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Behind the Scenes of an Alpaca Guard Trial

Andrew Milne

Behind the Scenes of an Alpaca Guard Trial
Andrew Milne, who studied Animal Science at SRUC Edinburgh, wrote his fourth year dissertation on the potential market for alpaca guards with sheep farmers. He spent last summer in North West Scotland conducting a project that involved integrating two alpacas with a hill sheep flock that had suffered much predation by sea eagles.
Following a series of reintroductions that began in 1975 the sea eagle, or white tailed eagle, has seen its population grow and spread across the west coast of Scotland. Those lucky enough to have seen a sea eagle in the wild rarely forget the occasion, they are almost instantly recognisable from their large yellow beak or wedged shaped white tail but it is their size that never fails to amaze and with a wingspan that can reach up to 8 feet - they are the UK?s largest bird of prey. This size and associated power gives the sea eagle control of the skies in resident territory and ensures the unrivalled crown of apex predator in the western wilds of Scotland.
However, resident farmers and crofters claim sea eagles are feeding on lambs, which is not only negatively impacting on productivity but affecting efforts of flock improvement. There are also suggestions that there are not enough prey species to maintain a viable sea eagle population, in addition to questions being raised about the methods implemented during the reintroductions, the lack of continual monitoring and refinement, and even the legality of the reintroductions in relation to EU law.
In contrast the organisations associated with the reintroduction claim the sea eagles to be a success; a species that has suffered previous persecution to the extreme of localised extinction now reclaiming areas once occupied, a program that ticks the biodiversity box, and a species that commands public attention to a level of financial gain through wildlife tourism in areas inhabited by sea eagles. These are benefits thought to outweigh ?insignificant? lamb losses by conservationists who maintain that sea eagles by nature are ?inherently lazy? and prefer to scavenge a meal. This is a theory supplemented by a persistent opinion that if sea eagles were to engage in the opportunistic predation of lambs then it would almost certainly be weak lambs in the process of succumbing to disease ? an opinion regarded with distaste from diligent sheep farmers and crofters.
From liaising with both conservationists and sheep farmers it is quickly apparent that both sides believe themselves to be correct and it is uncomfortably obvious that one is wrong. Neither side is willing to comprehend the opinion of the other and the only hard facts from an uncomfortable seat on the fence are that sea eagles are resident in the west of Scotland, they are a Scottish Biodiversity List species, and they are highly protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the EC Birds Directive. There are also large numbers of sheep unaccounted for each year in areas where sheep and sea eagles share terrain.
So what does all this have to do with alpacas? Admittedly it may seem odd for alpacas to be associated with sea eagles on the west coast of Scotland, or sea eagles at all, but acknowledging the protection status of this iconic raptor there is a requirement for progressive farmers and crofters affected by lamb losses to investigate the cause and trial non-lethal methods of control. In this particular instance a pilot study was designed to explore predator deterrents in conjunction with a monitoring schedule aimed at increasing knowledge relating to sea eagle behaviour in the presence of a sheep flock. For the purpose of the trial two alpacas were introduced to a flock as sheep guards and interactions routinely observed between the species of interest that included alpacas, buzzards, crows, foxes, ravens, sea eagles and sheep. The theory of introducing alpacas was not to directly combat sea eagle attacks but with the aim of generating a bond between sheep and alpacas that would initiate a behavioural change amongst the sheep on the hill. It was plausible that the presence of alpacas could encourage the flock to graze as a unit rather than scatter on the hillside and therefore reduce the number of isolated lambs that could be considered vulnerable to predation. The trial was planned for a duration of 3 years with the purpose of allowing the alpacas time for environmental adaptation and to strengthen bonds with the flock while, considering flock replacement strategy, the time span would ensure the sheep to be familiar with the alpacas as guardians.
Following the planning process it was then necessary to source some alpacas and this brought us to Moray?s best kept secret. In area famed for its whisky production and dolphin spotting hides Auld Mill Alpacas where Carole Christian and John Smith run a fantastic enterprise which also includes Mossend Zwarbles and Cluck! Eggs. Admittedly I had worked with Carole and John before and have always been impressed by their passion for animal welfare and contagious enthusiasm to develop and share their fantastic array of knowledge. This is not uncommon within the alpaca community as a previous survey conducted during honours project research highlighted that 32 of 35 breeders valued ethics such as welfare and education to a level that ranged from pre-purchase husbandry training days to lifetime telephone support, and Auld Mill Alpacas are an excellent example of preparing those new to alpacas.
Operating as a closed herd with all external boundaries forested, Carole and John work closely with Moray Coast Vet Group to promote animal health. The herd is BVD screened, there is routine spring and autumn clostridial protection with Bravoxin 10, during spring and autumn of 2012/13 there was a fluke treatment with Trodax, in addition to a monthly vitamin paste and daily diet supplement of Camelibra to maximise herd health. Acknowledging these efforts there were understandably some concerns identified by Carole and John following a briefing on the project but solutions were found and, despite their busy schedule, Auld Mill Alpacas handpicked two alpacas considered suitable for the trial. These were Cairndinnis Archie, a white and dark fawn appaloosa born on 19 July 2005 from dam Livanti Bethany and sire Livanti Brooklyn. Archie is a non-breeding male who was castrated during June of 2012 due to temperament issues when not being used at mating time. Archie was joined by half-sibling Cairndinnis Enoch, a solid mid fawn, born 25 May 2009 to dam Livanti Bethany and sire Purston Pride of Place. Enoch was an intact male at the time of the trial but was castrated on 19 May 2014 due to forestall behaviour problems when not being used at mating time. Both were selected for reasons that included awareness, temperament, physical condition, and economic value.
