My family owns a small sheep farm in Minnesota — or at least at one time it was just a sheep farm. Over the years, our acreage has evolved into a sanctuary of sorts for creatures who have worn out their welcome at their previous homes: angry rabbits, a bouncing-off-the-walls terrier, several geriatric sheep geezers, and a large, antisocial llama. This one llama, no doubt like other folks’ less useful livestock of every sort, became a beast of burden, indeed, just not in any favorable sense of the word.
It sounded perfect
We knew the llama came with some behavioral baggage, and his adoption was not an altogether altruistic gesture. We were in dire need of a guardian for our sheep. It was a dry summer, and coyotes were coming out of the woodwork to devour lambs and other small living things.
Though we already owned one llama and two alpacas, these three wool-bearing camelids were worthless as protectors. They had come to us as adult animals. Since they hadn’t grown up as part of the sheep flock, they lacked any protective instincts toward it. And, at least in my experience, if you have more than one llama or alpaca, they tend to form their own herd group. Enjoying their cozy and exclusive clique, they couldn’t care less if a wolf carried away the entire sheep flock. A young llama, pastured alone with the sheep, was just what we needed.
So, when a neighbor dropped by and told us that he needed to find a home for an aggressive yearling llama, my husband reluctantly agreed. “Mack is just a little overly friendly, likes to get in your face,” said the neighbor. “He’s a bit high-spirited, but you’re gonna love him. Just don’t turn your back on him.” Maybe this should have raised a red flag.
Mack arrived bright and early the next morning. He clattered off the livestock trailer and into a small corral near the barn, next to the pasture that housed Camilla, the prima donna of our camelid community. It was love at first sight for Mack. In order to increase the likelihood of Mack bonding with the sheep flock, Camilla and the two alpacas were moved to a more distant pasture, while Mack joined the sheep to assume his solo guard llama gig.
However, Mack had no interest in sheep. That brief exposure to a female of his species had whetted Mack’s appetite for romance. In the following days, Mack spent all of his waking hours pacing the fence line that separated him from his long-haired, snaggle-toothed paramour. It was not unusual for the big brown bully to gallop right over the top of anyone who dared interfere with his Camilla-watching. This became quite irritating (and eventually quite debilitating) for those of us who happened to cross his path while going about the farm chores. We moved Mack to a separate, isolated pen for our own safety, hoping that the raging of his hormones would eventually abate.
While the coyotes continued to carry off our lambs, our ace guard llama was sequestered behind the barn in solitary confinement.
The lost sheep
Soon after, Levi Lommen joined the menagerie. The exotic four-horned Jacob sheep was acquired as a newborn by city dwellers. They believed the bottle-fed lamb could be house trained and kept indoors as a pet. However, by the time he was 4 months old, Levi’s adoptive family had had enough.
Alice, Levi’s adoptive mother, finally accepted that housebreaking a sheep wasn’t going to work, and she needed to find Levi a safe haven. She called a farmer who said he was willing to take Levi, but upon further questioning, Alice learned that the farmer butchered all of his lambs in the fall. When Alice called me, she was very clear about one thing: She was looking for a home where Levi’s ultimate destination would not be the dinner table.
The day he arrived, Levi was perched beside Alice in the front passenger seat, secured safely with the shoulder strap. He peered out the window like a child anticipating a trip to the zoo.
Hoping to make Levi’s transition as easy as possible, I asked Alice, “What does he like to eat?”
She hesitated a while before replying, “I’m really embarrassed to admit this, but he only eats peanuts and corn chips. Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos. We figured that was pretty much a grain-based diet.”
Alice cried as she drove away alone, and Levi cried for days afterward, watching the driveway, waiting for the return of Alice and her minivan. He was inconsolable.
A few weeks passed, and Levi had made no friends among the flock. His aura of melancholy and dejection was depressing, and I didn’t want it to affect the rest of the sheep. We couldn’t afford Prozac for 30. We moved Levi to Mack’s enclosure, hoping to lessen the loneliness of both animals.
At first, Mack and Levi ignored each other completely, spending their days in opposite corners of the pasture. A week later, we noticed that the two animals seemed to be grazing in the same general vicinity, though Mack still did not overtly acknowledge Levi’s presence.
Later that summer, Levi suffered a series of unfortunate events, resulting in the loss of one of his four horns. Our veterinarian came out to stitch the gaping hole where Levi’s fourth horn had once protruded. Levi struggled to escape the stitching and restraint. Surprisingly, Mack galloped over and spat at the vet in response to Levi’s distress. We captured Mack and tied him up, but still he thrashed about and screamed all through Levi’s procedure.
The incident with the vet was the first time we witnessed Mack’s protectiveness toward Levi. More episodes followed. By the end of their first season together, Mack allowed no one to touch Levi. If shearing or vet work was to be done, Mack needed to be lured away and restrained with sturdy ropes and moveable gates. Any procedure involving Levi was conducted well out of sight and earshot of Mack, or he went ballistic. Even casual visitors to the farm didn’t escape Mack’s fanaticism. Guests loved taking pictures of the oddball Levi. But when camera-bearing visitors approached their pen, Mack stood broadside, teeth bared, ears laid flat against his head, blocking their view.
Serious about his work
Mack has become a superb guard llama, even though he has only one sheep to protect. He isn’t too concerned with the threats posed by coyotes or stray dogs, but he guards Levi vigilantly against those he views as real predators: photographers, sheep shearers and veterinarians.
Would I recommend a llama as a guardian for sheep? Absolutely! But I’d suggest choosing a single gelded male llama, and one who has been raised by his mother without too much human intervention. This would eliminate the types of issues we encountered with Mack, who was an intact male and had been overly and/or abnormally socialized by being bottle-fed and raised as a pet.
I still occasionally bring Levi a few corn chips as a treat. He mouths the chips delicately as I offer them, one by one. When I stow the chips away and turn to leave, Levi cries out in protest. At this distress signal from his protégé, Mack lays his ears back and shoots me a sidelong glower that would wither a far more substantial individual than me. Knowing what’s coming, I take cover, and a moment later, a wad of spittle, aimed high and outside, passes over Levi’s off-kilter third horn. It’s Mack’s way of saying, “It’s OK, buddy. I’ve got your back.”
Kathy Sletto is an author, shepherdess and fiber artist who lives near Alexandria, Minnesota. You can learn more about Kathy’s farm, fiber products, and the menagerie at Shepherds Bay Farm Online.