Category Archives: Ecology

The End of Fire Season… until next year?

The cranes started passing over Pamplona yesterday evening.

They were chased by the rain that came in overnight. The first in weeks.

Autumn has thus officially started.

And hopefully also this means the end of the fire season for this year.

While Ireland braced for an almost unheard of hurricane in the North Atlantic, in northern Spain and Portugal, forest fires were killing even more people than Ophelia killed.

There were dozens burning over the weekend and until Tuesday, when the rains helped to finally extinguish them.

Unlike hurricanes, though, which are terrible, and indirectly related to man’s activities, these forest fires were only wild in the sense of the untamed destruction they could wreak. They were not natural. They were man made, purposefully started, and repeatedly so.

 

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Forest fires across Galicia, photo Diario Sur

After so many deaths, there are now questions being asked of politicians as to how these arsonists can be stopped. Spanish news has little else, other that the Catalan situation – politics and fraud, even football has been put in the background by the terrible scenes of people trying to escape burning villages only having to turn back as the roads are flanked with flames, and others park inside a motorway tunnel to wait rescue, or let the fires pass overhead.

Because these fires have been a part of summer in places like Galicia for years. As soon as the weather dries, huge tracts of forests go up there. All directly caused by humans and usually set intentionally, with a few the result of stupidity and neglect.

The people of Portugal are naturally outraged, after a summer of huge fires has been followed by an autumn death toll almost as terrible, with dozens of people claimed by the flames.

The perpetrators must be caught and jailed for their murders, but also, the politicians and police, if it is the case, must be held responsible for letting this situation get to this state. Why have these people not been caught for their previous fires? – because there’s no way these conflagrations were started by first-time arsonists.

Why do people go out of their way to set fires, driving along highways in the middle of the night with fireworks tied to helium balloons?

It’s clear they have nothing better to do, and they’re assholes of the highest calibre, but there must be some other, external, motivation for most of the fires. What is it? Why has it not been identified years ago and why has it not been removed?

There are forests that could burn just as badly and even more easily in other parts of Spain, so why are there not so many fires elsewhere? Galicia has 40% of all fires in the country, and half the area burnt every year for the last decade.

Surely the arsonists are spread out in a broader swath across the country. Or is there something about the mind-set of Galicians that makes them excessively prone to arson?

The gorse fires and heather fires we have seen in Ireland in recent years were all set intentionally for financial gain – the current agricultural subsidy system means that farmers make more money if there land is considered in use, even if it’s not.

Ultimately, stopping them will require a change in the EU farming subsidy system to allow land go fallow without farmers losing money.

Is there a financial motivation in Galicia and Portugal for setting huge fires?

According to Ecologists in Action, this is only the cause of a small proportion of the fires set.

What other factors are in play?

The use of fire for farming practices is permitted much more freely than elsewhere.

In most of Spain it is not permitted to light fires in camping and picnic areas and other recreational areas during times of fire risk. Not so in Galicia.

Vehicles are also allowed onto forest paths in Galicia during the summer, which is prohibited elsewhere.

AND they allow fireworks in village festivals during the summer, which is just asking for trouble.

 

But as I said, the summer is over.

The cranes, luckily, don’t stay long in Spain during their migration.

When they passed before on their way north I wrote this poem. Hopefully it will ease the depression of these fires. Watching the birds certainly lifts the spirit.

 

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European cranes. photo wikipedia – need a better camera myself!

 

The Great Migration

 

I’ve not yet seen the Serengeti,

Nor the caribou upon the artic plains

But up above my house in the hills,

I’ve been privileged to witness

The cranes migrating, calling

Eyes aloft to observe their long

Strings streaked across the sky

Huge wing beats by the thousands,

 

And can’t but wonder where

Those numbers bide in other times,

(Amazed such spaces yet exist)

And where they will find abode

In other climes.

 

 

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If you want me…

It’s been a while. It’s been busy.

But I’ve been doing a bit of writing.

I have a few poems to share, over the next few weeks, as the summer proper hits us.

Meanwhile, if you want me, I’ll be on the porch….

