf, goat]; How Do I Identify the Killer?
- 4 Is There a Season When Predators Are Most Active?
- 5 What Do I Do if I See a Coyote (or a Pack of Dogs) Chasing My Sheep?
- 6 What Kind of Fence Does it Take to Stop Coyotes and Dogs?
- 7 Is There a Way to Make Old Fences Coyote-Proof?
- 8 Can I Shoot or Trap Predators Before They Cause Trouble?
- 9 What Guard Animals Can Protect My Flock?
- 10 Can Animals Protect Themselves?
- 11 What Killed My Chickens and What Can I Do About It?
- 12 What About Poison Baits and Sterilization?
Do Coyotes Really Kill Sheep?
Coyotes, 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 coyotes, 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 coyotes have spread throughout all 48 lower states, Canada, and Mexico, farm flocks in semi-rural areas are beginning to suffer significant predation losses from coyotes.
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 for controlling 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 a loss in income and a 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.’ This FAQ aims to suggest ways to minimize or control those risks.
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 coyotes are genetically close, but coyote-dog crosses are unlikely in the wild for behavioral reasons. Much damage attributed to coydogs is probably due to domestic and feral dogs.
It is not difficult to identify whether an attack was by dogs or coyotes. The appearance of the coyote is distinctive, with a long snout, erect ears, and a bushy tail. Their fur and stature make them appear 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 coyotes are generally smaller and reddish, while the eastern coyote can be a slightly larger animal, ranging 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. Coyotes are efficient predators. Eastern coyotes usually hunt alone at night. They select their victims carefully, singling out a weak flock member, 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 coyotes 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 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 unsure whether they are coyotes or dogs, look for footprints or scats. 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 coyotes 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 distinctly elongated.
I Found a Dead Sheep [calf, goat]; How Do I Identify the Killer?
Predators have distinctive styles. It is worth examining the carcass to decide on future protective measures because you may sometimes be eligible for compensation. For ranchers suffering large-scale predation, there are systematic predation evaluation procedures.
The elusive coyote has a unique hunting technique that involves silent and strategic attacks. With precision, they target the throat area just behind the jaw and ear, either by strangulation or by severing the jugular vein. This allows them to effectively incapacitate their prey without raising any alarms, as the victim cannot vocalize with their windpipe shut.
Coyotes are opportunistic hunters who patiently stalk their prey, often waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They may target a straggler from a flock, a vulnerable lamb with weak flocking instincts, or a newborn calf from a calving cow.
In some cases, western coyotes may even work in packs to overwhelm calving cows and feast on the afterbirth, showing a preference for the internal organs over the calves themselves.
After a successful kill, coyotes display a unique eating pattern. They often drag the carcass to a secluded area and make precise incisions in the thorax to access the heart, lungs, liver, and other internal organs, leaving the stomach untouched.
It’s not uncommon for them to return later to scavenge on the remaining bones or haunches, leaving behind a distinctively consumed carcass.
Overall, the hunting methods of coyotes are calculated, efficient, and often carried out in silence, making them formidable predators in the natural world.
Wolves, the masters of the hunt, move in synchronized harmony as they navigate the wilderness. They can spot the smallest signs of weakness in their prey with their keen senses.
A limp, a hitch in the step, or a vulnerable spot – nothing escapes their keen observation. Once they identify their target, they spring into action with remarkable precision.
Unlike their domesticated cousins, wolves are not content with scraps. When they make a kill, they devour their prey with primal ferocity. In a calculated attack on cattle, the first bite is often aimed at the base of the tail, the vulva providing a convenient handle for the wolf’s powerful jaws.
The second and third bites come quickly, deep in the flanks on both sides, as the wolves immobilize their prey. They may even begin feasting on the still-breathing cow, the warmth of life not deterring their voracious hunger.
Even large, healthy animals are no match for a pack of hungry wolves. With strategic teamwork and unwavering determination, two yearling wolves can bring down a majestic cow elk, a testament to their strength and prowess as hunters.
Fences pose little challenge to their agility and determination as they effortlessly clear obstacles in their pursuit of sustenance. Even guard dogs, trained to protect their human charges, may face a formidable adversary in the form of a wild wolf.
