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Introducing Species: A Mouflon Quandary

 

maquiriain-mountains

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.

 

 

Irish Wildlife Trust Winners

As I get back into the swing of things after summer, first thing I have to do is congratulate David Devins of Co. Leitrim and Damian O’Sullivan of Co. Cork, who both won copies of my children’s novel, Peter and the Little People in the summer IWT Irish Wildlife Magazine’s book competition.

As you might know, I have pledged to give 10% of my royalties on Peter and the Little People to this NGO (if you’ve read the book you’ll know why) to help the great work they do.

At the moment a new battle has emerged for them, and us all, to tackle – the possible introduction of more destructive insecticides in Ireland, which threaten bees and other useful and important insects.

 

It seems that the fight to protect bees, like the fight to stop much environmental destruction will be continual, as companies try to introduce more chemicals.

It’s similar to George Monbiot’s post this week, that though the TTIP agreement seems to have been abandoned in the face of so much negative public opinion against it’s implementation, there are other similar treaties in the works, all designed to take power to legislate international companies from government – and thus public – hands. At the end he suggests we can never let our guard down, for the corporations and their cronies are always working against us and our environment, and they only need to succeed once, while we have to beat them every time.

Similarly, the bees and other insects only have to be erased from the planet once, and we have to save them every year, every week, every day.

Do your bit – join the IWT or whatever similar organisation operates in your country. And be vocal, even through the internet. It’s not quite the direct action that seems necessary to protect the Dakota water supply, but it’s effective when there are enough of us.

Misgivings

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An Absence in Abundance

 

Lavender lays sideways under the weight of wind and blossom

But the bees clinging to the swaying stalks are few and far between.

An exuberance of blooms festoon the garden; from geraniums to clover,

But the butterflies are almost all white. Where is the abundance?

The humming profusion we should see before us?

The insects are ever scarcer on the farm – apart from houseflies –

And sparrows are ousting the house martins.

Those looking closely can see the cracks and give voice

To our misgivings that something’s got to give.

Spring Dusk, a poem

Spring Dusk

 

The last song of the thrush before nightfall,

The final swings through the sky before swifts eventually settle:

The ensuing silence – if you can find it – as dusk sinks in

And pink clouds vanish into black.

 

These call out, loud as swift screams

To all who have ears:

Open the windows, shut off everything else,

 

Watch the darkness descend and catch the bats first flight;

You are alive now, but might not last the night.

 

 

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Competition in Irish Wildlife

As you know, 10% of my royalties from Peter and the Little People, my children’s novel about wildlife and leprechauns, will be donated to the IWT, the Irish Wildlife Trust – in addition to the 10% going to WWF.

For anyone who’s a member of the Irish Wildlife Trust, have a look in the summer edition of their Irish Wildlife Magazine and you’ll see that there are two copies of the novel up for grabs on their competition page!

 

competition iwt page

Check it out – the answer is dead easy!

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Bison in my Back Yard!

Some good news about re-wilding.

Rewilding Europe have been posting on facebook in the last week or two lots of good news stories of the reintroduction of bison, and second generation tauros (ancient cattle stock) in several places around Europe. The most notable location piece of news for me was from Holland, where Princess Laurentien attended not their first, but their third bison reintroduction project.

I don’t think bison were ever present in Ireland, and I’m not suggesting it be brought back – but it struck me that when I was studying ecology in University, we were told that the Netherlands were trying to reconstruct and reconstitute their bogs. While we in Ireland still had lots of biologically important fens and bogs, and were busy destroying them under the turf cutters of Bórd Na Mona (producing what they called renewable electricity from it into the bargain; not sure we’ve quite stopped, either) the Dutch had already realised they’d made a balls of things and were scrambling to return some of what they’d destroyed.

The other thing is that the Netherlands are famously densely populated, while Ireland is famously under-populated. If they can find a space to squeeze in a herbivore the size of a bison, surely we can find some room for some boar, or at least stop bitching about the red deer in Kerry taking over our country roads like the bastard hedgerows trying to trip up our country walkers.

 

Another story which hasn’t made the social networks yet, but was in our local newspaper in Pamplona, is that an association right here in Navarra, where I am writing now, has been set up to promote the reintroduction of Bison in the region.

Bison were apparently killed off here in the twelfth century – and there is a bit of a kerfuffle about the fact that the animals killed off are not the same species as the ones which survived in the rest of the continent, though of course with rewilding, you do what you can with what’s left – It’s not so much going back in time as moving forward.

Some of those I discussed the news with were a bit leery – if they’ve been gone since the lovely Romanic churches were being built, perhaps they should not return. (And yet the rebuild Romanic churches.) There were apparently visions of running into these wild and therefore clearly dangerous animals on the country roads.

When I explained that it would be a herd of 5 animals to start, and would build to perhaps a hundred over a decade or two, located up in the hills where they’d forest to roam in, things calmed down. I also explained that generally bison are not aggressive – as any visitor to Yellowstone NP can testify (well, I can).

But it also struck a note with me – if gentle herbivores can engender such fear, then what terror must the idea of returning wolves create.

