In the The Field Guide to Fields, Bill Laws colourfully depicts how fencing is a global and age-old practice. Fences mark field boundaries and they stop farm animals from straying. Â Fences make it easier to look after animals but enclosed areas can make them more vulnerable to wily predators. During our recent trip in Bolivia we learned how farmers have come up with a clever way to protect their sheep from foxes.
After an amazing drive along winding mountainous roads of Chuquisaca, crossing a narrow improvised bridge just about the width of the car, and wading through riverbeds, we arrive at the farmhouse of doĂ±a Basilia Camargo early in the morning. Her husband is about to leave to mend some fences around their fields further up in the mountains. DoĂ±a Basilia and her husband keep their 15 sheep near the house in a corral fenced with brushwood and barbed wire.
I ask about the miniature house that has been built into the corral. The little mud house has a slanted roof to let the rainwater glide off, a small window and a door leading to the coral. It looks like a house for chickens, or a toy made by the children, but doĂ±a Basilia explains that it has a more serious purpose. She is raising a dog to protect the sheep from foxes.
DoĂ±a Basilia gets into the corral, and shows us an even smaller shelter in one of the corners. She calls it a â€śnest,â€ť and she wriggles her hand through the small opening and brings out a little puppy that is only two weeks old, barely big enough to stand on its own legs. Most people only bring home puppies that have been weaned, but this puppy has a ewe as a substitute mother.
â€śI make the ewe lie down and then let the puppy suckleâ€ť, she explains. The dog will continue to suckle as it grows older, and will bond with the flock, following them to pasture and back to the corral.
It all has been properly planned. The small mud house that we saw along the fence is to become the house for the dog, once it has become bigger. When the puppy is old enough to follow the sheep, doĂ±a Basilia will take him with her, and spend two weeks herding the sheep. That should be enough for the dog to learn to tend the flock on his own.
DoĂ±a Basilia used to have a sheep dog but it died three years ago, and she has been trying since then to raise another one. Some dogs have died and others refuse to be trained.
She points to three dogs napping in the sun. â€śI tried training that dog there, but he is lazy and doesnâ€™t like to walk. He goes out with the sheep, but comes back and just lies down near the house. I hope I will have better luck with this one,â€ť she confides in us smilingly.
So while brushwood and barbed wire fences may be enough to keep the sheep in, a specially trained dog could defend them from foxes, both in the field and in the corral, where the dog will be sheltered from the cold in his own little house. Once more we were reminded of the marvelous ingenuity of local farmers to use their available resources to protect their valuable flock.
Bill Laws, 2010. The Field Guide to Fields. Hidden Treasures of Meadows, Prairies and Pastures. Washington: National Geographic.