Shepherds no longer watch their flocks by night; that work has been outsourced. Chris Wilson of Clover Creek Farms in Jonesborough employs four guardian dogs to take care of her flock of 130 Katahdin sheep. A fifth, Daisy, is retired after more than a decade of service.
Daisy is a Maremma, an Italian breed, but the active workers are Akbash from Turkey. Except, of course, for Maggie, who is the daughter of Daisy and Nash, a 190-pound Akbash, who had a brief relationship with Daisy shortly before he was neutered. The resulting Akbash-Maremma mix has proved to be an effective one, and Chris wishes she had kept more of that litter.
Asked why she chose these breeds, Chris said, “Because they’re not Pyrenees. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but Pyrenees have been raised as pets; they have lost a lot of their natural abilities, and not through their own fault.”
Akbash, on the other hand, operate on pure instinct, having been bred for their calling for more than 3,000 years.
“The Akbash will protect anything they grow up with,” Chris said. “The dogs are born in the barn with the lambs and spend their whole lives with them. They accept those lambs as litter mates.”
There is one problem with this strong attachment: As youngsters, the very large, very strong dogs want to play with the lambs and have a tendency to get too rough. Chris, husband Ray and daughter Sarah have to keep an eye on them until they mature.
In our area, there are two major threats to sheep: coyotes and dogs, with dogs being more destructive.
“Coyotes just kill to eat; dogs will kill for fun,” Chris said, adding she hasn’t had any trouble with her neighbors’ dogs where they live now.
Chris has been raising sheep for 20 years. “I was doing sheep before sheep were popular,” she said. “I bought them for my border collie. You have to have sheep to train your dog. I started with five and fell in love with them. I’ve been as high as 500, but after three years of drought, I’ve cut way back.”
Sixteen years ago she bought her first guardian dog; 15 years ago she saw the first coyote on their land.
“Now coyotes are everywhere,” she said. “But I’ve never lost a thing to a predator since I got the dogs.”
The dogs will surround and kill a coyote if they can, Chris said. Maggie, the Maremma-Akbash mix, carries a battle scar on her face from a coyote she cornered. The dogs also keep the area free of possums and raccoons and chase off hawks that threaten the guinea fowl and free-range chickens whose eggs Chris sells at the Jonesborough Farmers Market.
Most amazing is the way the dogs operate as a team, dividing up duties and pulling together when danger threatens.
On Nov. 8, one of the ewes went into labor. Chris said three dogs surrounded the ewe protecting her while she was most vulnerable, the fourth dog gathered the other sheep together and kept watch over them.
Ewes can lamb twice a year, but Chris lets hers lamb just once. Those are busy times for the guardian dogs. Not only do they protect the ewes, they help the moms clean up the newborns and begin right away to protect the new generation.
“Ewes often have twins born an hour and a half apart,” Chris said. “The first lamb is up and running in that time and will wander away from the mother. The guardian dogs get the lambs and push them back to their mother. That can’t be taught, that’s instinct.”
During the long hours of lambing, Chris said the dogs work in shifts; three will remain with the ewes while a fourth comes back to the barn to eat. On a normal day, the dogs work “graveyard” shift, from dusk to dawn, then they laze in the shadow of the barn during the day.
Akbash and Maremma are strong and fierce if threatened by a predator, yet they are very friendly toward people. Some say you should never touch a guardian dog, but Chris disagrees. “What if you need to handle them?” she asked, and in Nash’s case, she most definitely did.
The 190-pounder was bitten by a black widow spider and his eye swelled shut. The Wilsons had to put drops in his eyes. A dog unused to being handled would have been impossible to treat.
Chris’s dogs approach non-threatening strangers, lowering their heads to be petted and paw at Chris for affection, but it’s clear they aren’t house pets. These guardians spend their lives with their adopted litter mates, doing what their breeds have done for millennia: keeping their flock safe. It is a noble calling.