Despite their fearsome reputation, healthy wolves in the wild do not pose a threat to humans. However, there have been rare cases of wolves becoming conditioned to human presence, leading to attacks on vulnerable individuals, such as children.
It serves as a reminder of these majestic creatures’ untamed nature and the respect they command as apex predators in the natural world.
Dogs typically will attack many victims in a flock. The characteristic bite marks are on the animals’ flanks, rear legs, backs, or rear ends. Sometimes a pack of dogs will concentrate on a victim’s head 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 coyotes 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 & Cougar
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 leave 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 a good reason. They minimize the spread of disease by consuming carrion.
Ravens will peck the head of an animal, then gouge out the eyes, ultimately killing the animal by fracturing the skull. Magpies 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.
Is There a Season When Predators Are Most Active?
Nature’s predators are skilled opportunists, always on the prowl for their next meal. In the temperate farm regions, danger lurks in the air during late spring and early summer when hungry coyote kits are too big for their mother’s milk alone.
Desperate to feed her growing offspring, the mother coyote will stop at nothing to find sustenance. If her usual prey of rabbits and small mammals is scarce, she’ll resort to preying on lambs, kids, sheep, goats, and even cats.
Her cunning and strength are formidable as she waits patiently for a cow to give birth, seizing the opportunity to disembowel the vulnerable newborn calf before the cow can even stand.
In snowy landscapes like northern Canada, the harsh winter months of January and February bring different peril. With mice and other small prey hidden beneath the snow cover, coyotes and wolves turn to livestock for survival. Sheep, calves, deer, cows, horses, and even moose are not spared from their relentless hunger.
If you think you can rely on a seasonal pattern for protection against predators, think again. They are adaptable and resourceful, striking whenever their regular food sources are scarce.
Once they develop a taste for easy prey like sheep, goats, or chickens, they will return until the fences are fortified, or guard animals are deployed to defend the flock. Nature’s predators are always on the lookout, and it’s up to us to stay vigilant and safeguard our livestock.
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 chasing your stock in your pasture.
Shooting a neighbor’s pet dog isn’t fun, but once an animal gets a taste for sheep or a passion for chasing sheep, you may 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, seem 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, 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 for 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 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, you may have to cover the remains with heavy stones in the hard-frozen ground.
What Kind of Fence Does it Take to Stop Coyotes and Dogs?
Tall, strong, and without weak points. Coyotes 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. They will swim around fences that end in deep water seaside or lakeside pastures.
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 coyotes. 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; coyotes will find an open gate or weak latch.
The most crucial 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 shear pins 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 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 coyotes, although they 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. Coyotes 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 installing a scare wire outside the existing fence impossible. 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?
Coyotes 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 coyotes who have lost a foot to a trap are notorious livestock killers. Live trap boxes that catch the animal unharmed may be effective for dogs or bobcats but not for coyotes.
You may have better luck with a gun. I shot two coyotes in our pastures at Maple Lawn Farm, missed a couple of others, and frequently saw coyotes on our hayfield and 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 often return to a previous undisturbed 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 larger predators.
A coyote is not a large animal. A .243 Winchester is adequate even for a long shot to a distant pasture corner. A shotgun with #4 buckshot will do the job out to 40 yards range.
Some hunters have special whistles and lures to call coyotes by imitating wounded animals, and you may be able to persuade a hunter to search for the coyote in your area.
Coyotes are territorial animals. If you trap or shoot the coyote attacking your flock or herd, others will probably move into the territory.
There is some evidence that coyotes respect the territorial markings of foxes 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?
Llamas, donkeys, and dogs can help protect your flock. The presence of a guard animal in the vicinity of the flock can have a psychological deterrent effect on predators.
Predators are less likely to approach a flock with a guard animal, as they perceive it as a potential threat and may choose to avoid confrontation.
Guard animals can help reduce the stress levels of the flock by constantly patrolling and defending against predators. This can prevent the flock from becoming anxious or panicked, leading to injuries or even death due to trampling or other accidents.
