Great Pyrenees: The canine Praetorian shepherds of Amherst Island

Ghost and Marcus of Topsy Farms on Amherst Island. Photo by Cliff Morton.

Last night the coyotes were once again ‘singing’ from the field behind our home in Bath. This frequent ‘concert’ is the new normal in our neighbourhood. Coyotes, or as some call the hybrid Eastern Coyote, the Coywolf (a genetic mix of wolf, coyote and domestic dog), view most of southern Ontario as their home. These highly-intelligent and adaptable creatures now populate even our larger urban centres such as Toronto, Belleville, Napanee and Kingston.

The Eastern Coyote populates Amherst Island, where they pose a significant threat to the livelihood of the sheep farmers and the lives of the hundreds of ewes and lambs in their care. To combat this predator, sheep farmers on Amherst employ specialized dog breeds with spectacular results. Without hesitation, Jacob Murray, the media and marketing director of Topsy Farm, and his son, Michael, graciously introduced us to their remarkable sheep guarding dogs and taught us about their crucial role on the farm.

Sheep grazing at Topsy Farm on Amherst Island. Photo by Cliff Morton.

The Great Pyrenees, according to the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC), is descended from the Molossian hounds, brought to Spain by the Romans. They were established in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain and were initially employed to protect sheep from predators and, in the Middle Ages, to guard fortresses. The Pyrenees dogs, like other similar breeds, are used to guard a variety of livestock from cattle to goats to sheep. Topsy Farm’s dogs perform a vital task in the policing of the sheep as 24/7, 365-day-a-year essential farm member.

Each of the five Topsy Farms dog’s day begins with a breakfast of meat and vegetables prepared the previous evening in a slow cooker; kibble-type dog food is added in the morning before their early am feeding in the pasture. This mixture is specially designed for the dogs’ lifestyle, effectively nourishing them for their daily duties of protecting the sheep from coyotes, fishers and roaming domestic dogs.

The owner of the Foot Flats Farm, Mark Richie, on the eastern end of the island, explained that Foot Flats initially employed one guard dog per each herd of sheep. The predator coyotes soon learned to hunt in small packs – a trait that is wolf-like, and not coyote-like, as typically coyotes are known as lone hunters. With this new organized and communicative grouping, the coyotes learned that while a single coyote could draw a dog away from the herd, the remainder of the pack could then engage and kill the sheep. Both farms on Amherst Island now employ two dogs per flock, and the dogs have, once again, learned to foil the coyotes.

We noticed the dogs’ collaborative strategy the moment we approached the fence of the pasture. One of the dogs approached and sat several metres back of the fence line, his gaze never leaving us. The second dog moved close to the sheep. As if on command, the sheep began to move to the other side of the pasture deliberately and away from our intrusion. Of course, as soon as they both recognized that the ‘threat’ in the car was, in fact, Michael and his dad, both came over as we entered the field, lay down, and rolled on their side eagerly looking for lots of love and attention. As we were accompanying Jake and Michael, we were instantly accepted and enthusiastically invited to join in the hugging and scratching of these incredibly intelligent, gorgeous canines.

Jacob Murray with Ghost. Photo by Cliff Morton.

Jacob explained that a routine is performed daily in the field during the dog’s single meal of the day. At this time, the dogs are examined by hand for any possible injuries inflicted during the night by predators. The emotional connection Jacob and Michael have to these dogs is no less obvious than that of the dogs towards their farming partners.

The dogs’ day typically proceeds in a tranquil fashion with the sheep grazing and the dogs sometimes napping. It is the nighttime hours, and during lambing, when the guardians must remain extraordinarily vigilant. As Jake explained and was obvious to see, the dogs have trained the sheep to move away from threats, including unknown humans, and respond immediately to the smallest disturbance.

These beautiful dogs are not unduly aggressive with animals that pose a threat. Jake described, for example, the time he witnessed two of Topsy’s dogs escort a coyote from inside the grazing area, through the herd, one dog on each flank of the coyote, and safely out of the field. These beautiful, powerful, agile, and intelligent dogs resort to an aggressive posture only as the final solution to a threat to their sheep.

Trish and Ghost. Photo by Cliff Morton.

One of the Ontario Sheep Farmers’ articles illustrates the breeds employed as sheep guardians and their country of origin. These include the Anatolian Shepherd and the Akbash from Turkey, the Kuvasz from Hungary, the Maremma from Italy, and the Great Pyrenees from France and Spain. All of these breeds share behavioural and physical qualities and, above all, their selfless commitment to protecting their sheep.

A Great Pyrenees ‘shepherd’ amongst her flock. Photo entitled ‘Rosie Peaking Out’ by Don Tubb.

As elite and effective at fulfilling their duty as the Praetorian guards of ancient Greece, the Great Pyrenees, and the Maremma canines of Amherst Island’s Topsy Farms and Foot Flats Farm fulfill their roles with intelligence and dignity – and near anonymity!

Cliff Morton now lives in the Village of Bath. He grew up in the 1950s and ’60s along the Bay of Quinte on the Loyalist Parkway. A former secondary school teacher, his hobbies include reading, writing, birding, fishing, and photography. He enjoys connecting with his community by reading responses to his Kingstonist articles and roaming the fields and forests in the Kingston area with his two golden retrievers.

3 thoughts on “Great Pyrenees: The canine Praetorian shepherds of Amherst Island

  • This article is so enlightening about the Great Pyrenees. I am surprised that they aren’t mentioned in the bible as they worked with the shepherds protecting the flock. As a breeder of this magnificent breed we are careful to maintain their original characteristics.

  • That is a beautiful article, descriptive of caring, talented and resourceful humans and the animals with whom they share their lives. Thank you.

  • Love the picture of the dog in the herd of sheep. Shhhh – he or she is incognito, lol.

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