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Farmers Use Llamas to Protect Sheep

Sheep producers in the United States face a growing problem with coyotes -- the wild dogs native to America's southwest that in recent decades have extended their range eastward. Agricultural experts have come up with a cheap and effective way to discourage coyotes from attacking sheep and other small livestock. VOA's Margaret Kennedy has the story in today's Searching for Solutions report.

In Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, farmer Leo Tammi has several hundred sheep that his dogs help him control. But they are not always there in the pasture to help protect the flock, so Tammi uses another highly effective alternative method to cut down on losses to predators like coyotes.

His method is low tech, low maintenance and costs only a few hundred dollars. He has put a guard llama in with the sheep. The llama is a member of the camel family native to the Andes region of South America. Large llamas, like this one called Chewbacca, are highly effective guardians who do not need any training or special preparation.

Tammi says, "You wouldn't think they were doing anything, but they do. When anything enters the field they know about it. I think it's their innate curiosity and their willingness to confront almost anything that comes in their vicinity (that) is enough to deter a shy animal like a coyote. It's not at all unusual to see a llama in a field of sheep. But you're only going to see one llama. If you have two llamas, they'll hang out with one another, and pay no attention to the sheep and have no value to you at all."

Llamas have become popular as a specialty animal in the United States. At the county fair in Charlottesville, Virginia, one breeder was showing off a magnificent, well-groomed specimen. Some are kept as pets and others produce prized soft wool from their long coats. "It's highly sought after among the breeders these days."

Marian Bragg won a top prize for her young fleece llamas, but she also sells guard llamas. "The llamas I sell as guardians typically are 400 pounds or more [200 kilos]. You want a large animal because it's much more intimidating. You want something that's going to puff its chest out when it senses a predator and who's going to say, 'I'm bigger than you are. You better go away or I'm going to have to do something about it'."

In many ways, a llama is just as defenseless as a sheep. But llamas have a secret weapon. They "spit." An Internet video shows how a mad llama regurgitates and lets loose. It is fast and it is ugly. Llamas may look funny but they know how to make their point.

Tammi says they are probably better as a guardian than meat for eating. "You don't see too many llama burgers in the meat case. Their highest value is their role as a guardian animal."

Llamas are not vicious, but unless acclimated to people at a very young age, they do not like being handled.

Chewbacca seems to enjoy his role as master of the pasture.