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The House Stands Built, the Garden Lies Laid

 

If we needed lumber, I’d gladly go into the wood,

Cut logs and split them all afternoon.

Were there a shelf to put up, a cupboard fixed,

A picture to hang, I’ve no problem lending a hand.

Should the lawn need mowing, or the hedge trimming,

The garden path cemented, a fence erected,

Bicycle mended, stone wall constructed, a pond dug

Or a border weeded, you can count on me;

I’m always happy to go to work.

 

But the house is built, the garden laid,

There’s left little to do but watch the grass growing

So if you want me, I’ll be on the porch.

 

(This is a short video of what’s in front of said porch….)

Sunflowers on Steroids

Here’s a short story for your spring, now that we see the flowers growing like they’re on steroids – and they are, of course – for a flash fiction challenge about invasive species – a topic I’ve talked about before….

 

Invasive Sunflowers.

 

Always said them scientists would mess everythin’ up, playin’ round with Creation like they was God.

The environmental beatniks said it too, course, but they said all kind of whatnot, like the weather was changin’, that we didn’t listen much to them guys. Joel McCallum, though, he reads the scientific papers, and he said they reckoned the canola plants’d be the ones that did it, them being so common and close to weeds anyway. He said the genetically modified canola would mix with the field mustard plants, and lead to a superweed that nothin’ could get rid of. The idea of sunflowers takin’ over like they was on steroids, well, we none of us predicted that.

What we never saw comin’, either, was losing our land to the federal government after trying so hard to keep independent from them assholes in DC.

We bought the land fair and square, set up our town ten years beforehand. We were self-sufficient by then, hundred per cent, and all set for the apocalypse, should it decide to turn up. We never did think it’d turn out this way.

It was the federal government’s fault, though, too. Always knew that would be true. They were the ones invited that crazy sonbitch to plant those damn sunflower plants out our way. Gave him permission to use federal land we used to graze cattle off, not twenty miles from town. Well, we didn’t think no sunflowers’d stand the shallow soil there. No depth at all, after the dustbowl years took it clean away. Even the grass dried up when it didn’t rain in late spring. We didn’t think the plants would stand up in the wind, first time we went out there and they told us what it was they were growin’.

Joel tried to explain what they’d done to the sunflowers – struck in some genes from a creeper, a vine of some sort that was supposed to only change the roots from the deep taproots sunflowers supposed to grow, into wide spreading roots that’d keep the plants upright and get them enough water from what rains came. They’d spread the seeds out farther than normal to compensate. Well, Joel didn’t know what way they’d messed up – whether they’d put in the wrong piece of string or if the gene did more jobs than just make roots of one sort or the other, but mess up they did, good and well. Plants grew up stringy and creeping; stretched along the ground, covering the empty patches between plants till it was just a sea of green, with all trace of the rows they’d been planted in gone. The flowers were small, but each plant had four or five ‘stead of one. We was amazed that first year. The scientists just took notes. They harvested some, but with the way the plants were all higgledy-piggledy, they missed half the seed heads.

Course, we didn’t like to let the food go to waste. We was self-sufficient, but it’s a sin to waste such bounty as the Lord places before you. We planted some in our own plots – and planned to keep plantin’ it, till we realised it didn’t need no plantin’. The wind came through one night, the way it does, and the seeds flew everywhere on it. Next year, it was everywhere. It invaded the wheat fields, covered the town. It was kinda pretty at first. We used the oil for our trucks, couple of years. But we soon saw it was gettin’ serious when it covered the forest floors, started cloggin’ the creek, and broke half the corn plants before they got to cobbin’. It wrapped around everything – I mean everything – like vines, like morning glory, or that Japanese knotweed and them other invasive species they’re always goin’ on about. These creepers blocked out the light from every other plant, till there were was nothin’ else we could grow.

Well, we thought we could at least use the oil to cut and burn it out, but eventually, much as it galled us to do it, we had to ask the federal government for help. It was their problem, all said and done.

