Q&A with Beth Smith: The Ecological Impacts of Livestock-Guarding Dogs

A sheep dog guarding a flock of sheep.
Great Pyrenees Sheep Dog Guarding the Flock by Don DeBold. CC BY 2.0

Intro

I’m genuinely excited about this Q&A.

You might remember that I published a post about livestock guarding dogs (LGDs) in 2016. If you don’t, the main point is that conservationists are using domestic dogs to scare predators away from livestock.

The idea is that if dogs scare away predators, then there’s less damage to livestock, and less incentive for livestock-owners to kill predators.

While LGDs do prevent human-wildlife conflicts in some cases, not many studies have examined how LGDs affect wildlife species beyond just the creatures that might prey on livestock.

That’s where Beth Smith comes in.

Beth is a PhD candidate at Nottingham Trent University. She’s done a ton of cool research on multiple continents – which you can read about on her website – and for her PhD she’s studying the ways that LGDs might impact broad ranges of species.

Bethany Smith
PhD candidate Beth Smith. Photo courtesy of Beth Smith

I asked Beth five questions about her PhD thesis, and here are her responses:

Q&A

For starters, I have to ask you the question that I ask all Q&A participants: How did you first become interested in conservation?

I have no exciting tale to tell of a moment of revelation, I’ve just always taken a lot of pleasure from being outdoors and seeing animals.

As I was growing up and learning more about habitat loss and wildlife declines, it became clear to me that I wanted to contribute to help combat these issues.

If I had to pinpoint when my interest in conservation piqued it was probably from visiting my uncle in Canada as a child. There was a pack of grey wolves near his house that we could howl to and I just became obsessed with wolves afterwards.

If you’re reading and watching many documentaries about wolves, you soon get exposed to the troubles that large carnivores face in trying to live alongside expanding human populations and I think I decided that I would grow up and ‘help save the wolves.’

A grey wolf
Wolves are, admittedly, quite awesome. European Grey Wolf by Lawria. CC BY-NC 2.0

What made you decide to focus on livestock-guarding dogs (LGDs) for your PhD?

I’ve matured a little since being a kid who just wanted to ‘help save the wolves’ and realised that there are real human costs to living alongside large carnivores – the emotional and economic impacts of losing livestock to predators are huge issues that can’t be ignored.

I want to help wildlife, but I also want to help people, so finding ways to help people protect their livestock and kill fewer predators, e.g. livestock guarding dogs, is what I’m interested in.

Obviously, my research is a bit different than the traditional ‘are LGDs effective at protecting livestock?’ studies and this stems from my interest in studying the effects of domestic dogs on wildlife.

We don’t often think of dogs as being capable of affecting wildlife but a growing body of evidence is showing that domestic dogs (both owned and feral) do eat, disturb, hybridise with, and transmit diseases to wild animals (see here for more info).

This research got me thinking about livestock guarding dogs: they might be good at protecting livestock, but do they also have unintended effects on wildlife?

Cue, my PhD research!

A sheep dog in front of a flock of sheep
Introducing any new species to an ecosystem might have unforeseen consequences, including dogs. Image by denverdobro from Pixabay.

What are the main question(s) you’re trying to answer through your PhD?

The main aim of my PhD is to assess how LGDs affect wildlife.

I’ll be working in the Carpathian mountains in Romania studying LGDs that have been provided to shepherds by Fauna and Flora International.

First, I’ll be focusing on the behaviours of the dogs themselves. I want to know how often the dogs chase, harass or kill wild animals and what species are involved in these interactions.

Second, I’ll be studying the behaviour of wildlife living in the same habitats as these dogs.

I’ll consider the wildlife as one of two types: target predator species (species responsible for livestock predation), which I would expect the dogs to interact with, and non-target species (species that the dogs shouldn’t see as a threat to livestock), such as deer and rodents.

A cheetah
The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is an example of an organization that’s using LGDs to conserve big cats. As their name suggests, the CCF’s “target species” is usually the cheetah. Cheetah by Ulrika. CC BY-ND 2.0

Mainly, I want to know if animals change their behaviour when livestock guarding dogs are present in their habitat.

Once we know more about the specific behaviours of the dogs under different circumstances and how wildlife are responding to these dogs, we can highlight any unexpected positive outcomes for species and attempt to mitigate any negative effects.

In doing so, we can help to ensure that the dogs are providing a net benefit to farmers and conservation.

Your website says that you’ll be using tools like camera traps and scat (poop) to help answer your research questions. Could you please describe your expected research methods in more detail?

Not everybody dreams of collecting poop for their PhD but I actually can’t wait!

We can gather so much information on what animals are eating by looking through their scats for the likes of hair, bones and teeth, and this will help me to determine if the dogs are hunting wildlife.

Dissected wolf scat
Dissecting wolf scat to see what the ‘donor’ was eating. Photo courtesy of Beth Smith.

It’s possible that any animal remains I find could have been scavenged, whereby the dogs find and eat a dead animal as opposed to actively hunting it. This is where the really fun part comes in!

To differentiate between scavenged and hunted animals in the dog scats I’ll be attaching action cameras to some of the dogs so I can get a dogs-eye-view of exactly what they’re eating.

This footage will likely give me motion sickness, but it will also give me lots of information on how the dogs interact with wildlife.

I’ll also be using camera traps – motion and heat sensitive cameras that are activated by animals moving in front of the sensors – to monitor the activity and behaviour of wildlife on and around the pastures where LGDs are used.

I’m hoping to capture images of lots of different species including wolves, bears, wildcats, red foxes, pine martens, roe deer, marmots and hares. In particular, I’ll use this information to look for relationships between habitat use by dogs and habitat use by wildlife.

I’m expecting to find a mix of results in that some species will avoid areas frequented by LGDs, whereas some won’t change their behaviour or might even use these areas more frequently.

Finally, I know that you just published the first research paper from your PhD: a literature review on past LGD studies. What is the most important thing that you, personally, learned from working on that paper?

It’s not so much something I learned but something I was reminded of, and that I need to be conscious of in all of my research. Simply put, it’s that different people have different opinions.

It’s easy from a conservation perspective to think of LGDs chasing large herbivores like deer and kangaroos as a ‘negative’ effect because they’re not predators of livestock.

However, it’s not as simple as that.

Keeping some wildlife away from livestock could help reduce disease transmission between the two or reduce competition for grazing, so these unintended effects could be seen as ‘positive.’

What’s important is that we study all of these effects so that we can work on achieving the right balance between protecting livestock and people’s livelihoods and protecting wildlife.

Snow-covered mountains in Romania
A winter shot of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, where Beth Smith will be doing her field work. Winter Scenery in the Carpathian Mountains, Romania by Romania Photo Tours. CC BY-NC 2.0

Closing Thoughts

I’d like to sincerely thank Beth Smith for participating in this Q&A. I enjoyed learning more about the varied impacts of LGDs, and reading about Beth’s previous adventures.

I’m sure that all of you will join me in wishing Beth the best of luck with her PhD!

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Beth, please check out her website and Twitter profile!

4 Thoughts

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