Walking into the pasture to feed his alpacas one morning, Troy Dignam, a hobby farmer in Sooke, found one of his animals laid down on the ground at the far end opposite his barn.
Turkey vultures were circling.
When he approached, he saw the alpaca had been killed and disemboweled by a cougar.
“When I first moved to Sooke, I was warned that the area was cougar rich and that it would be wise to keep my alpacas in a secure location at night, if the dogs could not be out with them. I foolishly didn’t heed that advice, and now have seen the outcome of that bad decision,” he wrote in an email of the incident in March 2022. “I initially didn’t think it was a cougar kill, as the only thing eaten were the internal organs; however upon calling the conservation officer to report it, I was told that this is typical for a cougar kill. They will often eat the organs and leave the carcass for a future meal.”
After the incident, Dignam quickly adapted an existing shelter he had on his land to keep the alpacas in at night. He also trains Anatolian shepherd dogs to protect the herd, but keeps them in the barn overnight to stop them barking and disturbing the neighbours.
“If a farm needed to build a structure large enough to house all of their alpacas at night, depending on how many animals they have, the expense could be bank-breaking. Fortunately, I only have (five) alpacas … and I already had large lean-to shelters which only had to be modified slightly to make them complete enclosures. Even at that, however, the cost was a couple thousand dollars and a fair amount of physical labour.”
While his farm is smaller than others in the region, Dignam’s faced first-hand the difficulties many farmers do.
Six cougars have been killed by conservation officers in Metchosin and the surrounding area so far this year, as farmers grapple with losing livestock.
Conservation officers captured and euthanized the big cats after they attacked sheep on farms in the rural district.
In a statement, the Conservation Officer Service said they have put significant resources into responding to cougar complaints in the area, but says they are also emphasizing education to help farmers limit the risks of cougars or bears attacking livestock like sheep.
“While the COS recognizes losing sheep is frustrating, it is not the mandate of the COS to create predator-free zones. Proper livestock husbandry management is critical to help reduce predation and lessen livestock losses,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Conservation Officers must prioritize public safety calls for service as the highest priority, such as those related to dangerous hunting or dangerous wildlife in urban and rural settings that pose a significant risk to human safety.”
The service emphasized they don’t have the capacity or the mandate to instantly respond to cougar calls and immediately respond to a cougar attacking livestock issues.
The service added that farmers should follow recommendations from BC Cattlemen’s Association, a provincial body which runs livestock protection education programs. These include installing an electric fence, locking up sheep in a barn overnight, regularly checking the condition of the herd and using a livestock guardian dog.
But doing so can be expensive, said Dignam.
“The cost of building secure space for that many animals is staggering to think about and, sadly, too much for most hobby farms. As such, a lot of people simply don’t have a secure place for their critters and risk having a tragedy like I experienced.”