They came, in helicopters, since the roads were practically overgrown by then. One fella told Joel they was comin’ anyhow, whether we asked them or not. Their scientists told them to shut down the whole operation – and more. They was goin’ to move us – would’ve paid us to up and move sticks someplace else. But what we asked for help, they just took us out, told us to gather up our belonging, and make damn sure it was all clean of vegetative material, they called it.

We did as was asked – we weren’t no fools, wishing this upon everyone, or anyone else. That would be a sin not even God might forgive. Besides, we weren’t ready for this kind of apocalypse. Nor were we ready for any kind of reckonin’ without our land, our shelters, our supplies.

When they took us up in the helicopters, we saw them start the firebombin’ straight off. That shit smelt like the end of the world. No wonder them Vietnamese hated us, using that shit on them. I asked the pilot how much they was going to burn. Five thousand square miles, he told me. Hell of a lot of Napalm man. Of course, we had some Napalm ourselves, just in case. When I saw the town explode, I thought, well, there’s an end to it. We might not survive the next apocalypse, but at least we helped the world avoid this one.

That’s what I thought. That’s what we all thought, true as the Lord is lookin’ down on me.

Thing about sunflowers, though, even these crazy ass ones, was the seeds were real tasty. The kids in town used to go round all day, biting on them and spitting out the shells. Well, how can you put the blame on the shoulders of a little kid, not eight year old, instead of the scientist that made them seeds? She meant t’ eat them, of course, and all would’ve been well. But when she saw the explosion from all the stuff we’d in storage, well, she jumped so high she near enough fell out of the damn chopper herself. Only natural the bag slipped out her hand.

 

 

Why do hunters have to be such arseholes?

Okay, modify that: why do so many hunters have to be arseholes? After all, I’m one myself; a hunter, not an arsehole.

Seriously, I see so many gobshites who should never be allowed to take up a weapon, it’s embarrassing.

The good news this week that Danish wolves exist again was tempered by the sad fact that the authorities are not going to tell anyone where the wolves are – and what a boon for eco tourism it would be, if we could all go and see the wolves! – because they are afraid of hunters going there to try kill them.

Why would hunters want to kill wolves?

(If that seems like a stupid question, I have another – are you sure you’re not an arsehole?)

Do they really feel that the wolves (five of them, for Christ’s sake) are going to reduce the numbers of animals they can hunt?

The government has that all regulated, and mostly it’s because of the other hunters that you can’t kill more. In Ireland, where there are relatively few hunters, we can hunt lots of deer each (depending on the area, of course) but here in Spain, where I am currently applying for a hunting licence – after several years of living here – it’s hard to get a spot in a red deer hunting area, and it’s a lot more expensive.

What’s the solution to too many hunters?

Perhaps act like an arsehole so that people don’t want to be associated with you.

In fact, that’s one of the reason I never bothered applying for a hunting licence here before. It’s a much more dangerous activity here than in Ireland.

The type of hunting can, perhaps, be more hazardous – larger groups of people in an area, hunting animals that are on the run.

But that’s no excuse for the number of hunters killed by their companions every year.

That’s just recklessness.

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If you have to wear an orange jacket, there’s something wrong with the people around you (photo from Washington Dept. of Fish and wildlife).

In the course I had to do for the hunting exam, I encountered a few of the kind of shitehawks I’d never want to share a cup of tea with up on the hill, never mind hunt with. Dangerously dismissive of the rules, they argued that since they had the guns, they should win the arguments with the walkers and the mushroom pickers that can fuck up a hunt. And they seemed inclined to think that anyone who moved off his post during a beaten hunt deserved to get shot, rather than consider it their duty to identify the target before shooting at something moving past them.

I won’t be hunting with those guys – if indeed they’ll be hunting with anyone, for I’ve serious doubts they’ll study for the exam. Nor will I be running to join a boar hunt, to be honest. I’d rather hunt alone here. I can go home to Ireland for companionable hunting. At least I’ll know I’m not going to get killed by my companions, and the only animals getting shot will be ones permitted.

Yet, separate and apart from my personal problems, the more important point is the issue of our good name. Hunting is getting a bad name, despite its importance in our and other societies. I consider it a necessary activity as well as an interesting one, and believe it will continue, but it will do some in a much more regulated and restricted fashion in most places.