People assume the bison were killed off because they were dangerous. Likewise the wolf, the boar, the bear, the lynx, the golden eagle, etcetera and etcetera. Not that they merely competed for food with our farming ancestors. Or through blind ignorance.

They thus consider a reintroduction dicing with death. When it’s the opposite.

Leaving these creatures to struggle on in the few places left wild enough for them to so far survive is dicing with death. Theirs and ours. At least emotionally, in our case, but possibly more.

I just watched Racing Extinction two nights ago, and it’s a scary future we’re not facing.

 

The Anomaly

 

We are indeed an anomaly.

That is what they will say about us. By us I mean those alive right now in the early twenty-first century.

 

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When we talk about the environmental havoc humans have played with the planet, we have a tendency to say “it was the time” – in the Fifties they didn’t know any better, like they didn’t know that corporal punishment or locking up unmarried mother was barbaric or smoking, or lead, or asbestos was bad for your health, or that it was worth preserving national monuments for posterity.

They let the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger die in the 1930s because they weren’t aware there were no more left in the wild, and captive breeding programs were unheard of.

The Alhambra in Andalucia, now a huge tourist attraction, was let go to rack and ruin until the eighties. The walls of Pamplona were torn down in grand part in the early part of the twentieth century to extend the city, and now what remains is the town’s main attraction outside of San Fermines. An application as a Unesco site was denied in the eighties because the walls weren’t complete.

 

But they didn’t know any better then. Not like we do now.

Now we’d never destroy a piece of patrimony, an example of our heritage. Except Isis, the mad bastards.

But we still do.

The wooden road discovered in Ireland which is a millennium older than any Roman roads and which is right now being shredded for sale as peat moss is just an example. The people in control just don’t give a fuck, simple as that. Same now as it ever was.

 

We hear about the dangers of cigarette smoking and asbestos and lead all the time. The companies peddling or using them knew a hell of a lot longer than the general public, though. However, they’d never endanger public health with those things now.

 

Oh yes they would, and oh yes they do.

 

They still use asbestos in developing countries to build houses. They still sell cigarettes to people and pressurise, or sue, governments to allow them do so in the way they want. A look at the headlines tells us all we need to know about what they think about saving money to keep kids away from being poisoned by lead in their environment.

 

Despite the horror show awaiting us at the hands of global warming, companies like VW and Exxon keep on trucking the same way they want to and fuck us and our flimsy attempts to use the law to keep us safe.

 

It seems we humans are intent on keeping on destroying things until they’re gone. Then we will try to rebuild the treasure we have ruined, like they rebuilt the Liceu opera house in Barcelona when it burnt down. Hey, there’s money in construction… like there’s money in war. Better build up Miami Beach than slow down the submerging…

Easier to rebuild the walls of Pamplona, or of Rome, than the kind of treasures we are letting die out around us. A Tasmanian tiger is a loss, but so much more is the Sumatran, the Siberian, the Bengal.

 

They call it business as usual. But it’s not. It’s only been like that for a very short time. And it will only last a little bit more, no matter what we do in the next few years and decades. It’s only a blip on human history, never mind geological time.

Afterward, when we all – what’s left of us – will live a very different kind of life; one more in tune with the planet, more in line with its resources.

 

The great pity – though only one of the pities – is that if we went now towards the way we must all live, it would be so much easier, so much better for us and the world around us.

Like getting by without asbestos is better than having to remove it, and preventing illness is better than paying the healthcare costs of those affected, or letting them die, as many are.

This radio show about life expectancy says that of American Whites is declining, and that of Hispanics much higher than expected simply because of the difference in smoking rates between these two groups. John Oliver’s very informative and funny show about lead says that every dollar spent in lead abatement brings back seventeen in savings of special education, healthcare and crime effects of lead poisoning.

Think of how much better things would have been if those bastards running those lobbies didn’t do their jobs so well and we had stopped using them way back when they figured out they were dangerous.

 

I know it sounds pessimistic, but I really think we’ll be living very different lives sooner than we think. We won’t be driving the cars we are now for one. We will all go to solar electricity and drive cars that don’t contaminate. It’s the only way forward, because of what economists pretend we don’t know – that finite resources thingy.

 

Most of these vehicles will go a little slower than your average Audi. And that’s okay. I mean, why do we need to have cars now that can go so fast? It’s not as if they can do that on city streets more accelerate to the next red light. Why do we need cars that can go double the speed limit so smoothly that we hardly notice we’re endangering ourselves and others and are surprised when we get the speeding ticket? We’ve seen that they can’t do this without producing a shit load of pollution, and so called efficiency in engines has been mere illegal IT trickery and pollution control fraud (for which I can’t see anyone in jail yet).

 

So why not start now? Why not stop making cars which are so fast? Especially since it seems basically impossible to make them both fast and as efficient as they are legally supposed to.

 

What’s the point in one generation having the experience of super gas guzzling cars – which never see their full potential on our roads –  when every other generation in the future will have to get by with a the equivalent of a Prius?

