Willamette Valley Guard Llamas: Nothing to Spit At

Guard llamas at Garvin’s farm. Photo by Lana Jones.

At least 5,500 coyotes were killed in Oregon by trappers and hunters in the 2010-2011 season—but that figure represents only those kills reported to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). The most recent Oregon Furbearer Program Report (August 2011) cautions that the number may actually be higher because coyotes are classified as predatory animals. This means that private landowners may kill coyotes to control damage to livestock or crops without reporting to the ODFW.

Coyotes aren’t in any danger of extinction, though. According to the same report, “Coyote populations have increased substantially… during the past several decades.”

Coyote trapping may even benefit other wild canid species such as the kit fox, which it directly competes with and kills. But our local coyotes have important benefits, too, such as small rodent control.

To let the coyotes be or not be is the question livestock owners in the Willamette Valley must grapple with. But there is another option. Driving along Valley pastures, you might have noticed fields filled with sheep and one thing not like the others: a llama. Guard llamas represent one intriguing alternative to coyote trapping.

Guard llamas are ideally suited to Oregon and small livestock. They’re great for small acreages, they eat a nearly identical diet to sheep and goats, they can be shorn at the same time as their field mates, they don’t destroy soggy pastures, and they’re easy to fence.

And while llamas may have a reputation for being mean-spirited spitters, Debi Garvin, former president of the Willamette Valley Llama Association, said that they are actually very pleasant animals.

“Do llamas spit?” she asked. “Do dogs bite? A well-mannered dog that hasn’t been mistreated is not going to bite.” Llamas are the same way.

Although well-raised llamas are pleasant to people, they hate unknown dogs and coyotes. Garvin said that retired female llamas made particularly good guards because they are very protective mothers.

“They’re real canine aggressive,” she said. “Until you’ve seen a llama attack a dog you don’t realize.”

When a llama sees a coyote, it sounds an earsplitting alarm.

“First thing they’ll do is alarm and that’s gets everybody’s attention,” said Garvin. “Then most of the time they’ll go check it out and advance towards it. They’ll herd the sheep up close to the barn before they do anything else.”

Once the sheep are herded, they might patrol the perimeter. Llamas make better alarms than protectors, though. They wouldn’t be able to fight off a pack of canines.

“The key with a llama is the alarm. It’s going to scare off a lot of creatures and it’ll wake people up, but it’s not going to do much good if they’re in the middle of nowhere,” Garvin said.

For that reason, llamas make the most sense on smaller pieces of land. Five acres or less is ideal for a single guard llama. Llamas are very social animals, so if other llamas aren’t around, they’ll bond with the sheep or goats they’re meant to protect.

They’re also good on smaller acreages because their feet are easy on the land. Unlike another guard animal option, the guard donkey, llamas have padded feet, not hooves. During the wet season, donkeys’ hooves tear up soft pasture. Llamas’ feet don’t destroy the terrain.

As it turns out, llamas are also the cats of livestock. Unlike sheep or goats that make a mess and go anywhere and everywhere, “llamas all poop pretty much in the same spot,” Garvin said, “and they won’t graze around where they poop.”

by Lana Jones