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Using Guard Donkeys To Protect Your Herd

Teeth, hooves, and an ornery disposition. A perfect mix for critters charged with protecting a sheep flock.

Doug Rathke, though, suspects coyotes and stray dogs steer clear of his herd's guardians for another reason: "Why would something want to get close to anything that's so ugly?" he says.

Guard donkeys. They just don't get much respect.

The pair at Rathke's 180-acre farm in Hutchinson, Minn., gets the job done, however.

Rathke and his wife, Connie Karstens, manage a herd of about 250 Dorset sheep, as well as chickens, turkeys, and llamas. They sell meat and Rathke is a professional sheep shearer.

That's where he learned about defense-minded donkeys, willing to bite and stomp encroaching animals to protect a herd. He heard talk from other stockmen and decided to give it a try.

His sheep are often kept in paddocks near the Crow River that winds through his property, far enough from the home for predators to go undetected.

When they got their first donkey about a decade ago, they made sure it had a bit of a wild streak, Karstens says. One of Rathke's sheep-shearing clients adopted a wild donkey through a Bureau of Land Management western roundup program. When the animal gave birth, the foal found a home with Rathke and Karstens. "Our thinking was that it might have more natural instinct than one you might just find around a sale," Karstens says.

See, not every donkey is willing to guard. "Some will do it, and some won't," Rathke says. "There's no training for it."

Their donkey, though, went to work and a second soon followed.

So did the funny looks from passersby.

The donkeys mingle with the sheep, although they prefer to hang out with each other, Karstens says. "We find they really bond with the sheep," she says.

Coyotes do roam the area, as does the occasional wandering canine. And the donkeys won't tolerate a trespasser.

"They'll chase after them with their head down," Karstens says. "They'll try to chase them and try to stomp them."

For some donkeys, apparently, canines are the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull.

"I think it's an instinct," Karstens says. "If they see a canine type of animal it's just natural for them to try to run it out of there."

Some donkeys won't even allow a familiar family pet into a sheep pen, Rathke says.

The donkeys also are cost efficient. "One reason we decided to go with donkeys was that we don't have to feed them extra," Karstens says. "They eat what the sheep eat and all we have to do is keep their hooves trimmed."

By Noble Sprayberry

Photography by Kimm Anderson