The Attraction to Sheep Fields
I wrote this poem after a recent weekend away – just a 30 min drive to a little village. It made me think of why sometimes we’re not aware of what we’re missing with our bare, biodiversity impoverished agricultural landscape, especially in Ireland.
The Pull of Pastures
This scenery spread out from the village, splashed
With sun, fills one with joy of a morning:
An unfiltered boon as we run to the pool
Through fields of wheat under the evergreen
Oak-clad steeper slopes and hearing the hidden
Mistle thrush and goldfinch from the thistles,
Tangled juniper thorns and brambles
Enticing animals excitingly close
To our gardens along such scrubbed inclines
That goats would grub but tractors cannot grade.
The grazing sheep and cattle have gone,
Without battle, deer and boar and other
Beasts browse, but when by driving north
An hour I arrive in another world, where
Fields unfold before one: green grass rolling
Up slopes to autumnal oaks or out flat past
Hedgerows – or even if there’s nothing else
To be seen but green dotted with cowpats
And sheep shit – that simple fact gives gravity,
Pulls me towards such pastures, like a string
Tied within, knotted well when life was spring.
It’s this kind of feeling that gives Ireland its “green” image… it sometimes may as well be painted green for all the life it has other than cattle and sheep. But we love what we know, and unfortunately we’ve been educated to love a barren ecosystem, and younger people are growing up even worse than us older folk.
The End of the Rainbow…
Peter and the Little People republished!
And a poem that the Little People would understand from a longer term perspective than humans seem able to take…
I hope summer is going well for everyone and the new (for us fifth) wave of infections is not affecting you.
I have some news: I have republished my children’s novel, Peter and the Little People, since the original publishers have sadly closed recently. I took the opportunity to re-edit it, so it reads a lot smoother, especially in the first chapters.
It’s available on pre-order now, and will download automatically onto your kindles etc. on the publication date which will be August 15th!
AND it is available in Paperback! So you can pre-order it now and it will pop in the post for you, too.
Till then, here’s a poem that was inspired by a different book written and set in Ireland.
Children of the Rainbow is a book from decades ago, but it’s well worth reading if you have any connection with the Island.
At the same time, I was reading Barry Lopez’s Horizon, which was quite impactful, too.
So the poem that came out is not quite as hopeful as Peter and the Little People regarding our planet. But I hope it’s still beautiful.
For there is yet beauty all around us if only we appreciate it and preserve it.
The Fading of the Rainbow
Our grandparents grew up under the bow of wonder
Shades of beauty forty-fold and more, so vivid
The colours were within reach, like the hand of God,
Life bursting out of every bud and bloom, butterflies
And bees humming just one tune in Nature’s symphony
But today, we stare across a broad sweep of fields, all
Furrowed into one with faint lines left where once
Grew hedgerows; rooks caws accompany cows now,
Gone the curlew call and corncrake, cuckoo only
Heard on distant hills: a sound of childhood, half
Remembered. The skylark leaves a faint line upon
The heart where before flew nightingales and chorus
Of dawn songbirds, silenced like the wolf and other
Wild animals swept away before the sheep browsing.
Now even that centrepiece of pristineness, poster
Child of evolution in isolation and archipelagos lies
Lessened, the frenzy of breeding becoming bare as
Feral goats graze the spare seedlings, dogs attack
Basking iguanas, cats and rats run riot, into ruin
One of the last remaining untouched outposts upon
The vast planet, pinched a little smaller each season,
Swept into sameness, as only colonisers cling to barren
Land. If these distant places are as doomed as our city
Streets, what place has hope this side of the rainbow;
Faded, bleached, and ragged, can it even hold any
Hidden at the end, like a crock of leprechaun gold?
Calloused as an Old Oak Burr
Walking in the forests of a wide valley
Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist
Over the slopes out across the blue vastness
The vultures glided across the blue sky from
One side to the other, while kites and kestrels
Worked the fields where the woods were
Cut when first men walked within the walls.
