In light of the UN report on species extinction just unveiled, many people are talking about how worrying it is that we have so many species close to the brink of annihilation due to our activities.
And at the same time, it’s hard to move people towards doing very much in the way of helping reverse the trend.
Nature is seen as something outside our own environments, nowadays. It’s an abstract idea, or at best something we visit. We’ve become used to not having it especially present in our daily lives. Even a fly entering a classroom is viewed as an event.
And because we’ve gotten used to living without nature, we don’t value it very much, and often see it as an inconvenience.
Where we do allow it to exist in our city, it must be controlled and tidy.
Pamplona is a very green city, with plenty of parks and farmland around us, and mountains visible from almost every street, yet even here, wildlife must conform. The ducks in the park have few places to nest because any undergrowth is cleared, the scrub needed to house any other birds than pigeons, sparrows, magpies and a few blackbirds is practically non-existent outside building lots left abandoned until the apartments pop up in new neighbourhoods.
Take a simple city lawn. As soon as the dandelions bloom it’s time to mow. Citizens complain if the city is slow to mow, since the seed heads look untidy.
I passed a lawn full of dandelions, daisies and clover yesterday.
There wasn’t a bee to be seen. The horse chestnut trees are blooming right now, their scent amazing. But there are very few bees to be seen or heard pollenating them.
Coincidentally, upon arriving home, my neighbours warned me of a swarm which had just settled on the Persian blinds of a nearby (empty) flat, and were going to call the city council to come and remove them. It’s all right having some bees up high in a tree, but down here amongst the houses, they induce fear.
I don’t know where bees used to live in cities, but there were more of them, and they must have lived somewhere. Now, though most people appreciate the work of bees, a hive is only acceptable outside our daily surroundings.
The local newspaper has been busy talking about a bear recently released in France which has the temerity to enter Navarra and attack some sheep flocks. The bears have declined in the western part of the Pyrenees to such an extent that only two males, father and son survive. Two females from Slovenia are hoped to start saving the population, but bears are only tolerated if they stay well away from humans and their buildings.
There might be some basic understanding that bears should not go extinct in the Pyrenees, though they are close to that right now. Bears are still tolerated in the Picos de Europa, further west of Navarra, but here the local farmers’ union is opposed to this attempt and recovering/rewildling/conservation/call-it-what-you-like-putting-bears-ahead-of-sheep.
The first photo is today’s back page of the local paper. I will translate the last few lines… the farmers union call on the Navarra Government to ….. “demand the French authorities cease their actions of reintroducing a wild species in a humanized terrain. “We are not in Yellowstone,” they conclude.
What else can one say about that?
Nothing comes to mind that I could print in that paper.
Bears, you might say, are a pretty big nuisance when they want to be.
They kill sheep, which, whatever one’s personal opinions of them, are the basis of a type of farming that some still cling to. And I will grant that, despite my immediate question as to how they’re alive and thriving in Asturias and Slovenia – surely they’re an inconvenience there, but a tolerated one, by farmers who are used to doing a bit more work to look after their stock.
And yet, another iconic species is also slowly disappearing in Navarra, according to the same local paper.
Now, doesn’t love storks?
They bring us babies, they don’t attack sheep…
Because they are annoying, inconvenient.
Or at least, their nests are.
So nests are destroyed in the towns and cities where they’ve traditionally nested. Some have made nests in large trees, where these are still available – it’s common for mature trees to be heavily pruned in cities, and really old ones are felled as soon as they show signs of rot for fear of falling and causing damage or injury.
And a pair that can’t build a nest is a pair that has to go elsewhere, or doesn’t breed.
There are seven fewer pairs than last year, for a total of 939.
There are many reasons for our ecosystems collapsing. Wilful destruction, wilful ignorance, and wilful rejection of any inconvenience it might mean to our lives. The last is what most of us will be guilty of.
2017 didn’t start with very much good news. There were more attacks on innocent people just like last year. The rich and powerful are continuing to play their chess game with the planet, and have moved their rook into position to fuck things up in a big way. We, the pawns, stand ready to do what we can to oppose, but expect the worst they can impose upon us.
And 2016 slips right into its place in the graph as the hottest year ever recorded, right in front of 2015 and 2014.
Just like we see with all species, the numbers of predators, especially large ones like lions and wolves, have collapsed in the last number of decades.
A large part of the problem are the conflicts these large predators come into in areas where livestock are farmed. There are many different ways to prevent kills (such as guard dogs and electric fences) but in many cases farmers whose livestock are preyed upon take action and kill the predators (one supposes it is the same animal(s)). Thus, one dead cow or goat means one dead tiger or leopard. The former can be replaced a lot faster than the latter, unfortunately.
Just yesterday, a bear was poisoned in Italy.
But there are signs of some steps back from the brink. In Spain, where the population of wolves is actually increasing, the government of the Community of Madrid have increased the compensation fund to help farmers whose livestock are attacked (though it seems at 500 Euro per sheep, there’s a large temptation to fudge the death of an animal to look like a wolf-kill – which was widespread in some areas of Spain and caused a scandal last year).
