In addition to the twenty-eight llamas and alpacas at our place, Jeremiah shears roughly a dozen llamas and alpacas for other people. Some of them are better than others. A few stand as well as our own. Several fuss a bit. (I have a few who do that as well.) And a few of them full on freak during shearing. Thanks to one of those “freak out” llamas, I’m sporting several black and blue bruises and a now fading rope burn.
This weekend, I travelled to Northern Illinois with Jeremiah to shear three guard llamas. These particular llamas belong to wonderful sheep ranchers who had employed him last year for the same task. The owners are proactive about their livestock. They take excellent care of their sheep. And, up until my visit, they were largely misinformed about their llamas. In my opinion, their misinformation was perpetuated by the animals’ breeder, either unintentionally due to their own ignorance or intentionally to ensure easy sales.
For those of you who may not know, llamas are often “employed” to guard other livestock. They regularly guard sheep, goats, alpacas, etc, against natural predators. Being strongly bonded herd animals, they can be exceptionally good at this work because they bond with other types of livestock and will consider them to be their herd. And llamas protect their herd. Llamas are especially noted for preventing coyotes from attacking lambs and kids in sheep and goat herds.
As often as not, people who get guard llamas know almost nothing about llamas. They depend on the people who they’re buying the llamas from, or the internet, to fill in sizable knowledge gaps. And as often as not, they do not get accurate information.
When we pulled up to the sheep barn, I noticed that only two of the llamas were haltered. The owners explained how they caught the two llamas laying the halters across the llamas’ food and fastened them while the llamas ate. The third could not be caught.
“So, you can’t approach them?”
“Well, you know, they’re guards. So they aren’t supposed to be too friendly, and we’re not supposed to approach them…”
That right there…
The idea that guard llamas must, for some reason or another, be wild and crazy (or at least distant and unmanageable) is one of the most commonly perpetuated myths in the industry. The idea behind it is that you don’t want your guards to bond to you. They have to bond with the sheep, goats, etc. As such, breeders often slate poorly trained or badly behaved animals for guard duty. These animals often cannot be caught or handled without great difficultly. They are practically impossible to shear. You can’t trim their feet. You can’t vet them.
Oh, and sometimes they throw me into a fence while I’m trying to help shear them. And I don’t like that.
Let me be clear. Llamas, even sheep and goat guards, should be manageable. Training a llama to accept basic care and to lead will not magically remove its instinct to protect its herd, nor will such training magically bond your animal to you rather than its herd.
“Well, we were told not to handle them much by the breeder, and I didn’t see anything on the internet to contradict that…”
She had a point. Most of the information out there about llama guards says that they should be largely left alone. So lets bust some internet myths.
Myth 1: Guard llamas have to be mean to be effective.
Truth: Guard llamas have to bond to your herd to be effective. They have to be alert to be effective. They have to be adults to be effective. They should not be mean or unmanageable. They definitely shouldn’t perceive you as a threat to their herd.
Myth 2: All llamas make good guards.
Truth: Some llamas are not meant to be guards. If you’re in search of a guard, look for a fully grown gelding or female. Intact males should not guard other livestock; they will often try to breed them and could hurt them. Former breeding males can also be a poor choice (for the same reason that currently intact males are).
Young animals (under two) should not be considered as guards. Until that age, they are not fully grown. They need to be big enough and confident enough to do the job you’re asking of them. When they’re young, they should be protected by the herd, not the other way around, and it’s unfair to ask babies to protect babies.
Myth 3: If you want a llama to guard, you shouldn’t have other llamas around.
Truth: Llamas will guard together, but it’s probably best if you don’t buy a strongly bonded pair (such as mother and daughter) to guard together.
Myth 4: You don’t have to mess with a guard llama; just let them be.
Truth: This one falls in line with the “they should be mean” myth; “they should be mean,” but “don’t worry. You don’t need to mess with them.” However, just like all other livestock, they need vet care and worming. Toenails need to be trimmed. You have to shear them at least once a year, sometimes more often. “Mean” guard llamas (and they are usually not truly mean so much as untrained) often have their basic care neglected because no one can get near them.
