Guardians of Gale Woods

By: Tim Reese

February 09, 2021

Category: Farm Connections

If you’ve visited Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, Minnesota, you’ve probably met Delilah or Orion, our Great Pyrenees dogs, or Mardi the Llama who is out on the pasture with our sheep. As we tell the students on school field trips, all the animals at the farm have jobs, and the llama and dogs are here to guard the sheep. These striking and charismatic animals have been bred for centuries to live with and protect farm animals.

Mardi the Llama 

mardi the white llama in the center with a child holding his leash at gale woods farm in minnesota
Mardi meeting new friends at the Celebrate the Harvest event at Gale Woods Farm in 2018.

Mardi the Llama comes to Gale Woods every summer from Carlson’s Loveable Llamas in Waconia, Minnesota. He lives with and guards our ewes after the lambs are weaned and the ewes move to the more remote pastures away from the barn. 

Llamas and alpacas are domesticated members of the camelid family originating in South America. Wild South American camelids include the Vicuna and Guanaco. They are distantly related to camels, but evolved in a very distinct lineage from the Asian and African camelids after old world camels came across the frozen Bering straight during a Miocene ice age over 5 million years ago. 

They have unique physical characteristics including very long eyelashes, large banana-shaped and independently moveable ears and a spilt upper lip. Combined with a very long neck and tall stance, it makes for a fun experience visiting Mardi over the pasture fence.

Llamas are highly valued in the Andean cultures as pack animals and for their wool and meat while their use as a guard animal is more secondary. They are successful at guarding because of their imposing height and the threat of a kick from their long legs. They also will spit cud if they feel threatened. This is something I’ve only seen happen once, but it was right in the face of a farm educator who was introducing him to a group of students. While quite funny, it was very unpleasant for her!

Our Great Pyrenees Guardians

a white Great Pyrenees dog on a small grassy slope with a wire fence and brown Finn sheep behind her at Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, Minnesota
Sweet Delilah guarding the sheep at Gale Woods Farm in April 2010.

Great Pyrenees dogs come from their namesake mountain range on the border of France and Spain. People began raising sheep in this region over 5,000 years ago, making it one of the first areas in Northern Europe with domesticated livestock. The Pyrenean Mountain Dog (as it is known in Europe) developed its unique characteristics over several thousand years of years of breeding in this isolated region. 

As a breed, they are known to be loyal, gentle and territorial — characteristics which no doubt were selected for by their human shepherding companions. They have a sweet and gentle disposition and protect livestock not through being aggressive, but by their intimidating size and bark. While they tend to be very quiet and sleep most of the day, they are active all night and bark at almost anything that moves in the dark. 

They have a dual coat of white hair — longer guard hairs and a thick undercoat of softer hairs —which keeps them warm through the cold mountain or Minnesota winters and sheds like crazy in the spring and summer. Combine the barking and coat with an adult size of 100-140 pounds and you have a dog much more suited to living outdoors on a farm than in an urban apartment!

Our guardian animals are a necessity at Gale Woods because we raise sheep in an environment that is also home to a healthy coyote population. It can be thrilling to hear these intelligent and vocal predators around the farm at night, but as a shepherd, it can also be a little nerve wracking. As long as the dogs have been with our sheep at night, they have been safe even though we hear and see coyotes quite regularly.  

We strive to have two Pyrenees at the farm because they can keep each other company and because they work well in pairs. On several occasions when I’ve heard coyotes at very close range and come over to check on the flock, I’ve found one of the dogs barking in the direction of the coyotes and the other holding the sheep at the other end of the pasture as far from danger as possible. 

Our first dog Samson came to the farm in 2003 with our first 7 sheep. When we realized that two dogs would be better than one, we got Delilah, who came to the farm as a puppy in 2008. By then Samson was used to being the only one around and he never really grew fond of Delilah before he died of bone cancer in 2009. 

To have two dogs that liked each other, we bred Delilah. In 2010 she had a litter of 4 puppies, one of whom was Orion, the current elder statesman at Gale Woods. Sweet Delilah died from a variety of old-age causes last fall, but we had been on the waiting list for a new puppy from Housman Farms in Dassel, Minnesota for over a year.

Ursa, our new puppy, arrived at Gale Woods in January 2021. In a cosmic coincidence, she was born on October 27, 2020 — the same day that Delilah died!

Training Ursa, Our Newest Guardian

two photos side by side of Ursa sitting in hay the new white Great Pyrenees dog at Gale Woods Farm
Meet Ursa, our newest guard dog who came to Gale Woods in January 2021.

Training a Pyrenees to be a guard dog is a matter of encouraging their natural instincts. 

In her first days at Gale Woods, we are slowly exposing Ursa to the sheep. The 8-month-old lambs are not afraid of her at all so our job is to keep Ursa from getting knocked around by the more aggressive ones. The older ewes are terrified of the puppy and our job is to slowly expose them to her so they aren’t afraid to come into the barn and eat.

ursa nuzzling a brown sheep nose to nose
Ursa getting to know her flock.

The other training challenge is making sure that Ursa does not learn to climb fences and roam freely. Pyrenees are notorious escape artists and Samson and Delilah have met many of our neighbors, especially if left out on pasture during a storm. These gentle giants are deathly afraid of lightning and thunder.

brown Finn sheep on the left and Ursa, the white Great Pyrenees dog on the right, nosing a wire fence in a snowy pasture
Ursa explores the farm.

Ursa is still a puppy, but she sure is growing quickly! She is just 3 months old and weighs 40 pounds. She is just starting to spend her days on pasture, but as the weather warms up and the sheep get out more, you’ll be able to watch her grow and learn the ropes from Orion if you come out to visit.

About the Author

Tim Reese from the shoulders up in a button-up shirt and a blue ball cap in front of a red building

Tim Reese has been the Farm Supervisor at Gale Woods Farm since it opened in 2003. He manages the facility, livestock and gardens at this educational and production farm. While he has been known to don a scarecrow costume and sing a raucous version of Old MacDonald at Halloween events, he believes that food production and farmers have a serious and important role to play in protecting our environment and promoting land stewardship. When not busy at Gale Woods, Tim enjoys cross-country skiing, biking and exploring the natural world with his family.


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