This will help reduce such retaliatory killings, since farmers don’t see their livelihoods under threat from the predators. There are also movements to protect livestock using mastiff dogs and restoring pens – this helping much more in the long term as farmers readjust to the new reality of a rewilded landscape.
The world needs more of this.
While every week practically, there is some good news from somewhere around Europe or further regarding the rewilding of our environment, it seems Ireland is sadly lagging behind. The golden eagles we restored to our landscape are struggling, and might go extinct again.
Irish golden eagle chick; photo taken from Golden Eagle Trust, credit Laurie Campbell
In the Italian Apennines, bears are making a comeback. A recent article said that bears, and other predators need some understanding, and the goodwill of the locals. If not, they’re doomed. The bears have this goodwill, though, and prevention is better than compensation. Electric fences keep bears out of bee hives and chicken coops, and sheep folds. The sheep have to be brought in closer to the farmhouses and protected. This makes it more expensive, but considering how much money could be earned by small towns and villages providing wildlife viewing opportunities and tourism as farmers get older, and their children leave because they don’t want to farm, that’s not considered an unwise investment. And the bears have always been around, if a little higher up the mountains.
As the reintroduction of lynx to Great Britain rolls forward, people ask if this predator will target sheep. The answer, from other countries, is that it’s very unlikely, as long as the rest of the ecosystem is functioning and the sheep aren’t in the forests – where really they’re not supposed to be.
These forests are, in fact, the reason lynx are needed in the environment – to help rejuvenate them. Over-population of deer is preventing regeneration, and lynx are designed to hunt deer. This article on CNN indicates that lynx reintroduction has support of 90% of Brits, and the effects on the environment are expected to be significant, if it follows the pattern of cascading impacts wolf reintroduction had in Yellowstone National Park.
The article also states that returning predators is “not a quick fix for long-term decline” because “the removal of predators for decades causes changes in a system that make it resistant to the effects of reintroduction.”
One of these changes is the attitude of humans, especially those who work the land. While the Apennine farmers have always lived with bears, and European farmers with lynx, and farmers in northern Spain with both bear and wolves, farmers in Ireland and Britain have had it relatively easy. The idea of changing their practices on a livestock that already loses money and only subsists because of EU payouts is rather daunting. “When projects do not have public support it can prove fatal for returning species.” As it is, we know how much goodwill predators have in Ireland.
It can be done, though. In China, where the tiger was extirpated 65 years ago, a few breeding females have recently been spotted. And rehabilitated Amur tigers have been released back into former haunts, one of which has given birth to two cubs.
Apart from ensuring that the predators are not overtly killed by those opposed, the habitat has to be suitable. Rewilding Europe helped rewild Dutch rivers penned in by dykes and canals, and only then could forest return enough to allow beaver recolonisation. The Amur tigers have thousands of square kilometres of birch forest still intact despite logging, and the lynx in Britain will only be released in forested areas.
Irish forest cover is still very low compared to the rest of Europe, with sheep still grazing in woodland, on top of whatever deer population is there. The land has been so changed that there is a debate as to whether the Scot’s Pine survived and can considered native. Some think it is an invasive on peat bogs and should be removed. It’s hard to be angry at Scot’s Pines at the best of times, though. A recent Economist article says it’s a waste of time and energy trying to eradicate even the bad ones, but considering that the bogs are not necessarily the best environment in terms of providing habitat for as wide a variety of species and a robust environment, I think we should give the Scot’s pine a free pass and let it get on with growing. It will help rewild the landscape, providing habitat for more species than the bogs do. As I said before, and George Moniot said yesterday in an interview, rewilding is not an attempt to turn any clocks back.
Having any trees grow might be hard, though, unless the sheep are reduced. Making our environment suitable for reintroduced predators will involve keeping such targets out of their way, and reducing the destruction they and their husbandry is responsible for.
The predators we’ve already reintroduced might die out again if we don’t.
In Donegal, a place as wild as we can claim to have in Ireland, the constantly overgrazed and burned bogs are not producing enough food for the golden eagles to breed. Instead of getting fat on hares and grouse, like they do in Scotland, the poor eagles have to hunt badgers and magpies.
News like that makes even the most gung-ho Irish rewilder pause and wonder, if the golden eagle can’t clasp a foothold on our island, what hope will the wolf have?
It will only have a hope if it finds the goodwill of the rural community. And George Monbiot said yesterday, the countryside is not inhabited only by farmers. If 90% of Britons favour having lynx in their forests, there, then we can hope a majority of Irish will also approve. And when sheep inevitably disappear from out hillsides as the payments propping them up are removed from EU legislation, and in some places to help the much-loved golden eagles, the forests can return to provide a home for them and many other species.
We’re going to have to learn to all get along, eventually…
I had originally thought of using that title for a blogpost/rant about cycling in the city – but everyday I get on my bike new things occur to me about that, so it’s not quite finished!
Anyway, I decided to write this after reading that a farmer had killed a bear central Italy (http://www.rewildingeurope.com/news/the-sad-story-of-a-killed-young-bear-brings-24-mobile-electric-fences-to-the-central-apennines/ The photo above is from the cited article, copyright Bruno D’Amicis/Rewilding Europe, of Marsican / Abruzzo brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) adult in spring mountain meadow. Critically endangered subspecies. Central Apennines, Abruzzo, Italy. May 2012
I asked myself the question: How much effort is wildlife worth?