We stood under the canopy of branches
In the shade of old oaks, ages growing
Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,
Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,
Even when those died, in winter, green
Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,
Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”
Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;
Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;
Robins following rootings, under those, creating
Holes where night-time animals hide yet.
One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a
Millennium spreading seeds and supporting
Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down
From the bough that held them high so easy
Over which we climbed on the clean bark.
And I thought of those who carried an axe
Into these woods to gather firewood,
To create charcoal from the oaks:
Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk
And pick up a twig to help their father,
And kept at it until they could walk no more:
Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively
Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,
Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.
How many injuries did they accumulate,
Inflicted by such occupations? A series of
Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;
But shrugged off and shouldered on
Until calloused, like the knots and burrs
Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs
Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,
Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.
For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,
Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens
That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown
Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.
We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,
Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene
Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was
Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide
Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished
For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,
But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.
Then the telephone took my attention for a time:
A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of
A snapping branch upon me,
And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump
In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies
Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:
Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times
Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;
The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;
The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,
Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.
If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,
The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.
If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist
Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.
If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:
Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!
“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given
The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”
For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can
Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,
Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain
Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:
‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.
Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets,
See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,
Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,
If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.
Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to
Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who
Were touched by its life will note its fall,
And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,
For a tree, that is perhaps enough;
And if we could but be as wise, it would
Too, be sufficient for us.
For those who have fallen too soon….
The Wind has Changed
So my old mate Dave – that’s Sir David Attenborough to you lot – has come out.
Out of a slightly different kind of closet to the one you’re thinking of.
He’s said it.
He sees no reason not to reintroduce wolves to Scotland.
And at first I didn’t realise anything was out of the ordinary.
I mean, why wouldn’t he?
Well, there are some reasons.
But the times have changed. So quickly it’s rather astounding.
Suddenly rewilding is happening.
And it’s a little akin to our changing attitudes towards being gay, actually.
I’m forty, and I remember when I was in my twenties that coming out was an ordeal for most men, and women.
Lots of them didn’t, until they’d left university (with doctorates, not just bachelor degrees), until they’d left Ireland.
The idea of gay marriage was in the same category as human missions to Mars – some crazy fools were saying it would happen some day but most of us were fairly (but not rightfully) sceptical.
Well, maybe not in the same category as going to Mars – one is a worthwhile step forward for humanity, the other is just some geeks spending money making the masses wonder if perhaps we can survive without Earth.
Anyway, here we are : suddenly the right for gay people to marry is common fucking sense. People wonder why it’s taken us so long to cop on to the fact.
Even in middle America (as traditional as middle Earth in many aspects: Americans sometimes think they’re immune from the general rule that people in the centre of large land masses – like central Asia, the outback of Australia, WestMeath – are slow to change and often reluctant to keep up with the rest of the world. But they’re not) state after state is changing the law.
A lot of this is due to the direct action of brave citizens:: something rewilding advocate George Monbiot, and his new mate Russell Brand advocate for in lots of situations.
Wild boar were released (accidentally, in some cases) in several locations, in Britain and Ireland. At least in Britain, they were let live and the sky didn’t fall.
The Scottish government had a small experimental reintroduction of beavers, which they might recapture once their data is in… Meanwhile, beaver were released in another location in Scotland, and also in England, and suddenly people want them to stay.
The MFI millionaire who wants to have wolves on his estate also wants lynx. And now the path for at least a small lynx reintroduction is being laid (in birch tree plantings).
David Attenborough reckons a fence around those Allandale wolves is necessary.
But he never said that before.
All those years of wildlife work and I don’t recall him advocating wolf reintroduction to Britain once.
Because it wasn’t a serious suggestion for a respected biologist to make.
I remember when I started my PhD thesis, on deer population biology and management. Twenty years ago now, too.
I was told there was a government scientist who worked on the deer in the same area (he actually ended up being my external examiner) who the hunting community disliked. Mostly they just thought he was an idiot for having voiced the opinion that wolves should be reintroduced to Ireland.
