Predators an increasing problem for sheep farmers, but not their biggest challenge
Increasing bear attacks and price of food making it a hard year for shepherds
John Buchanan remembers watching a thick black bear stretched to its full height reaching into an apple tree for its lunch—with a flock of docile, unafraid sheep crowded around the tree waiting for leftovers.
That was in the early 90s. Sheep-bear relations are less beatific now.
In a video captured by a security camera, a lamb is seen frantically running at a gate, but the gate doesn’t budge. A black bear jogs into frame, cornering the sheep between the fence and the gate. It wastes no time going for the lamb’s neck. The video is silent except for the first fence rattle, hooves on crisp leaves, and then the sound of rustling as the bear bites down.
It was the third sheep Monique Anstee lost to a bear this year.
It's been a banner year for Anstee, a hobby farmer who lives not far from Buchanan’s farm. She had a record number of lambs, added 20 ewes to her flock of 10—and had three sheep eaten by bears.
Her flock is small, but she was one of the hardest hit this year in Metchosin. Before this, she’d only lost one sheep in six years of farming. Buchanan estimates that as a community, Metchosin sheep farmers lose about 25 sheep a year, and this year was better than most, except for Anstee—only 15 sheep were eaten, that Buchanan is aware of.
But this recent kill is later in the year than Buchanan has ever heard of. Normally bears are active predators of sheep from June to October. By November he sees them wandering around munching on apples, but they tend to be slower and don’t usually bother sheep anymore.
Fifty-five years of sheep farming, bears have only been a problem for the last 20
Buchanan has been farming sheep since he and his sister picked up the habit 55 years ago, back when the only predators they worried about were stray dogs. His flock had its first cougar attack in 1996, and bears weren’t a problem until around 2010, he said.
His Perry Bay Sheep Farm has more than 200 ewes (that is, the females), which he rotates around about 30 different fields he leases throughout the Westshore.
The worst part of losing a sheep to a predator—besides the lost sheep, which go for about $300 at market—is that he also loses the pasture because it isn’t safe for the flock.
“You can only survive in the business of raising sheep if they have lots of grass. And every time we're chased off a pasture, essentially that means we have to reduce the number of sheep we have,” Buchanan said.
The alternative, feeding them directly, is too expensive—about $1.35 a day per sheep. For Buchanan’s 200-plus ewes, that’s about $2,000 a week in a business with thin profit margins.
Hay and feed costs have gone through the roof in the last few years, putting some hobby farmers out of the hobby. “There's an awful lot of sheep on the market right now. People are trying to get rid of them because it's just really expensive and the drought, it could be as much as 90 extra days of feed. It's hard to make profit with that,” Buchanan said.
Electric fences and donkey guardians
The two most recommended deterrents for predators are electric fences and donkeys, also referred to as livestock guardian animals by conservation researchers.
Electric fences work well, but for an operation like Buchanan’s, they’re not practical. He estimates 2,000 feet of fence per five-acre field, which, with the ever-encroaching invasive bushes to clear, is a lot of fence. But more than that, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a sturdy electric fence for a pasture he doesn’t own and only leases for a few years.
Livestock animal guardians, mostly donkeys but also llamas and dogs, can help to deter bears, cougars, and wolves. Buchanan has one big donkey.
Their reputation as stubborn creatures is accurate: it is a serious chore to get Buchanan’s donkey in the trailer to bring him to a field. And once he’s there, there’s nothing stopping the sheep from wandering far enough away for the ass to be any kind of security guard.
Plus there’s the expense. You have to feed them all year, and bring the farrier every second month to trim their feet.
“And, you know, we can't have donkeys on every field. We’d have a herd of 30,” Buchanan said.
Sharing the habitat between predators, prey, and humans
Vancouver Island is known and loved for being a wild place with wild animals and sprawling habitat. But as development continues and the population grows, conflict between our activities and wild animals is more and more inevitable.
One local group has a vision for both to thrive. The Coexisting with Carnivores Alliance, which, among other things, is working directly with farmers in Metchosin to mitigate interaction between carnivores and livestock, preferring the use of electric fences and livestock animal guardians.
They also have a habitat working group that’s mapping regional carnivore habitat. Their plan is to share the maps with local governments so when development decisions are being considered, the carnivore habitat is part of the decision.
The first time Buchanan lost a sheep to a bear was in 2010. At the same time, cougars were becoming less of an issue—provincial numbers show a similar trend that cougar incidences have been slightly declining for the last 10 years, while this year, bear incidents hit a record high.
In 2011, the Conservation Officer Service attended nine incidents, and only three were destroyed. This year officers have responded to a record 133 incidents and destroyed 27 bears.
Sheep aren’t regular targets for bears, until a particular bear learns how easy they are when cornered. Many bears will never eat a sheep, but a small number become habitual killers. Those are the problematic bears the conservation officers will intervene on.
But the two officers stationed on the Westshore cover everything from Highlands to Port Renfrew, so they can’t respond to each livestock incident. Often all they can do is recommend deterrents.
In BC, the officers responded to 13% of all calls made reporting black bear sightings this year. Some calls are just, “I saw a bear,” while others are, “A bear just ate my sheep.” Officers have to sort the dangerous bears from the peacefully coexisting bears.
Increases in bear incidents have followed increasing development in their habitat. The year 2010, when Buchanan first noticed aggressive bears, saw accelerated development in Langford. According to the city’s annual report (it had been designated as a city for just seven years by that point, and had only been incorporated for 17), Langford approved 63,000 square feet of new commercial space. Two years prior, in 2008, the city approved a whopping 365,600 square feet of new commercial space. In 2010, Langford also approved 238 new multi-family units—63% more than 2009—and almost half were under construction by the end of the year. (2010 is also the year Goldstream Avenue got the fountain in the roundabout, the Goldstream Village archway, and the infamous Langford palm trees.)
Habitat loss is a major factor in human-wildlife conflict, according to the BC Conservation Office. Buchanan knows there are a lot of opinions out there regarding who should be prioritized—humans and our pets and livestock, or wildlife.
“People say they [bears] were here first, but they were also on the Saanich Peninsula first,” he said.
Development has pushed wildlife westward, where rural places like Metchosin and Sooke still have wilderness to share.