Working through the concerns identified by Carole and John it was agreed to lease Archie and Enoch for the 3 year duration of the project, meaning that in the event of the trial being cancelled or on completion of the study then Archie and Enoch would still have a home and not be condemned to purposelessly roaming the hills of Wester Ross. Carole and John further assisted the project by providing a comprehensive handling and husbandry training day before Archie and Enoch departed Auld Mill Alpacas, and on arrival in Wester Ross the boys came with a detailed health plan, dietary supplement schedule, and an emphasis on the importance of shearing the animals that highlighted the consequences of overheating ? even in the unpredictable Scottish climate! From the transportation trailer both Archie and Enoch stepped into a brief quarantine to minimise the risk of disease transmission, after which the process of integration began with the alpacas located in an adjoining field to the sheep flock so that curious familiarisation could begin through the safety of a fence.
Once fully integrated with the flock the alpacas showed much interest towards lambs and at times of human involvement such as lamb tagging there was often an intruding alpaca head on duty to ensure a watchful eye. For the most part this was exactly the response wanted but on occasion led to instances of the alpacas being over protective of the lambs so that even the mother ewe was ushered away. This did not cause any problems during the study but could have potentially deterred a gimmer unsure of her mothering duties.
When on the hill, interactions around the alpacas were recorded every 10 minutes for the duration of three hours at four different time allocations over the course of a week. Each weekly schedule was generated at random with any actions considered ?out of the ordinary? recorded as they occurred, instances such as attempted predation. Throughout the study the number of sheep grazing with the alpacas regularly varied from zero to the entire flock and this lack of pattern suggested that Archie and Enoch were accepted as flock members. However, at times of flock movement for shearing, weighing, and routine vaccinations the alpacas were identified as leaders by dictating the movement of the flock at gatherings and initiating stand-offs with sheepdog Glen, much to the confusion of Glen who simply viewed the alpacas as two more flock members to round up. This did cause difficulty when gathering the flock and on evaluation could have been avoided with temporary removal of the alpacas before introducing the dog. Once gathered and moved, another noticeable interaction was that both alpacas would patrol amongst the flock and smell both lambs and ewes, as if to check who was present after the move.
Throughout the study Archie and Enoch were observed on 897 occasions and in relation to predatory defence were noted as alert to a potential threat 31 times and acted aggressively on 3. Alert behaviour was mostly directed towards humans and domestic dogs, with aggression twice noted against a fox and, surprisingly, the third was directed towards a lamb persistently following Archie. Despite aerial aggression towards the flock recorded from both ravens and sea eagles there was no evidence to suggest the alpacas, or the sheep, recognised either as a threat. However at times of suspected sea eagle attacks the alpacas were noted as being out of sight, meaning they had re-located with a small group of ewes and lambs. It is unknown if this was simply co-incidence or awareness of the attacks and intentional distancing from them.
Overall there were 22 lambs lost on the hill during the study period; 1 witnessed kill from a sea eagle, 1 loss to a suspected fox or dog, and the remainder forever condemned to educated speculation or never found. During the project Archie was undoubtedly recognised as the lead with Enoch happy to follow and this was suspected to be a combination of individual awareness and confidence from age. However it was felt that the boys struggled with the large area, as expected, and never established a perimeter to defend. Further to the large area it was noted from the witnessed sea eagle attack that predation was conducted in complete silence, with no chase engaged or distress call vocalised from the targeted lamb and therefore giving no reason for the eagles to be recognised as a threat. From the sea eagle behaviour observed during the attack it is also possible that had the alpacas successfully instigated a change in flock mentality to graze as a unit, the eagles may have benefitted as a large lamb population in one area could have provided easier prey.
Although gaining an insight into sea eagle behaviour, the trial fell short of the original aim in respect of being a deterrent to sea eagle attacks. However the study regularly suggested effectiveness to more traditional threats from the ground which can be useful when referring back to honours project research and a sheep predation survey that highlighted farm specific predation, results showed that from 63 sheep farmers only 22 suffered no predation in contrast to 41 farms that suffered flock predation to a combined total in excess of 1279 lambs and ewes. From these 41 farms, over 92% had suffered losses to a fox and over 51% suffered losses to domestic dogs, both ground species that alpacas have the potential to deter. This can be complemented with cost analysis research indicating a lowland flock could benefit from an alpaca guard system from as little as 4 lambs ?saved?, and emphasising reasons to further explore the use of alpaca guards - particularly given that of the 41 farms suffering predation only 4 stated they would have no interested in integrating alpacas to their flock.
However, this particular alpaca guard trial was assessed after year 1 and it was decided to explore other methods of predatory deterrents. Archie and Enoch were returned home to Auld Mill Alpacas, where on arrival they were placed in peer-group isolation for two months, BVD antibody tested before re-introduction to the male herd, and Archie has since further developed his guard credentials by patrolling the lambing flock at Mossend Zwarbles.