Guard llamas can be fantastic. They will do a job for you, fending for your flocks of sheep or goats, sometimes even giving their own lives to defend your livestock against predators. In return, they should be given quality care, and they should be trained so that care can be given without stressing out you or the animal.
Final note: One last thing people need to realize. Llamas will protect their herd from predators. Unless you socialize them to know the difference, they will not be able to tell the difference between coyotes and the family dog. With proper socialization and training, the two species can and will happily co-exist. Without it, dogs who the llamas perceive as threatening will be treated as such. (And most guard size llamas are more than capable of killing Fluffy….) Yet another reason to socialize and train your llamas.
Oh – And for those of you who might be wondering, the sheep ranchers with the three llamas were very excited to learn that their llamas didn’t have to be difficult. They want to send them to me one at a time this summer for some basic obedience lessons.
EDIT: Another llama mama out there (who has a lot of experience with herd guards) pointed out that even bonded pairs sometimes do well as guards. It really just depends on the pair. I should clarify. Bonded or not, the llamas need to be interested in your herd. If they’re interested, they will guard. If they care more about each other, they might not guard well.
Can I just start by saying how blessed I am to have such an amazing husband? I know, some of you are probably sick of hearing about him, but yesterday, when I came up to him while he was in the middle of one of his projects to tell him that a few of my llamas were acting like they were getting pretty hot, he dropped everything he was doing and came with me to the barn immediately to shear a few more. No complaints. No questions asked.
Every year, around this time, we usher in the beginning of summer by shearing. For the past three years or so, Jeremiah has done our shearing himself. (While we were dating, he made the mistake of proclaiming that “I bet I could do that,” after watching someone else shear. Turns out, he could. And he was better at it than the original guy. Guess who got drafted?)
So, why do you shear?
You might not know that llamas and alpacas are wool bearing animals. Though not as famous for that job as sheep, they have a high quality, hypoallergenic wool. Unlike sheep wool, there is no lanolin to complicate the whole wool-to-product process. It’s lovely stuff.
However, in my area of the world, it isn’t just about harvesting a useful animal product, it’s about keeping my llamas safe and happy. Lamas and alpacas are Andean animals from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru. While we would probably think of those places as hot, the truth is that, in the mountain ranges, it’s pretty temperate to chilly. Their wool protects them from the chill in those regions. It does a pretty good job of protecting against our winters. It can be a death sentence throughout our summers. We shear our llamas so they don’t overheat AND to harvest their lovely wool. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.
They just…stand there?
I’m not sure why, but most people seem to be under the impression that shearing is a knock down, drag out between us and the llamas. It’s really not. While some animals are more difficult than other–one particularly petulant little monster did manage to kick Jeremiah pretty good this year–most realize that having no wool feels far better than having gobs of it, and they will stand accordingly. (I’ve noticed their behavior for shearing is even better when it’s hot on shearing day.) Even our alpacas, who some people in the industry insist on laying out like sheep, stand very well to be shorn. I’ve heard horror stories of shearers who, for example, tie the animals’ feet and drop them to the ground. In my experience, that sort of procedure is traumatizing and unnecessary. Also, those shearers are the ones most likely to kill an animal by accidentally breaking it’s neck.
How do you decide who to shear first?
I have had several people ask me this year how I decide who to shear first and how I pick their haircuts. (We stretch shearing out over a week or so. Not everyone is shorn on the same day.) It’s fairly commonsense. If an animal looks hot, or has a risk factor (age, especially heavy wool, etc), he or she is shorn early. Older animals, however, end up keeping more of their wool (especially on the neck) because wool growth slows down as they age. I want to make sure they will be able to keep warm over the winter.
What do you do with all of that wool?
With twenty-eight wool-bearing camelids on the ranch, that’s a pretty fair question. Some of the wool is sold; some is given away. Some, especially the wool that isn’t as nice, is thrown out. (There are uses for that wool, such as felting or garden mulch, but I don’t really have the time to deal with it.)
Some, we use to take funny pictures.
Are any of you wondering about llama wool or shearing? (Or llamas in general?) I would love to field questions! Shoot!