Hunters should not have this bad name. As a collective, disregarding my own intense love of nature, we should be the most vocal, the most powerful guardians of the environment out there. Our integrity and conviction should be unquestionable. It’s a matter not of our personal preferences, but of the survival of our sport.

Hunters should have better long term planning than some are currently displaying.

But, then again, given our human history thus far, perhaps that’s just beyond us.

Rewilding my garden, as long as the rabbits eat the right plants….

So I have this garden in the country. It’s not quite mine, in that I don’t own the house, but it has befallen to me, more and more, to look after it.

It’s big. There are a dozen young trees, a long hedge, grape vines, shrubs, and there’s a lot of grassy area to mow.

I say grassy area because it’s far from being able to be called a lawn. More like a playground for moles.

But I don’t mind the moles. I prefer daisies and other wild flowers to grass in any case. It’s great to have moles, and it would be even better to see them once in a while.

Even better than moles, are rabbits. And we have them, too.

Unfortunately, in the case of the rabbits, I do have a problem at the moment.

I’ve planted a new hedge. It’s to hopefully block the wind that sweeps down from the pyrennes – the call it the Cierzo. When a wind has it’s own name, you know you’re up against it. Anyway, the new hedge, once established, will help, I hope. And it will cover the chain link fence that goes along the low back wall (put up to stop the cows coming in to graze the garden – picturesque till one of them breaks your windscreen while trying to swipe a horn at the herding dogs, and the farmer never owns up.)

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But to get established, the hedge has to not get eaten by rabbits.

And for some reason, the rabbits have decided it’s tastier than all the grass and dandelions and everything else growing right beside it.

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the bottom half of the plant is nibbled to nothing…

 

So I had to take action.

Now, I didn’t stand watch with a shotgun at twilight. Even if I had time for that lark, I’d rather a rabbit in the garden than ten up the hill where I can’t see them from my bedroom window.

I haven’t seen the rabbit yet, but given the circumstances (plants nibbled at the bottom, a stone wall with a hole under one of the stones where a rabbit could get through the fence, and grass grazed on the other side) there’s no other culprit.

 

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This photo is sideways, but you can see the easily accessed holes and the nibbled tuft of grass.

 

So I covered the damaged plants to let them recuperate, blocked the hole and hoped the little gits can’t get in any other way.

 

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Eat your way through that, rabbit!

I feel bad, in a way, but there’s lots of other stuff to eat, and once the hedge is big enough, after this first summer, I’ll unblock the hole and let them nibble to their hearts content. After all, rewilding should always apply to our own gardens, and a few rabbits will mean I don’t get asked to strim the bank so often, making it win-win for everyone.

Nature documentaries are good for your health

This most important piece of news out today, I found on the second last page of the newspaper – an anecdote, a curiosity, an aside amid the Spanish corruption scandals, the French elections, the continuing shite that blights the lives of billions (there was one nice bit about a certain wall not getting funded by a certain congress, but besides that it was all boring same old depressing mess till reading the above) – right back beside the information that some local actress is going to star in some new film being made sometime soon.

Two points to make:

One, if watching animals and trees on TV can reduce stress (and there are reams of positive benefits the study, done by UC Berkely, no less, details) imagine what actually going out into the parks, the countryside, the seaside does for us!

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Throwing stones in the sea: what better stress disperser exists?

And why don’t we do it more?  We all return from our beach holidays relaxed: yes, we have no work, but just sitting on the beach relaxes, and we should do it every day if we can, or at least get to the park and watch the ducks.

 

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Can you feel the tension lift just looking at these bluebells?

Two, why is this way back at the bottom of the news?

We are in the middle of a stress crises. We have a tsunami of suicides, self-harming and addiction. People are going to medical health professionals of all sorts and taking many medications to help them get through life. And yet, this simple source of relief, if not potentially a complete solution, a cheap if not actually free aid, which can help us with this crisis, is practically ignored by the media.

If it were a study claiming eating butter could cut stress (or chocolate, or even lettuce) or help some other serious health problem, it would be much further up the order of importance.

