Dogs perform a variety of tasks on a working ranch in Patagonia, Chile
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
In Patagonia, the sheep are hardy, and the dogs are hardier. At Cerro Negro Estancia (Black Hill Ranch), halfway between Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, sheep are managed by a team of gauchos, herding dogs and flock guardian dogs. Together, they drive the sheep from winter to summer pastures and back again, direct them through chutes into stalls to be shorn of their heavy coats, and protect them from predators.
The current reigning member of the team is Manta, a cross between a border collie and a Patagonian dog called a barbucho, also known as a Magellan sheepdog. Barbuchos are typically used with cattle, but when crossed with border collies, they make good sheepdogs.
The cross combines the cleverness and trainability of the border collie with the endurance and weather-resistant coat of the barbucho. The goal is to create a working dog with traits suited to the climate and type of livestock worked.
Breed is less important than behavior. If a dog has good working ability, he or she is brought into the gene pool.
The result, in Manta’s case anyway, is a dog with the black-and-white coloring of a border collie but a wirier coat and an ability to do anything she’s asked — at least as long as it doesn’t require opposable thumbs or speech.
One dog can work up to 300 sheep. With about 4,000 sheep on the ranch, plus some 300 head of cattle, a number of dogs stay busy. At 7 years of age, Manta is still going strong, but younger dogs are in training to take over her job. Other puppies go to neighboring estancias, where they are in high demand.
Manta doesn’t work alone. She’s aided by Great Pyrenees dogs who act as enforcers against the region’s primary predator: the puma. The 3-year-old Great Pyrenees who greeted us at the estancia is a friendly family pet, but her relatives who guard flocks on the ranch don’t take any guff from the big cats, and they aren’t especially fond of people, either.
Brought up with lambs from an early age, the 80- to 120-pound dogs are fierce protectors of their woolly charges. They work independently, and a pair of them stay in the field with flocks for days at a time. Their presence alone is often enough to deter pumas and send them packing to seek easier prey. That’s good for the ranchers, the sheep and the pumas themselves, who otherwise risk being shot for killing livestock — money on the hoof.
The Great Pyrenees originated in France, where the breed was used to protect flocks from wolves. The Kusanovic family, the owners of Cerro Negro, traveled widely and became familiar with the majestic white dogs in other countries. When they needed a guardian breed for their sheep, the Great Pyrenees was a natural choice, with a weather-resistant coat that allows them to thrive in cold weather and a serious, protective nature.
Now they breed the dogs for themselves as well as selling them to other estancia owners, who appreciate the protection from puma predation. The pumas might not like it so much, but it protects them from being shot, and that’s an important boost to the local economy, where puma trekking by wildlife enthusiasts is taking off.
Visitors to Patagonia can see Manta and dogs like her demonstrate their abilities on estancias that offer tours, as well as at local shearing festivals, which usually run from October to the end of January (summer in the southern hemisphere).