Protecting sheep and lambs from predators

Stock loss from predators is a problem for sheep producers, particularly at lambing time. Some studies report loss rates of 5-10% of lambs to predators soon after birth.

However, it is important to note that predators may not be the only cause of death – there are other animal health issues that can also lead to death, and livestock can disappear for other reasons.

Predators may scavenge on animals that have died from other causes, appearing to be the cause of death, when they are not. The best way to be sure of the cause is to examine carcasses soon after death, before they decompose and scavenging birds and animals remove evidence.

Sheep and lamb predators

Three common predators of sheep are wild dogs, foxes and feral pigs. Birds of prey are also known to take lambs, but cannot be lethally controlled as they are protected native animals.

Understanding predator behaviour and management is the first step in controlling their impacts on livestock.

Wild dogs

Wild dogs are the major predators of sheep and lambs in Queensland, sometimes harassing or killing strong, healthy stock for 'play' rather than food. An AgForce survey of sheep and goat producers in 2009 found that 91% of participants had stock taken or attacked by wild dogs in the previous 12 months, and 96% had participated in wild dog management programs.

Identifying death by wild dogs

Wild dogs generally kill their prey by biting them on the throat, which damages the trachea and the major blood vessels of the neck. This often leaves blood at the mouth and the nose of the carcass, and it's important to distinguish this blood from other bodily fluids that drain from a decomposing carcass to determine the cause of death.

Wild dogs also attack sheep from behind as they run away, injuring the sheep's hind legs. Inexperienced dogs or those attacking 'for fun' can still inflict considerable damage to the hind end of an animal, often leading to its death. In these cases, blood is often found caked on the sheep's hind legs, and the pattern the blood makes (as it has flowed down the sheep's legs while the animal was still upright) is clearly distinguishable from the blood or fluids which flow as a result of decomposition, or from animals feeding on the carcass.

Less visible bites and puncture marks from wild dogs may cause blood poisoning resulting in death. Simply skinning the throat and hind legs of the carcass is often enough to reveal hidden damage. Tooth punctures in the hide, subcutaneous haemorrhage, bruises and tissue damage indicate the involvement of wild dogs. The size of the puncture marks, their location and nature help distinguish between foxes, dogs and the talons of birds of prey.

Controlling wild dogs

Wild dogs are best controlled through coordinated efforts in an area, using a combination of methods including shooting, ground and aerial baiting and trapping. It is well documented that effective control programs involve as many people as possible implementing a range of control techniques in a strategic and coordinated manner over large areas.

Strategies to prevent wild dog problems include:

  • conducting regular coordinated and strategic baiting programs
  • erecting exclusion fencing
  • keeping vulnerable stock in well-fenced paddocks close to the house
  • using guardian animals
  • eliminating easy food sources such as open composts and dead stock.

Learn more about wild dog control.

Foxes

Foxes occasionally attack healthy lambs, and sometimes rogue foxes can cause high stock losses.

Identifying death by foxes

Like dogs, foxes attack by biting the throat, however they do not have the strength to cause bone damage. It can be difficult to distinguish between fox and dog predation on lambs, except when there are other signs (e.g. tracks, scats, damage to adult sheep in the area). The size of bites and puncture marks often provides the most reliable guide.

Foxes are known to carry small carcasses back to their dens. Sheep carrion is a large part of the diet for foxes.

Controlling foxes

To protect sheep against foxes, a combination of approaches is most effective, including:

  • shooting
  • poisoning
  • trapping
  • using guardian animals
  • fencing
  • land management practices.

Ideally fox management will be coordinated with other landowners.

Feral pigs

Feral pigs, particularly large boars, sometimes move onto properties and into lambing paddocks when ewes are lambing. The threat of feral pigs and the damage they can cause is often underestimated yet they can have significant impacts on reproduction rates in sheep.

Feral pigs:

  • kill and eat lambs shortly after birth (possibly killing weak lambs that would have died anyway)
  • kill and eat healthy lambs up to 1 week old and older
  • scavenge on stillborn lambs.

Identifying death by feral pigs

When lambs killed by pigs have been examined, they have blood-stained belly wool. This is caused by the pigs' habit of knocking lambs over, putting a foot on them and feeding from the chest region.

Controlling feral pigs

Pigs are best controlled through a coordinated approach that involves a combination of:

  • trapping
  • poisoning
  • shooting
  • electrified fencing.

Also consider...