Until two years ago, Topsy Farms lost an average of 40 sheep a year to coyotes. But after rethinking its relationship with the predators, the Ontario farm has cut its number of sheep killed to just two a year thanks to some unorthodox management methods.
Coyotes are territorial, says Rachel Hawkshaw, predation manager at Topsy Farms. So, the Ontario farm drew on coyotes’ own natural protective instincts to design a protection plan.
“We looked at how we would defend a territory in the same way a coyote would defend a territory, and we discovered that coyotes respond to scent marking and … territorial occupation," Hawkshaw said.
Instead of trying to wipe out all coyotes in the area, the farm practises peaceful coexistence with just one family and harnesses the animals’ natural protective instincts to keep away other marauders.
To mark the farm’s territory, the farmers used natural scents — from humans. That includes “human urine and human hair to scent-mark along the pasture perimeter,” Hawkshaw explained.
“My father-in-law collected his urine while convalescing. We also know a hairdresser that lives near us and asked her to collect hair for us to place around our perimeter.”
The boundary line is protected by the coyotes who live outside the perimeter, but the farmers know a few sheep will still be lost to them, especially when they begin their rotational grazing away from the home farm on rented pasture.
To keep kills to a minimum, the farm uses large guardian dogs and motion-sensor lights placed at every corner of the pasture. They also have electronic flashing Predator Eyes (small outdoor devices that repel predators), electric fencing and trail cams to monitor activity.
Hawkshaw said the new method won’t save all the sheep, but the farm aims for between 90 and 99 per cent safety for the flock.
Until two years ago, Topsy Farms lost an average of 40 sheep a year to coyotes. But after rethinking its relationship with the predators, the Ontario farm has cut that to just two a year thanks to some unorthodox management methods.
“We don’t want to kill coyotes, and we don’t want to lose our sheep,” Hawkshaw said. “We’ve done research, academic as well as learning from the success of other farmers. We’ve applied what we’ve learned. We’ve achieved great results.”
“It is really important to understand that the reason that Topsy Farms’ management is successful in protecting their livestock from coyotes is because they recognized a more humane way to protect livestock, rather than shooting coyotes,” Sampson said.
When coyotes have stability, they defend their territory, she explained, adding that when you kill coyotes, others quickly move in to take their place.
“It’s proactive to … (have) that stable family unit in the landscape and let them defend it. And I think Topsy Farms really sounds like they discovered this method, which works well for them, nature and wildlife,” she added.
Sampson urges the Ontario government to support farms using non-lethal coyote control methods and encourages other farmers to follow suit.
“The government of Ontario gives millions of dollars to farmers who lose their livestock to predators, and it is going to be more and more. But I think if the government spends half of that money supporting these methods and research … it is a way better sustainable approach to protecting farms and also wildlife,” said Sampson.
“We are going into our third season after two years of satisfactory results,” said Hawkshaw. “We will consider these methods truly successful after five years of data with the application of these tactics. We have hope for the future.”
Ontario farmers lost 1,938 animals to predators in 2021 and collected over $737,500 from the province in compensation, with coyotes accounting for the large majority of claims, according to the Farmers Forum online newspaper.
The Ontario Wildlife Damage Compensation Program provides financial assistance to eligible owners whose livestock or poultry have been killed as a result of wildlife predation, according to the province’s website.
The provincial program is part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year, $3-billion federal-provincial-territorial funding program launched in 2018.
This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.