When we decided those many years ago to raise sheep, we were counseled by many well-meaning folks to be sure and bring some llamas or guard dogs in at the same time or we’d most certainly lose the flock to coyotes and other predators. We thought about it some, and while listening to several coyote packs sing for territorial rights around the farm every night, we knew we’d need to do something. And then there was that big cat attack on a 600-pound heifer.
Karen and I have nothing against llamas, and our neighbors four miles away have them and they are interesting, lovely creatures; we just don’t relate to camelids the way we do more traditional livestock classes, like cattle, sheep, goats and hogs. And since we already had a pack of four dogs, we really weren’t too keen on disrupting the delicate and mostly stable balance our group found. We also weren’t keen on raising a pup with the first lambs and trying to train it properly. What to do?
Another shepherd and good friend came to the rescue with the suggestion that we consider keeping some donkeys with the various sheep groups to keep them safe. This friend has a pair of miniature donkeys that really dislike canines and an ornery mule who dislikes intruders of all kinds, and he rarely loses even one lamb to coyotes or other predators in a season.
As luck would have it, another acquaintance who raises goats was tired of “dealing” with her guard donkeys and was switching over to guard dogs and just so happened to have a pair of donkeys for sale — and they already had a bad taste in their mouth for dogs of all kinds. It took a minute for us to settle on a price and a pickup date — when we arrived with the trailer, the female jumped out of her enclosure to get to her baby (baby wasn’t part of the deal) and the jack was pacing and bucking and generally not happy.
It took a little trickery and coaxing to get the young female into the trailer. A bit of hay, leading her baby to the trailer and a bit of gentle rope work and the donkey we now know as Valentine was secure in the stock trailer’s front compartment. The 18-plus-year-old donkey we knew as Jack was not so easily tricked into loading until we brought out the mint candies. Turns out Jack had a powerful sweet tooth and in spite of a powerful suspicion with everything that even looked like it had something to do with the trailer, he succumbed to a neat little pile of mints that he simply could not reach without putting all four feet in the trailer. The trailer door still has a little crescent-shaped dent where he let us know how he felt about getting tricked.
By then it was quite dark — we drove the hour and a bit home to our farm, listening to an eerie braying and occasional slam from the trailer. I’ll admit to wondering more than once whether I just made the biggest mistake of my life — well, actually I knew it couldn’t be the biggest because I’d already lived through that one. I was glad that our corral was goat tight and bull strong. After telling ourselves the critters would calm down in time, we unloaded them into the corral. There was a little bucking and kicking and racing around, but they both eventually fell to munching hay. Valentine and Jack were completely different by morning—they were affectionate — almost demanding when it came to begging for attention.
The next day another neighbor from about a mile away called to find out if we had some donkeys — he’d heard the braying. He said “I hope you don’t have an intact jack, they’re nothing but trouble and would just as soon kill you as graze.” Yikes, yes, Jack was an intact jack. But how could he really be that much more scary than the large groups of bulls I used to handle and sort on foot back when I had a registered Angus herd?
To make this long story come to a close, let me say that Jack and Valentine were heck on coyotes, our dogs and anything else they considered to be a nuisance or an intruder; when a threat was perceived, the long ears would go back, the head down and the chase was on. They both loved people though and not even once took a shot at us. Within a year or so they became mildly tolerant of our dogs — mainly when we were passing through with the dogs — but interlopers were on notice. And since that time, Jack passed away but he left us with a precocious young jack we call Orson — we plan to trade him for another jack — and a lovely jenny born just last winter, called Serena.
Orson lives with and looks after the rams all year until November, when the rams are needed for breeding. Valentine and Serena wander with the ewes and keep them safe. Since we’ve relied on donkeys as watch animals for the sheep, we’ve lost only one lamb to coyotes — this lamb slipped under a wire when she was about 3 days old and called in the predators looking for the mom.
Our donkeys are neither Miniatures nor Mammoths. They are more or less standard-sized, and they are hardy, require no finicky care, show affection to friends and flashing teeth and stomping hooves to interlopers. In our experience, we haven’t had problems with intact males — just be smart when you are around him, and begin halter training him early. If you’ve turned him out with the jennies for breeding, you may want to steer clear of the proceedings. He’ll likely not feel threatened by you, but he might not notice if you get in the way.
If you are interested in adding donkeys to your place, there are a few varieties from which to choose.
The Miniature donkey (under 36 inches tall) hails from the Mediterranean region where it has been used for thousands of years as a diminutive beast of burden. These animals are welcomed pets at farms and acreages all over the country. They may not earn their keep in the truest sense of the word, but they require little in the way of feed — assuming plenty of range or pasture is available — and routine care includes hoof trimming, even in relatively rocky country. We’ve been told that this is due to the animal’s light weight, which isn’t sufficient for the hoof to readily self-trim. These little guys can easily live to 30 years of age. Miniature donkeys aren’t rare, thus easy to find.
The American Mammoth Jackstock traces its roots to America’s Founding Fathers in their search for a large, strong donkey that could be used to sire large, strong mules. The American Mammoth Jackstock was developed, at least in part, with the help of large asses that were obtained from Italy and Spain. The Mammoth jack is expected to stand at least 58 inches high at the withers, although taller is not generally an issue. As you might expect, with the demand for mules quite low (on a relative scale), the Mammoth Jackstock breed has been close to the brink of extinction more than once. Thanks to the concerted efforts of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, these fine animals are still with us, in numbers that place its status as “threatened” on the conservation priority list. If you want to put some of these animals to work watching your flocks, you’d help keep an important breed alive.
There are other types of donkeys and asses, but the Standard, Miniature and Mammoth offer more than sufficient capability and characteristic for the average homestead. And now after years of having them around, I cannot imagine life without the affections of a donkey — even when the sheep are long gone.