They called him “the wolfman.” Yeah, clever lads the Irish.
So I never voiced the opinion that I agreed.
I worked with those hunters on my project, and since in different ways (hunting myself, of course).
Wolf reintroduction was not something I ever mentioned to anyone but close friends.
Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for the Irish Wildlife Trust about deer management in Ireland (the link has since been removed when they rejigged their website. I must post the original here).
I didn’t mention wolves.
But then they asked me to.
So I did.
Not that enthusiastically.
I reckoned the readers who could have influence in implementing any change I advocated (mostly by getting more deer hunted to reduce numbers – not popular among many hunters) did not want to hear me talking shite about bring back the wolf. It was considered less than a pipedream: a sure sign of being a hippy and having taken too many drugs.
I did get some feedback from hunting organisations…
But then I noticed that the wind had indeed shifted. Not much, but it wasn’t blowing my own piss back into my face.
I said in a blog post straight after, that if we didn’t start pushing now, we’d never get to realise our objective in twenty years. And it was my decision to start pushing myself.
Since then, I’ve blogged probably once a month about rewilding. And every month there are more articles about it in the newspaper.
The wind was blowing the other way.
Snowballs were rolling.
The idea of rewilding Ireland, and Britain, has snowballed so big that the most influential biologist on the planet now thinks that the time has come, that the public can get their minds around it.
(Just to be clear: I’m sure Sir David always would have liked to see it. Now he feels he can say it. He’s lots more to lose than me. Well, the planet has more to lose, since Sir David has the standing to influence other places on the planet where protection and extinction prevention is paramount.)
There is nothing that can stop it, now.
Just like gay marriage, even in dear old quaint little ultra catholic Ireland where until after I was born unmarried mothers were living as slaves in state-sponsored laundries….
I only hope that things have changed so fast that we can have wild wolves not in twenty years, but two. And that Sir David can narrate the first documentary about their release.
Further information about wolves and deer management in Ireland
I must preface this by saying it is not a scientific article: it’s a scientist’s opinion article. That’s why it’s posted on my private website and not elsewhere.
I don’t normally bother watching Spanish films, but I watched one yesterday a documentary I saw it at the Environmental Educational Museum in Pamplona: a facility I hadn’t visited before, though only a stones throw from my house, but one I intend to return to soon. The documentary was called Las Guerras del Lobo (Wolf Wars) directed by Antonio Rodríguez Llano, and it was well worth attending. There was even a discussion afterwards. It’s not widely available yet, and since it’s in Spanish, most of you won’t be able to watch it. But I took notes. In English.
I had considered staying at home to write a couple of thousand words of my next novel. But since I’d just written an article for IWT that talked about the wolf in northern Spain, I decided I’d go along. One of the advantages of flexible working hours is being able to take an hour off (though my timetable is not yet quite as flexible as I’d like!). Also, one of the characters in the novel – who would have been delighted to hear the recent news that a wolf had returned to Oregon’s Mt. Hood across a desert of unsuitable habitat from near the border with Idaho – was himself pondering the return of the wolf to Scotland, so it was timely all round.
It’s a pity I hadn’t been able to see the film before, because it was full of interesting information I could have added to the article. Things like the fact that the cost of reimbursing Spanish farmers for lost stock is 1.5 million euros each year: equivalent, as the fella said, to the price of a kilometre or two of roads – thousands of which have been built over the last decade in Spain. In Ireland It’s a drop in the bucket against the 70 Billion we’re in dept and we could probably save that much on unnecessary consultancy fees. That figure is also currently offset by money spent on wolf-centred tourism – 4-600,000 euros in one area of Castilla y Leon, the Sierra de Culebra alone – a figure predicted to increase to 6 million annually over the coming years as wolves spread.
I hadn’t originally written much about wolves in my first draft of the IWT article, which I saw as something designed to motivate hunters to improve their control in areas where deer are overpopulated. But I was asked to include some information about natural predators, especially from the view point in Spain, a country where wolves were already present and spreading. So I sought out some information, but none of my sources were as extensive and complete as the documentary: it summarised the history of the wolf in Europe (including Ireland) and it’s resurgence in Spain, amongst other countries.