Your doctor would tell you to avoid alcohol, eat fibre, cut out saturated fats, eat less sugar, lower salt intake, stop smoking etc. if he/she thought it would help keep you alive and well and happy for a few more years. There are campaigns for all these going on all the time. Laws are changed to help us quit smoking, have healthier diets, drink less.

And yet, will we see any move to get people out into parks, to have wildlife documentaries subsidised by the department of health? Will we have laws to protect ecosystems so they can be used to make further films, or see famous people encouraging us to climb mountains? Probably not.

But I hope so. Because we should. I personally won’t be happy until I see David Attenborough get a Nobel Prize for Medicine. He’s certainly saved my sanity…

 

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A child in the countryside is a happy child!

 

 

 

Leave off the Light

A little poem as we note the start of spring here.

The bats indeed did come out that night and now, a week later, there are lizards and frogs about, as well as cranes coming back north and storks reclaiming their nests.

 

Leave Off the Light

Leave off the lights

At least until the light leaves;

Let us feel it while it lasts,

Catch sight of birds flying to roosts, crying

As it dies, and perhaps bats will wheel past.

Let night descend inside, too, before

Filling our night with brightness,

Let the life outside touch our lives a little,

For at last there is light as twilight arrives.

Introducing Species: A Mouflon Quandary

 

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There are sheep in them there hills. But finding them isn’t easy.

Last weekend I went for a walk from our village in Navarra to try to see the mouflon which had been illegally introduced to the area last year. The numbers had increased to the point where the local police were brought in to try to remove them by baiting them with salt licks to a field where they could shoot them. I’d heard that several of them had been shot already, and I went to see if I could spot some of them. I’d never seen this species outside of a zoo enclosure and I was lucky to catch a quick glimpse of two.

Yesterday in the local newspaper an article said that the local hunters have been authorised to shoot as many mouflon as they can while they are engaged in their normal boar hunting activities. I had seen this coming. This was probably what the local hunters were waiting for, and whoever released the animals had had just this idea in mind. Whether all of the animals in the area will be shot is up for a debate, and in my opinion it is hard to see how all of them will be killed, given the manpower needed to eliminate them. Yesterday three groups of boar hunters came, and shots were fired, but we’ve heard nothing about any mouflon having been hunted. More likely they dispersed the animals more. There are many who think that only males will be shot, anyway, because what hunter wants to shoot a pregnant female of a novel species right at the end of the season when you could shoot two next autumn?

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The field where I saw the mouflon – beside the bank of pale grass at the end.

My question is, however, whether shooting them out is, or is not, a good idea. I’m not sure where I should come down on either side of the argument. As an ecologist, I am aware that introduced species can wreak havoc upon ecosystem, and she sheep can be particularly destructive. On the other hand, there is the fact that rewilding landscapes doesn’t necessarily mean that only animals which were there before in historical times have to be reintroduced and no other species can be.

If these were muntjack, then I’d say get in and get them out. ASAP, using all the manpower you can muster. Muntjack can wreak havoc on the plants. Introducing them to Ireland, which some it seems have tried and been somewhat successful at in recent years, is a stupid idea.

But these aren’t muntjack.

The article does not mention that of these animals might be detrimental to the local flora of the region. Instead, it says they might compete with native animals, such as the wild boar and the roe deer.

The article says that these sheep are very adaptable to various ecosystems in Spain where they have been released. I haven’t heard any horror stories from these other places yet.

Though officially from the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Corsica and Sardinia it seems that the mouflon, or a very similar species, must have been native to the mainland of Europe at some stage. They didn’t just pop up and three islands from nowhere. Given their adaptability it seems like to me that they were probably fairly widespread until humans decided they were competition for their own descendants the sheep, in the same way the aurochs were competition for their descendants, cattle.

If wild sheep were here before and they are returned in a small population I’m not sure what difficulties if any, ecologically speaking, may arise. After all, these mountains I’m looking on right now used to be grazed by thousands of sheep and goats., and the landscape suffered much from it from what I’m told by the old timers, with the understory of the forests bare from intense grazing of the sheep and goats of the local farmers.