 

If we don’t stop this short aberration of extreme greed – for we’re all greedy, but usually our peers slap us around the head and tell us to get a grip on ourselves when we go too far. This has not unfortunately happened to CEOs and hedge fund managers yet (who sometimes get billions of dollars a year – I mean, like, what the actual fuck? They could pay for lead abatement out of their back pockets, they could fucking buy Sumatra to make a tiger reserve…) Unless we slap the hands of those holding the reins, we’re liable to ruin the little wonder we have left around us in this anomaly of idiocy.

 

People post quaint photos on social media and ask if you could stay in a cabin in the woods and live a simple life. Many say no. Not me. I’d love it. But even I would say no if there was no woods around the cabin. That’s the simplified future we could be facing, though.

 

 

 

 

Springtime, I think…

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As the mild winter ends, we’re still getting some snow, which is a sting for the bees and their blossoms…

But a few signs make me think of things, and remind me embrace the environment.

 

Spring Should be Here.

 

The blackbird has deemed

It propitious this St. Pat’s

To screw the snow and sing.

 

 

Serenity

 

Sometimes when the traffic signal stops us

Those sixty seconds

Bring the most serenity to our day.

 

 

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Taking Time

 

Too often taking a few minutes

To scribble down some new words,

Staring at the screen and soaring

In our imagination, but not taking

Time to just sit and watch the world;

Interacting with the environment,

Embracing our ecology.

 

 

What, Exactly, Is Rewilding?

 

I read an interesting article about rewilding today – calling it the “new Pandora’s box in conservation.”

Hardly a title to inspire confidence…

One problem the authors see with rewilding is that the term is fluid and quite ill-defined as yet. It would be better to firm up exactly what rewilding is and is not, and define what it aims to achieve.

I agree, as a scientist, that it would be better to know exactly what we are talking about.

But I think there is room for maneuvering yet.

Rewilding is a new term that has yet to come into its own. It has yet to capture the public consciousness.

And in order to let that happen, I think the term should be as broad as possible for as long as possible.

In fact, perhaps we can have two meanings – just like the word “theory” has two meanings – one in common parlance, and the other in scientific terms. It won’t be that problematic if we have a broad meaning for the wider public discussion and then a more precise, concise or even split terms for use in ecology – for example, the Palaeolithic rewilding, or passive rewilding as mentioned in the article.

I say this because what we don’t want to have happen is that the general public decide that rewilding is some scientific activity which only trained ecologists can pursue, or have a hand in, or a stake in.

Because we will need lots of rewilding, of all types, if we are to get through this century with functioning ecosystems. There are some, such as passive rewilding, which the general public can have a great, and direct, impact on. There are things they can do themselves at home, in addition to supporting more extensive projects and translocations by voting, signing petitions and going to visit places which have had formerly extinct species reintroduced.

An article in the Guardian today, about not mowing the lawn so often so that dandelions can flower and feed the multitude of insect species that rely on them highlights this.

Flowers verge

As we live in a world steeped in pesticides, we will need the gardens of our suburbs and cities to give a refuge to the species which would otherwise die out. While research suggests that farmers should plant wildflowers themselves to aid keep pests down in their crops, it’s plain that insects like bees are suffering as we continue to spray.

flowers verge purple

Luckily, the terrain of the farms I visit near Pamplona makes wildflower verges almost unavoidable, though even here the number of butterflies seems to have plummeted in recent years.

To a certain extent, rewilding is just allowing that little slice of wildness to exist alongside our lives and our lawns, instead of keeping wilderness far from us as we push into that very wilderness.

The man on the street with a garden can help this rewilding, just as the building companies who can’t get financing to build on the lots they bought during the boom can let the weeds grow in the meantime. It might not provide habitat for wolves, or bison, but it can keep bees alive, let butterflies and lizards and small mammals survive.

Instead of even planting grass for lawns, home owners, and councils and building management companies, can plant wildflower meadows instead. I showed an example of one in Pamplona last summer. I look forward to it blooming again this spring.

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Wildflower meadow planted in Pamplona park about to bloom in 2015

 

One type of rewilding that the article didn’t mention, but George Monbiot among others does, is rewilding ourselves – getting back in touch with the nature we have too long either ignored or tried to tie up, impound, mow short and neat. I’ve seen the kids approach this wildflower meadow in a much different way to how they’d approach a lawn. I’m sure you can imagine which they’re more excited by.

We might be disinclined to let our kids dig in the muck these days when everyone’s so obsessed with cleanliness, but allowing them romp through a few flowers will set us smiling more than any pretty new frock or well-maintained playground.

 

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What child can resist making petal angels?   And collecting conkers can be done in a clean frock.

 

And just as we might one day be delighted to have dandelions, we will be grateful for the general public’s work in keeping our lives just a little bit wild.

 

 

 

Climate Change for Christmas

20151227_111921.jpg            Climate Change for Christmas

 

At a thousand metres the mist does not reach;

Here the flies have taken refuge, where the

Flowers begin to bloom and bumblebees

Seek a suitable nest, like the Virgin Mary

Her room in the desert to give birth. Yet

A very different beauty should belong to December,

And the most depressing thing this Christmas Day

Is to hear the priest after his homily say:

“Sure a metre is not that much after all.”

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