Sheep breeder Van der Pol: ‘Mastins bark scares wolves’

© Mariska Bloemberg-van der Hulst

Whether herd protection dogs are a solution for sheep breeders? Heidi van der Pol, dairy and sheep breeder in Altweerterheide, Limburg, does not have to think about that. “It is certainly an opportunity for farmers who want to protect their sheep from the wolf.”

Van der Pol walks through the tall grass of the Kempen Broek nature reserve, a few minutes from his farm. The plot is surrounded by flex nets of 1.20 high. Inside are her sheep and two large dogs.

The farmer removes the stream from the wolf-resistant fence and steps over it. The two dogs, Spanish mastins, enthusiastically welcome her. Joy and Charlie are their names, mother and son. They are the size of a large sheep and have the same color. The animals revolve around Van der Pol, it is clear that they like to be petted. They are also friendly with strangers.

It is certainly an option for farmers who want to protect their sheep

Heidi van der Pol, dairy and sheep farmer in Altweerterheide

You would expect herd guard dogs to be extremely alert and violent, they should keep the wolf in check after all. But these animals look meek. What’s up with that?

Harmless working dogs

They are originally working dogs, Van der Pol explains. They are harmless. They come from the Spanish mountains, where they guarded goats against wild dogs. The urge to protect is in them. “Think I’ll let go of our rottweiler among the sheep, and he’s going to shepherd them at once. He is focused on the sheep, but the Spanish mastins do not. They constantly live with the sheep and leave them alone. ‘

If a wolf comes near, they will bark. Van der Pol: ‘They are not afraid and radiate that the wolf is going away. Their protective instinct is amazing. In most cases, barking is sufficient. A wolf avoids conflict. ‘

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Jenny Dorgelo is a consultant for herd protection dogs, she runs the company Canine Efficiency together with her husband Ray. She explains why the big dogs are so suitable: ‘Protection lies in their DNA. These types of dogs have been used for the same purpose for centuries: to protect flocks of sheep from large predators. ‘

Suitable dogs are, for example, the Romanian Carpathian, Caucasian and Yugoslav sheepdog.

Nature as a revenue model

Van der Pol and his partner Paul Schram have a farm with 175 dairy cows. After a career of twenty years as a financial advisor, she left her job four years ago and began working entirely at home. She wanted to build something for herself, preferably a goat farm. But she did not get permission from the municipality, so she chose sheep. She now has sixty swifters.

The livestock farmer spends his sheep on nature organizations’ small grazing projects. ‘As a sheep breeder, you earn a minimum of meat production, that kind of grazing project is a small addition to the income. I’m happy about it.’ She expects it will provide opportunities for livestock farmers with sheep in the future. Agricultural land is transformed into nature, and farmers can play a role in its management.

Fixed fee

Van der Pol herself receives a fixed payment for the hours she works with moving the flex networks. ‘Now, of course, I’m a little sheep breeder. If you want to do well and take on bigger projects, you must have at least two hundred sheep.

Van der Pol’s herd lies exactly between two established wolves, one 30 kilometers north and the other just across the Belgian border. One is often seen 15 kilometers away.

The sheep breeder became involved in a wolf prevention pilot through a nature organization. The use of herd protection dogs is one of the measures she initiated. She’s not a fan of the wolf, but she does not want to interfere in the wolf discussion. ‘It makes no sense, I do not want to polarize. The wolf is a protected animal, so we have to do something to guard the sheep.

Prevention is extremely important, says Van der Pol. Because once a wolf has taken a sheep, it will continue to do so.

When the sheep owner for the first time closed the two dogs in his pack, it required a little getting used to for both parties. But it went pretty fast. The dogs are not specially trained to guard the herd, it is the farmer who must learn to work with them. The person must learn about the breed, he or she must learn to read and understand the dog.

Preventive function

‘The dogs have a preventive function, they mark the territory and the environment so that the wolf notices that there are other dogs in the area,’ explains adviser Dorgelo. “It makes the wolf think twice before he even gets close.”

According to Van der Pol, dogs are easy to handle. She finds their food on the expensive side. The animals eat a total of 40 to 50 euros of fresh meat (from the freezer) per week. The veterinary cost is a maximum of 200 euros per year. But she’s talking about it. “The Spanish dogs give me a soothing feeling.”

Jenny Dorgelo follows sheep farmer Paul Aalbers with his two new dogs.
Jenny Dorgelo follows sheep farmer Paul Aalbers with his two new dogs. © Maarten Sprangh Photography

Johny and Red protect the sheep from the wolf

Paul Aalbers has a flock of sheep in Veluwe. Recently he has two herd protection dogs: Johny and Red. These animals are part of a two-year pilot that protects the sheep from the wolf.

‘The pilot is successful if the dogs run free in the herd and can perform their work independently,’ explains Aalbers. ‘The familiarization period requires some knowledge, perseverance and the ability to read dog behavior.’

The sheep farmer had to undergo an education in advance. There he learned to read the dogs’ behavior and how to correct them. For example, the herd guards must not have contact with the dogs that drive the herd. They should only concentrate on their task: keeping an eye on the environment.

The dogs are of the breed Mastin Español de Trabajo. This type of dog costs between 2,500 and 3,500 euros. They have a preventive function. Aalbers: ‘Put a dog approaching, then they will pay attention. The head goes up and they hear or smell where the danger is coming from. In between, they do to indicate that they are there and that it is better to stay away from danger. Whether you’re for or against the wolf, why not protect your flock? ‘

The wolf committee in the province of Gelderland supports the pilot. Furthermore, it is a collaboration between the landowners Natuurmonumenten, Staatsbosbeheer and Nunspeet municipality and the herd owners Landskabsforvaltning ‘t Groene Veld and the sheep herd Elspeter Heide.

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