Shepherding is not so widespread here anymore, but still hundreds are brought around some of the area. The forests have thickened up, though, and I have heard that the local government want to pay shepherds to bring their goats into their forests to help “clean them up” and tidy them because there forests are quite dense with shrubs and thorn bushes. Seems to me that these mouflon might do such a job for free.

On the other hand, I’m not sure if the population of roe deer and boar will be badly affected by these other ruminants sharing the mountains. After all, the population of both the roe deer and wild boar have been increasing in recent years to the extent that they are causing problems with road traffic accidents and farmers are complaining of destruction of their crops. I see tracks and animals all the time. In fact, blind eye is being turned to the poaching of these animals so their numbers can be reduced. Therefore, if the plan were to compete against the roe and boar, it would be a plus in that respect. I can’t see what objection the farmers could have, unless the mouflon are doing more damage to their crops than the roe deer, and boar. That I don’t know, and from my point of view as an ecologist, I don’t have very strong opinion either way.

I heard that the local government is mostly worried that they’ll have to foot the bill for any diseases the farmed sheep might contract from their wild cousins.

However, in terms of the wildlife, the flora and the other large animals, even the rabbits, I don’t see how a small population would have so great an effect.

It’s not as if mouflon don’t coexist with other ungulates in their “natural” environment. There are wild boar and red deer on both Corsica, and Sardinia, and Fallow deer and wild horses on Sardinia too. Cyrpus is a bit smaller, but wild goats share the island with the mouflon. How can the mouflon be so detrimental if they’d not ousted these other from their islands?  Roe are slightly different, but both roe and red deer share the Scottish Highlands with plenty of sheep.

From my walk in the area, there are boar and mouflon sharing the same field.

Boar tracks, on the left, with some soil pushed about with the nose, and mouflon tracks on the right, in the same field of young wheat.

Perhaps they can even help diversify the fauna of Navarra and other parts of mainland Spain, the way the bovines and equines do (a big part of the rewildling movement) Here in Navarra, and in this valley, cattle are led into the woods daily and some are left there for months on end, as are horses, without any concern for the other fauna. That’s because they’d not detrimental; quite the opposite. There are even moves to reintroduce bison into Navarra to help improve ecosystems.

I know the animals were not introduced with the intention of making the land better, but if they can be kept at small numbers, in low population densities it might be for the better.

But I’m open to a more knowledgeable opinion.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

 

 

Leading the Pack, Silver Nights part 2..

 

So, after much quiet, the howl returns…

As I said in a post longer ago than I thought it was, I’ve been living in the real world these last many months.

But I’d done a year or more inside my imaginary city, the setting for the Silver Nights Trilogy.

I’m ready to publish the second and third instalments now.

Leading the Pack is out on Pre-order as of today!

you can get it for just 99c until publication on March 15th from Amazon….

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and Unleashing the Pack will be edited soon and the cover is nearly done…

It was a pleasure to return to the characters, but working on the two novels in tandem was a struggle while I was immersed in them, and I hope I’ve done justice to my original vision of the werewolf story.

The question I feel I have to answer, before anyone even reads part two,  is, “why go back?”

Because I didn’t need to.

The first book, Leaving the Pack, didn’t have an open ending. It was a stand-alone novel.

But I couldn’t leave it alone.

I had to go back and expand on the idea.

So I hope I’ve done the right thing. I hope I’ve not made a mess of the story.

One thing I hate is when writers and moviemakers go back just for the sake of it.

One of my favourite movies is Highlander, and I’ve seen it many times. I hate the sequels. I hate the series. Stupid films that made a mess of a great original story.

I’m watching Lonesome Dove, after having read the book, and now I have discovered there are sequels and prequels, but I’m wary about even going there, given some comments I’ve read.

Why mess with such perfect stories? Why corrupt the vision?

If you go back, you have to have a reason, a need, something else to say.

