I’d like to say mismanagement right off, but we’ll get to that.
The place I’m talking about is Pamplona’s city park, called the Taconera, made out of the old city walls/moats.
Now that the festival is over, the city has gone back to being famous for it’s fortifications, and it’s small herd of red deer that live in one section of these.
There have been deer there for decades. There were other mammals, like goats, and wild boar for a long time, but they were removed over the years. The deer are accompanied by a lot of fowl and a few wild species, like pigeons, magpies and pestering Jackdaws.
The deer did go at one point (for unknown reasons, though the public was told it was due to inbreeding; a patent lie) but a new herd of two stags and eight hinds were purchased four years ago, not long after I moved here.
At first, there were no problems. The calves all settled down in their fairly open enclosure, and learned that the people looking down on them were no threat, and in fact dropped bread for them to eat (there is a lot of left-over bread in Spain; too much for mere ducks to consume).
Those in charge, I assumed, had been in charge of the previous herd, and had years of experience of deer.
I was wrong.
Through a friend, I found out that the vets who are responsible for the deer are better at their other job of health inspection than large mammal husbandry. Those who feed the animals are merely gardeners, and are ill-equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary, or indeed aware that their activities and actions can actually create future problems for their wards.
The first problem happened when the hinds became pregnant as yearlings and gave birth as two-year-olds. This was a big surprise to the vets. I’ve no idea why, other than extreme ignorance of deer biology.
They assumed the small calves “hiding” in the short-cropped grass (no areas had been left grow into a meadow for such, or has been since) had been abandoned by the dam, and my explanation to the contrary came too late for the first calf out of the six born that year not to have been given bottles – of what kind of milk, I don’t know.
Next year, more calves were born. The herd rose to around twenty, but some were removed – why, or which ones, was never explained. One of the features of this park is that there is no scrutiny, no explanations, no public information. I’ve tried to get answers from the local council, writing emails, but gotten no reply. I’ve written letters to the same newspaper that published my video, pointing out problems in management and husbandry, but received no acknowledgement, much less had them published.
The real problems came when the two stags grew each year and fought during the rut. Conflicts were minimised when two-year-olds, because one stag broke an antler, though he was dominant. His antler was not great the following year, but during their fourth year, they were both spectacular.
The staff’s lack of experience from bad husbandry bore ill fruit.
They had treated the deer as domestic pets.
Worse, they still do.
However, during the rut, these are dangerous animals.
The solution for the park was to put the deer up on a revelin, a triangular mound surrounded by lower ground, and close the gate at the bottom of the ramp they use to access this high ground (their favourite place and the only continuous shade under some big cedars to shade them).
Unfortunately, one of the stags was kicked off the ten-foot wall. No biggie for a deer, but he could not get back up. And down below he was left alone without even a shrub to thrash his antlers against.
And then a gardener came in.
I wasn’t there, and there was only a witness after the gardener had been fending off the testosterone-crazed animal for a few minutes, raising the alarm.
But it’s not hard to figure out what happened.
The deer had no fear. He’d been raised to consider humans harmless. Suddenly one was approaching – it had to be a rival, another deer which he could spar with, could expend his energy on. So it attacked.
People don’t get attacked in the wild because even the testosterone-fuelled anger can’t over-ride fear of humans, them being hunters and all.
On deer farms, most stags get their antlers removed, just like bulls are dehorned.
In this case, going in alone was a mistake.
The man survived, but he won’t go back to work there.
The deer did not survive. It was removed next day. I asked if it might be donated to a soup kitchen, but got no reply.
That’s all fine and dandy. Mistakes happen. We learn from them.
Or we don’t.
There was still a pricket (a one-year-old stag with simple straight points) up with the other mature stag. It was kicked out a few days later, down on the lower level. Of course, the lessons had been learned. The gardeners would not expose themselves to danger again.
No. I witnessed several scenes of stupidity.
While the guys entered in pairs, they didn’t stick together the whole time. One guy stood five yards from the young stag and fed it corn, then took photos of it with his phone, while his superior walked away – a good fifty yards away.
I saw them stand in front of the big stag behind the fence while the stag made the gestures I’d observed while I’d studied the choreography of fighting in deer as an undergrad. The stag won each stand-off. They did not open the gate to feed the hungry deer, now running out of fresh grass up on their small enclosure.
A few days after that, the young stag was gone.
I asked where it was, and was curtly told it was gone and further enquiries could be made to the city council. These enquiries, as I said, went unanswered.
Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they’d had another scare with it. It seemed so peaceful, but I’m sure the first big stag also looked peaceful till it attacked.
What followed was a debacle of the highest order.
The deer remained in their enclosure of less than half a hectare for the rest of the winter. All eleven of them.
Every attempt to enter the enclosure simply further enforced the idea in the stag’s mind that this was a battle against rivals, and he was keeping his harem safe from them with his threats. The men backed down every time. They were afraid, and treated the deer as a danger rather than showing it who was boss – who was the fucking human, for god’s sake.
The grass was grazed away. Animal welfare groups threatened the council with court cases unless the situation was improved. Eventually the gardeners resorted to throwing up hay onto the wall.
The stag remained in rut in part because the hinds were not all pregnant – because they didn’t have enough forage to achieve sufficient body condition.
Then the newspaper reported that the stag would be sold to a farm, and no stag would be present for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they’d artificially inseminate the hinds after a number of years.
That was when I wrote a letter to the paper pointing out that if just one of the hinds were pregnant with a male calf, their plans would not work out quite like that.
I saw a group being led through the park one morning, marking places on the walls, and on their exit, the stag was taunted – to demonstrate its antagonism, I suppose. A few days later, the stag was still there, but had lost its antlers.
The farm did not want the stag with its weapons intact. Of course – it’s a deer in need of re-education.
Why antler removal had not been used right after the attacks was another mystery, for a while. I found out, from that friend, that someone in the office considered it unsightly for a stag to be in the park with no antlers. But starving the hinds was ok…
That raised its own set of questions. Who are these deer for? For us, the public? Then why not let us know what is going on? Why not just get rid of the deer otherwise? If the public will disprove of a de-antlered stag, surely we object to the stags (and hinds and calves) being removed without explanation.
A week or two after that, some safety barriers were installed. These are like the fences you see in a bullring, if you’ve ever seen them, where the humans can hind behind a narrow gap between the wall behind them and the barrier in front.
Useful. Especially five months beforehand.
Not such a great necessity if you’re planning to have only hinds in the herd for the next five to eight years…
Perhaps they’d read my letter.
So the stag was shipped off, and the hinds were allowed down to graze on new grass and put on some weight before birthing. Five of them had given birth over the course of a week or more. Another was born a few weeks later.
I assume at least one more will give birth this year. I haven’t been by since before the festivals started, in early July. The deer were enclosed up on the revelin despite the heat wave and the only water available down low. I hoped the plan was not to leave them there for the festival, but next day the gate was open.
Hinds and young calves in late July.
What concerned me most was seeing, a few weeks before that, the gardeners feeding the deer the leaves and twigs of the trees they’d pruned in preparation for the festivals. I don’t object to the deer getting some variation in their diet, some roughage, some browse, of course. The problem was that as the gardeners went by with more branches, they held them out to the hinds, encouraging them to approach, and in one case, eat out of his hand.
A calf born to that hind will grow up believing humans are nothing to be feared. When he grows a nice rack at maturity, and testosterone tells him these beings, who are no threat, are rivals for his hinds, he’ll do what nature tells him, and through human stupidity yet again, he’ll be shipped out to a farm. If he’s lucky.
A gleam of hope has appeared recently in the change of city mayor, and the council. The head of the department responsible for the deer has been changed. The new leader is a biologist, who studied with some folk I know, and hopefully will be a bit more enlightened about the management of this tiny herd. That way, I, and the few citizens like me who are aware of and interested in the minutia of the herd, can enjoy them without the frustration as we’ve felt watching such a mess being made, and, more importantly, the deer are allowed to be as wild as possible, as free as possible, and not suffer as they have, simply because of their keepers’ ignorance.
I must add an addendum here, even as I post this.
I had a stroll past the park yesterday after being away on holidays, and saw that the herd now consisted of 8 adult females. All of this year’s offspring have been removed. Since it’s only the middle of August, all of these were of course still suckling from their dams. I’m not sure, however, of the animal welfare issues in separating them if the young are sold to a farm – whether they will be given supplemental milk – but given that the hunting season for female deer is always delayed until at least October in consideration that dams will be yet lactating (and I found during my studies that a third of hinds were lactating still in January and February), I find it a bit callous to say the least.
With just hinds in the herd, it seems that we may as well empty the park completely of deer. There will be no rut to watch, no births to witness, no calves to observe take their first steps or suckle; just frisky hinds mounting one another and going through oestrus every month all winter.
Who wouldn’t rather see some sheep or goats down there instead?
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.
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.