Guard animals can also significantly reduce losses from predation, as their vigilance and protective behaviors can deter or prevent predator attacks.
Donkeys are highly territorial animals and will establish a strong sense of ownership over their territory, including where the flock is kept. They will actively patrol the perimeter of their territory, regularly checking for potential threats and intruders.
If a predator, such as a coyote, enters their territory, a guard donkey will confront the predator, braying loudly and displaying aggressive behavior to chase it away.
Donkeys have the instinct to protect their herd and can exhibit aggressive behavior toward predators. When faced with a threat, a guard donkey may lower its head, bare its teeth, and charge at the predator.
They can use their hooves to kick or stomp on the predator, inflicting injuries and driving it away from the flock.
Donkeys are known for their loud braying calls, which serve as an alarm to alert the flock of potential danger. If a guard donkey senses a predator, it will bray loudly, which can startle the predator and alert the rest of the flock. This can help the sheep, goats, and other animals in the flock to be aware of the threat and take evasive action.
Guard donkeys have excellent senses, including keen hearing and sight, which allow them to detect predators from a distance. They can hear or see predators approaching the flock and can respond by alerting the flock, chasing the predator away, or engaging in aggressive behavior to deter the predator from harming the flock.
Guard dogs are trained to patrol the perimeter of the flock’s territory, actively monitoring for any signs of danger. They mark their territory with their scent, and their presence alone can deter predators from entering the area. They will often establish a bond with the flock, considering them as part of their pack, and will fiercely defend them against predators.
These dogs are large and have a strong presence that can intimidate predators. They will often bark, growl, or bare their teeth when they sense a threat, sending a clear message to predators that the flock is protected.
They are trained to confront predators and may physically attack them to drive them away from the flock. They can bite, chase, and use their physical strength to protect the flock from potential harm.
Guard dogs are vigilant and always alert for potential threats. They are trained to constantly monitor the flock and their surroundings, using their keen senses to detect predators. They are highly attentive and will quickly respond to any signs of danger, taking action to deter predators and protect the flock.
Llamas have the instinct to protect smaller animals and will exhibit herding behavior toward them. They will gather the flock together, forming a protective circle around them and keeping them close.
Llamas can use their size, speed, and agility to chase away predators, such as coyotes, by running at them and kicking with their strong legs.
Llamas have a unique alarm call, which sounds like a loud, high-pitched screech, to alert the flock of potential danger. They are alert animals and will watch their surroundings, using their keen senses of sight and hearing to detect predators.
If a llama senses a threat, it will often position itself between the predator and the flock, staring down the predator and emitting warning calls to alert the flock and deter the predator.
Llamas can form a strong bond with the flock they are tasked to protect. They will spend time with the flock, grazing and resting alongside them, which helps to establish a protective relationship. They are gentle and nurturing towards the animals in their care but can quickly switch to aggressive behavior to fend off predators.
Can Animals Protect Themselves?
Recent research at the Texas A&M University Research Station in Sonora, Texas, and New Mexico State University has found that sheep and cattle bond when grazed together. Hence, 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.
What Killed My Chickens and What Can I Do About It?
The usual predators of chickens are raccoons, foxes, weasels, and coyotes. If you find an explosion of feathers, the culprit is probably a raccoon or fox, although owls and hawks also 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 often drag off a bird and eat all 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 chicken carcass 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 footprints, 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 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.
If the problem is weasels, you need solid walls and doors for the coop or fine mesh fencing like hardware cloth. A weasel can get through a quarter-sized hole, and when one gets into a coop, they can make a lot of killing in one night.
Netting over a fenced-in run may be necessary to deter hawks and owls. Be sure to add visible barriers to the netting, such as the surveyor’s tape. Otherwise, the netting may be invisible to the raptors, especially at night.
If your dog is the problem, some farms have successfully taught 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 not to 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 daily 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, raccoons, 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 extensively researched 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 that 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 that 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.
Several 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,
EPA does not register toxic chemical baits and, while potentially effective, are not selective. Sterilizing or fertility-reducing drugs have also been tested. Many of these poisoning techniques are unsafe 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 with guard dogs.