In my case, I wanted to explain the werewolves from different angles. Firstly, from the viewpoint of a new generation. Paul’s pack, in Leaving the Pack, is a disciplined machine. Paul has complete control (mostly) of his power. But is such camaraderie innate in a race so apt to violence? What is it like to feel such potency for the first time. I wanted to explore the line between being the alpha and what I called the leash – does power necessarily come with responsibility or vice versa?

Secondly, how do werewolves adapt to a new millennium? The twenty-first century is a world that such an ancient tribe as my werewolves would have trouble confronting, in terms of our more open, permissive and public society. How can you remain hidden in plain sight with so many cameras watching? The world is changing rapidly for us; imagine for a race who live so much longer. And at the same time, if they can embrace the future, then so can any other culture.

 

 

 

 

Woolly Maggots

I’ve favoured a return of our wild megafauna to our mountains for some time, now as a general wish to see wildlife flourish on our island. This includes letting the red deer extend their range beyond the small confines of Killarney NP, where it seems only those with friends in the right places and a pile of cash in their back pocket can get to hunt stags. It includes getting wild boar back, as far as our scant natural habitat is still suitable for them. And of course in includes letting the wolf roam the uplands, as those uplands regain their balance in terms of flora as well as fauna.

There are clear barriers to such steps. One of them is the lack of that suitable habitat, and another, connected to that, is the extent of sheep farming.

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Sheep in a field. See any trees? Only habitat for tellytubbies.         Photo by Paul Mutton.

I have long marvelled at the fact that sheep are still farmed in Ireland. I’ve spent decades hearing about and seeing how destructive they are to the uplands – anyone whose seen the golf green fields where farmers have them on the lowlands can imagine their effect on a wild landscape. When I was still in college in the early 90s we learned about overgrazing at important conservation and recreation areas of Ireland (like the slopes of Errigal Mountain in Donegal, Connemara NP). Some call them woolly maggots, for obvious reasons.

 

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Sheep in the mountains. Hard to spot a tree here, either.        Photo from http://snowdonia-active.com/news.

Simultaneously, I’ve spent decades pushing these animals ahead of me, both in cars on the roads and while trying to hunt or just hill walk without them scattering every shred of wildlife I might have otherwise had the chance to see. I even spent an hour saving one, which had got its leg caught in the wooden slats of a footbridge. It gave me scant thanks, and I was sure the farmer wouldn’t have been too pushed either way, given the huge numbers of dead animals you see while walking in our mountains. But I didn’t think letting it die of thirst was a valid option for anyone with a conscience. If my car jack wasn’t able to push up the slat, I was going to smash its skull in with a wrench, or a rock. A better end, despite the visual image you’re probably conjuring up right now…

Anyway, I remember a farmer telling me more than a decade ago that the wool was barely worth the effort to shear the sheep, and that the merchant only took it from him under no obligation to actually return money to the farmer. If it sold, he gave a portion of the sale, if not, then he… I’m not sure what he’d have done with the wool – throw it out, donate it, or what.

I’ve only eaten lamb a few times in Ireland, and I never liked it much. How much lamb is eaten round here and how much a lamb is worth, I’ve no idea, but I never imagined it was much (again, seeing how little attention is paid to them on the hill).

 

George Monbiot has the numbers. He reckons it’s less than 1% of the British diet, and the wool has almost no value. And it’s probable that the flooding caused by overgrazed hillsides means less food is grown downhill than otherwise would be, meaning sheep grazing actually reduces agricultural production.

He’s submitted a whole list of problems with the current Common Agricultural Policy and its effects on the environment.

One of these is that without subsidies sheep farming on uplands would be so clearly a waste of time that the sheep would disappear from the mountains by themselves.

And if that happened, well, two obvious effects would be that there would be no problem with sheep kills by reintroduced wolves up there (down the slopes any remaining sheep are easily protected in electrified pens at night), and the deer and other fauna would have something to eat and habitat to hide in as they spread over a landscape currently almost devoid of plant cover.

And real money could flow into these areas from people who want to see the wildlife, just like the reintroduced red kite (hopefully right now spreading across and out from Wicklow) brought £8 million in tourism revenue to parts of Scotland.

Seems simple maths to me.