The Yorkshire Vet Julian Norton meets Bear a livestock guardian dog who protects his flock of hens

I met an interesting patient a few months ago. The relaxed and laconic dog looked, to the untrained eye, like a long-haired and pale Golden Retriever.

Bear helps protect a flock of hens

But I was quickly enlightened by her devoted owner – she was, in fact, an unusual and amazing breed called a Maremma – Abruzzese Sheepdog. The fascinating thing about these dogs, which hail from Italy, is that their role in helping sheep does not involve rounding them up from hills into smaller paddocks or pens like the classic sheepdogs in this country.

Rather, they protect the flock from attack by wolves or other predators, by mixing amongst the sheep. From a distance they must look just like part of the woolly flock. There are other breeds that do the same thing: the Anatolian which once had a similar role in Turkey, is now achieving great success warding off (and therefore protecting) cheetahs from herds and farmers in Namibia.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The Pyrenean mountain dog and the Polish Tatra Sheepdog historically do the same job. These livestock guardian dogs have an amazing heritage but, like many traditional roles, have become largely redundant over recent years, as predators such as wild wolves and bears have disappeared.

As I discussed the fascinating history of the Maremmas in my consulting room, it transpired that the role of livestock guarding dogs has been revived much closer to home than the Anatolians in Namibia. Just outside Halifax, there is a free-range chicken farm where hens roam the grassy slopes of the Pennines.

Having been blighted by fox attacks, which had decimated the flock, Danni and her husband had looked for a sustainable and humane solution. They found Bear and Lina, a pair of Maremmas. Lina was a rescued dog and Bear arrived as a puppy.

The two immediately formed a bond and Bear learnt from the older dog, who knew just what she needed to do. My interest was piqued and I decided that, if I could find some spare time, I would go and visit this farm, to see the dogs in action.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, I headed through Halifax to see Danni, Bear and Lina and Danni’s flock of hens, to learn about Maremmas and witness their guarding first hand. On a sunny day, cotton wool clouds shared a sapphire sky and the sloped grassy paddocks, peppered with hens, looked like a scene from the Alps. Danni pointed out the fluffy guarding dogs in the distance, as they sat surveying the scene. With noses in the air, they quickly sensed someone had arrived near the hens and came to investigate.

“I’ll put Lina away,” said Danni, explaining: “She’s very protective of the flock and doesn’t like strangers.”

But Bear was more relaxed and came to say hello. Danni told me about the problem they had experienced with foxes. I could see why. The perimeter boundary consisted of a dry stone wall. Even with extra reinforcements and electric fencing, a fox would find a way into the hen field. And that’s where the Maremmas came in.

I could see a well-worn track around the outside of the field. Danni explained that the dogs walked round the edge of the field each morning and evening, checking its integrity. Then, they’d position themselves on a high vantage point so they could survey the whole field.

“One year we lost 700 birds. Since we’ve had the dogs, we haven’t lost any!” said Danni. It was a truly holistic approach to farm security and animal safety.

■ Danni and Bear can be seen on Channel 5 on Tuesday night in Summertime on the Farm.