October 18, 1993 12:00 PM

WHAT A GREAT COUNTRY! IMMIGRANTS come from all over the world to pursue occupations unheard of back where they came from. Take, for instance, two llamas named Count Dondi and Smokey. In their native Andes, they probably would have been beasts of burden—or, if that didn’t work out, sources of meat and leather. In Highland County, Va., though, they are guard llamas, protecting 250 head of sheep from coyotes.

The two male llamas, which cost $700 each, got into the sheep-protection business after George and Peggy Bird, who own 1,100 acres, lost 16 lambs this spring to the predators. “The coyotes go right for the baby lambs,” says George Bird, 58. “They eat what they want and leave the carcass.” As they watched their neighbors unavailingly try conventional methods of coyote control, from guns to snares to guard dogs, the Birds began to ponder alternatives.

Inspired by stories of guard llamas in some Western states, the Birds bought Count Dondi and Smokey from a breeder. The two bonded quickly with their woolly charges, and the results have been spectacular. Only four lambs have been taken, although the true test will be next year’s lambing season. Bird also thinks the llamas make good economic sense. “They’re easy to care for, since they graze and eat the same grain as the sheep,” he says. “Their life expectancy is 20 to 25 years, better than a dog’s. Sheep go for $60 lo $70 a head, so if the llamas save 10 each, they’ll pay for themselves.”

But aren’t llamas just a little, well, wussy to be going up against wily coyotes? Not at all. They can turn fierce when they sense a threat to the pack, chasing and kicking an attacker, screeching loudly and—as a last, truly disgusting resort—spitting gobs of foul-smelling saliva.

As for the sheep, Peggy Bird, 58, believes they are untroubled by these strangers in their midst, partly because of their poor eyesight. “To the sheep,” she says, “a llama’s just a funny-looking cow.”

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