I didn’t originally think there was much point in including wolves in the article, because it is such an anathema to both hunters and farmers Ireland. I had heard other suggestions of reintroductions of the wolf scorned outright, by hunters I know well, and I didn’t want to be tarred with the same brush. It was a pipe dream, to see wolves returned to Ireland – or Great Britain, for that matter. So why even bring it up? I’d just be labelled a crackpot and the rest of my thesis would be ignored.
And then I watched the documentary. And took part in the discussion afterwards. And I’ve changed my mind.
So what else did I learn that I didn’t know before?
Well, 70% of the 2000 wolves in Spain live in one northern autonomous community, Castilla y Leon, north of the River Duero, which reaches the sea at Portugal’s Oporto. They bring balance to an area of great biodiversity and they help improve the health of rabbit populations by concentrating their predation on individuals infected with myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. They are also hunted themselves, though the number that is poached is probably greater than the legal take.
The farmers who have lived with wolves their whole lives are used to them, and they have mastiffs, provided by the local wildlife service, to help protect their herds. They pen livestock over night and they suffer few attacks.
Those on the southern band of the River Duero don’t. So they suffer more attacks. Though wolves prefer wild ungulates, they can be tempted by easy pickings, especially in areas with few natural prey animals. The 15% of the wolves in this part of the country cause 50% of the damage to livestock. One farmer lost 41 head of cattle in 3 months. Though problematic packs are targeted and the alphas sacrificed, most farmers are quite bitterly opposed to the expansion of wolves into their lands. In the face of such losses, farmers are beginning to take measures such as bringing in their stock to well-fenced pastures at night.
I like farmers. I know lots and am related by marriage to a few of them. Some farmers are always changing the way they do things: they seek the best seeds, the best bulls, the newest machinery. Others… don’t. But they all like to complain. Even the ones making money. Just in case. Now, I believe that anyone who has to get up that early every day of the year and work so hard (some do it even though they don’t have to) are entitled to do their share of complaining. But farmers don’t complain about getting up early, or having to milk cows, or having to sit in a combine harvester for 16 hours a day during the height of summer. Ok, so technology has made milking easier – some farmers have robots to do it and there is air conditioning in most combines now, instead, they usually complain about the weather and prices of their produce (but this is not really the place to discuss the price of food and what we should be paying for it…).
So back to the topic.
Nobody likes to have to do things differently. Nobody wants to have to change methods or routines, or give up on something they’ve been doing for a long time. If it is good enough for now, why do I have to change? Why do I have to do something extra? Because everyone else is, and if you don’t you’ll be left behind.
I didn’t want to have to do my Masters in Education just to tick a stupid box in the Spanish education system because my teaching experience took place outside their kingdom. But shit happens. I spent time and brainpower and money on it, and now I can teach here in Spain.
But you do what you have to do. If you spent your life making cars but the jobs get exported to somewhere they make cars more cheaply, you look for something else. The manufacturing base falls out of a country (many countries) and what do the workers do? They change their skill sets, or they go on the dole.
European and Irish farmers don’t want to stop breeding sheep, despite the fact that the money has gone out of them. They clamour for the government to increase subsidies so they can keep breeding an animal that can be more cheaply bred elsewhere. And the government(s) listens. But I’m sorry: as one of the unemployed audience members at the documentary showing said (I’m paraphrasing here), “the farmers have to put up and shut up with the changes in the world. If they have problems with the wolves, then they need to change the way they do things. Their world has changed. It now includes wolves. So put up decent fences, bring the stock in at night, and buy some dogs. Or get rid of the stock and do something else. But eliminating the wolves again is not an option, crying to government is not going to make the wolf go away.”