I mean, really, how much effort is too much to bother with? Will people (the great mass of us in general) keep on saying, “That’s asking too much of us. We’re all for wildlife and nature and that, but really, we have priorities…”
There are always priorities.
And we have to place human life above other life (for the moment: let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet!). So if there is a conflict between an aggressive bear and a human, well, yes, shoot the bear. Even in cases where a bear has become a nuisance because people have not made the effort to keep their food safe or their garbage cans closed, it’s probably necessary to kill the bear.
This can go to extremes, of course: just today a deer in my local park (a mini-zoo in the old walls closed off to the public – I’ve videos on my youtube channel…) that gored a worker who didn’t make the effort to take precautions during the rut, and went in to feed the animal with no protection (a stick!) and no other person to help (or even know about it) if there was a problem has been removed – most probably via lead injection.
Was that necessary? Hardly. The deer hasn’t become a man-killer, like a man-eating tiger…
But that wasn’t even the case in Italy. The bear was raiding chickens. Instead of going to the bother of putting in an electric fence, however, the farmer decided it was handier to shoot the bear, so he did just that. End of problem.
But not exactly. The bear is protected. The farmer will pay a fine – one hopes. The move to rewild Italy has meant the expansion of the bear population into areas from which they’d been eradicated, and where people had got used to, got lazy about, not having to take elementary precautions for their livestock from these predators.
Of course, farmers still put a fence around their chickens, to protect them from predators that haven’t been eradicated – foxes, stoats and weasels, etc. Is it that much more effort to put in an electric fence? Obviously was for this guy. Will his fine exceed the price of an electric fence? Well, that’s hard to know.
And farmers still shoot foxes – they’re just hard to exterminate across a whole landscape.
To give an example of just how reluctant some (even wildlife-advocates) can be to do anything different, or inconvenience themselves in the least, an English angling spokesman Mark Owen, head of freshwater at the Angling Trust, was quoted in a recent Guardian article about rewilding (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/19/-sp-rewilding-large-species-britain-wolves-bears) as saying that reintroducing beaver would produce “a list of concerns, including half-gnawed trees posing a threat to fishermen.” I mean, come on! Give me a fucking break, as they say.
Can we ask the anglers to avoid sharp sticks? Or should we start to put fences along the rivers to stop the poor lads potentially falling in?
Of course, it’s mostly a wish to keep things the way they are: keep the sheep on the hills, the rivers running straight and fast. “Don’t inconvenience us with new situations we have to change our habits for.”
But inconvenience is something we all have to look forward to, people. It’s a coming!
Hopefully, if we do things right, it will be relatively minor instead of very fucking major. But it’s coming.
After the shooting of the bear, the rewilding team decided to pay for farmers to install electric fences, so lower their inconvenience. Perhaps, if we, as a society want wildlife, we have to pay for the farmer’s fences? Perhaps.
But the sway of the farmer is waning – their insistence that we keep everything the way they prefer is not going to last forever. Sheep farming might be what people think has been going on forever on our hillsides, but not in the way it’s currently practiced, where sheep could be left untended for weeks on end. The word shepherd meant something – still does in many parts of the world. But sheep farmers have labelled their way of life a tradition that must be supported by subsidies. There was a time before we left our hillsides to be grazed to the nub and there will be a time afterwards.
Farming doesn’t have a premium on the past as future. Nobody thought of implementing subsidies to keep cinemas afloat when video took their business away. I saw a video shop in Barcelona on the television just last week – looking for some government help to stay open, because they were the first, and would probably be the last ever video store in the country, and were an example of an industry that has gone by the wayside.
So sheep farming, as currently practiced might have some value as a show piece, but we can keep flock or two around Bunratty Castle and preserve them that way, if we really have to, like we have people spinning yarn and making wooden barrels – all those traditional skills and jobs that are no longer economically viable.
Farming, of course, is vital in a way that coopering is not. We need to have a source of food – and I’m willing to pay top dollar for meat, as I think we should be for all our food, especially milk and eggs.
But we all need to learn to get along, and move forward. Because I was thinking that while paying farmers for livestock that are killed by bears and wolves is the sensible thing to do to get acceptance for large predators, it might not always be considered the best idea.
No. If the farmer’s keep losing expensive animals, perhaps we (the people) should eventually prohibit livestock that are going to be expensive for us to pay for, or, if there is a farmer who is too lazy to put up fences and bring in stock and keep them protected, well, let him pay for his own animals.
If he reacts like the farmer in Italy, and kills the predator let him go to prison for a proper time, and confiscate his farm to pay for further conservation to remediate his actions…
It could all escalate pretty quickly.
Yet the balance of power between farmers – who traditionally had political clout – and non-rural folk, is going towards the city dwellers – who, ironically, want to see bears and wolves, as well as beavers and lynx, return to places they themselves perhaps rarely visit…
The countryside is changing. It’s inevitable.
So let’s all try to get along right now.