I spoke, myself, during the post-viewing discussion. I explained that in Ireland the farmers have a war against foxes and badgers instead of wolves, and even mentioning the idea of reintroduction was considered ludicrous. One of the other participants said that it probably didn’t make sense to reintroduce the animals where they would not be able to repopulate themselves naturally.
And I thought about that. And I disagreed. “What about,” I asked, “the farmer in Normandy, who has wolves returning eventually to his sheep farm. And he says, but ‘I don’t want the wolf. The guy just across the water, there, doesn’t have to worry about it. Why should I?'” (And bear in mind that the wolves only just crossed the river Duero – a barrier that the farmers on the south bank had been able to rely on for years.)
The wolf was eliminated from both areas, by man. Now, it can (relatively) easily return to one place, but have to swim across the English Channel to return to the other. It originally colonised the British Isles with the help of a land bridge. The land bridge is not there any more, but the areas were the wolf inhabited are. It was perfectly able to survive and thrive on those islands until it was exterminated. Now, if it can return to mainland Europe by itself, we should (and do) allow it. But if and when it gets to the shores of Normandy and Brittany, won’t we have an obligation to help it across the sea? That is, if we haven’t already reintroduced it there. The lack of a Europe-wide consensus and focused conservation plan is a hindrance. Even in federal states of the EU, like Spain and Germany, different provinces can have different management plans concerning returning endangered species. Surely the consensus should be to allow wolves to return naturally wherever they find their way to, and to actively return wolves to areas where appropriate habitat exists, especially if the wolf will find difficulty in getting there without assistance. After all, the managers of Yellowstone could have waited for wolves to naturally repopulate the park from Canada, but then we would have had to wait an extra twenty years to see the positive effects on that damaged ecosystem that needed the wolves there to be rebalanced.
So why not bring back the wolf to Ireland?
Because the sheep farmers will have to do things differently. That’s the simple answer. It’s pure laziness and reluctance to change. Time was they, could kill the wolf. They did. But time was, landlords could pay tenants slave wages, factory owners could employ children, farmers could spray DDT. Times change. What will change with the reintroduction of the wolf? No more leaving the stock out on the hill without any observation for weeks on end. Perhaps some farmers will decide it’s just not worth it, and get out of sheep farming. What will the downside of that be? Nothing. We still get our wool from New Zealand. Lamb will cost the same. On the upside, taxpayers will pay fewer subsidies for sheep farming and our hillsides might be a bit less denuded from over grazing. More habitat will be available for deer – which, incidentally, are more of a problem to farmers in Spain than the wolves. Even in Idaho, a state in the US where farmers campaigned for a wolf cull, farmers are calling on hunters to increase the harvest of wapiti (elk) because these are damaging fences, grazing pastures and destroying crops. Some deer hunters might object that the quarry they pay good money to shoot will become less common, but the wolves would only be viable in areas with enough wild food to sustain them. In Spain, the areas were wolves currently reside are some of the best for hunting, with healthy populations of red, fallow and roe deer, not to mention wild boar.
So I ask myself: why not clamour for wolf reintroduction? It might take twenty years, but if we start pushing for it now, perhaps in twenty-years time we’ll be ready for it. Many Spanish farmers, the documentary revealled, are convinced that EU policy will change so they are compensated for protecting biodiversity rather than in essence, destroying it.
To hark back to my original article, I’m still of the opinion that we hunters can control the burgeoning Irish deer population, at the moment. But if the reintroduction of the wolf to our island means having to hang up the deer rifle there, well, it’s a sacrifice, I, for one, as a hunter and ecologist, am willing to make.
We all have to make sacrifices…. isn’t that what our government has been telling us these last few years?
Nobody is asking the farmers to sacrifice their livelihoods. I am saying they need to adapt to the changing natural habitat (after all, they’ll have to do some things differently as climate change becomes an ever-increasing factor in our lives). I am saying that if that means they have to sacrifice their ignoring of the sheep on the hill for weeks on end, then that’s what they’ll have to do. If they can’t make sheep farming work with the wolf in the forests, then sheep farming was already a livelihood in danger.