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?
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.
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.
Last week in Asturias, a northern province of Spain where wolves are protected, a group of twenty were prosecuted for fraud. They’d shared a booty of up to two hundred thousand Euros between them.
They had been faking wolf attacks on their livestock and claiming the compensation which the government gives to replace the sheep and cows that any wolf might have killed.
The group was made up of nine farmers and eleven forest guards they were in cahoots with They couldn’t have gotten away with it for so long if not for the forest guards who claimed these were indeed real attacks. Any forest guard who was not getting part of the money would have seen straight away they were fake.
This accounts for a full fifth of the one million euros that Asturias pays annually in compensation.
In 2014, several farmers were caught getting paid double for their losses – claiming insurance for the loss of livestock as well as the compensation for wolf attacks.
But apart from the monetary damage they’ve done, stealing from the public purse, they’ve contributed to the vilification of the endangered predator, making it seem more dangerous to farming than it really is, and pushing public opinion against it’s continued protection and spread into former territories from which it was eradicated in the last century.
In the last few months several wolves have been killed illegally and their heads hung in various places.
Wolf head hung at a crossroads in Asturias – image from El Pais newspaper article linked below.
Hatred driven by lies?
The Spanish Civil Guard police think so – they say the animal has been criminalised and this fraud has led to an atmosphere of rejection of the animal.
The statistics of wolf attacks were skewed for years. The numbers of wolf-kills farmers claimed was considered “inexplicable from a biological, physical and mechanical point of view.” Once the numbers of claims were presented in a report (65 paid out in one year on one farm alone, for example) the year later there were drastically fewer claims.
Farmers in areas of wolf recolonisation (for example those south of the River Duero) have resisted the recolonisation of the predator on the basis of false data. In fact, the wolf kills very few livestock and there is less to fear in terms of possible losses than the numbers indicate.
Not only that, it leads us to ask the question, how many more farmers might be trying to fleece the system? How many other attacks have been real? How many fake?
The compensation payments are a useful step towards trying to bridge the gap between farmers and ecologists, two groups who don’t usually see eye to eye in Spain (the farmers often claim that the activists – there’s a difference between ecologos, the scientists, and ecologistas, the activists, in Spanish – have no idea how the countryside actually works when they come up with their plans and laws).
Forest guards claim that farmers pressure them, and even threaten them to get them to sign a death by natural causes, or lightning strike, as caused by wolf attack, and many have been sued. Farmers buy cheap horses and leave them alone on the mountain so they’ll be attacked by wolves, since the compensation is more than the horse was worth.
No ecologist claims wolf reintroduction, or protection, is, or will be, completely conflict free. Yet if the farmers pretend that there are more problems than there really are, what are we to do?
One wonders how many wolf attacks would be reported if there were no compensation at all, if it were just a data-collection exercise. If such fraud is found to be more widespread, there might be some calls to find out.
After all, science cannot be carried out on the basis of economic fraud. We need to know the real figures. Otherwise how are we to guide the reintroduction efforts in other countries?
Last month the Irish Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphries, decided change the law to extend the season during which burning and cutting hedges and other vegetation will be permitted, despite the protestations of thousands.
Heather Humphries. The fake smile is probably because she knows we know she’s not qualified for the job we are paying her for…
Before this, farmers could cut and burn during February, then they had to wait until September to any further work of that nature on their land. This was to protect the wildlife, especially nesting birds.
But this year they can wait until March before burning, or start in August again. Though considered unnecessary by and large, this has happened because some farmers were burning illegally last year – what more elegant solution than to make it legal do conduct such burning?
I watched some of the debate in the Seanad on this legislation. It was frustrating, as well as hilarious at times, as some politicians tried to claim the change was necessary because hedgerows were taking over our country roads and making them impossible to walk – I’d say the speed at which cars travel the roads nowadays might be more important. There are roads I’d never cycle, never mind walk, which I did twenty years ago.
This extension to destruction season comes just as climate change means some birds are breeding earlier nowadays. This year has been an exceptionally mild winter and spring will come soon, and even stopping in March will affect some birdlife.
But though the rules have changed on the insistence and lobbying of some farmers and landowners, it does not mean that fires have to rage this year like they did (illegally) last year.
If the weather is warmer (and perhaps dry – it could happen!) now, then farmers can get their burning done even earlier than they used to. They don’t have to wait until after March just because they can. There is certainly no need to wait to get the hedge cutting done – ti’s something that can be done very quickly nowadays with the machinery available.
Hedgecutting in action. You don’t need months to get this done any more, but choose the wrong month and there will be a lot of bird nests getting cut in this particular hedge. Photo from http://www.dublinplanthire.ie
The farmers who care about the land (and there are a lot of them, despite how it sometimes seems) can keep obeying the spirit of the former law, rather than the letter of the new law. The law says we can drive at 100kmph in many places that we don’t even try reach that speed.
We can always do what we think is right, regardless of what the law says we can do. Plenty of anglers release their fish even when they can legally take them home. Some hunters let the fox slink away and just watch it, rather than take a shot, though they could legally shoot that fox, since it’s considered vermin (and would be asked to if the farmer was also watching).
If we are to rewild our lands and our lives, and indeed, keep alive the little bit of wildlife we have left out there, we have to rely on the good will, and good sense, of the majority in the face of the selfishness and, ultimately, as can see with climate change, idiocy of the minority.
In farming as in other matters we need people to do right because that’s the thing to do…. like avoiding paying taxes – if we all avoided paying our taxes like the elites do, every country would come to a halt.
And a majority of people wanted this legislation stopped. A majority of the senators I saw speaking were against it. But those in power pushed it through.
We can only hope that when they are gone from power, soon enough, this legislation can be reversed to rein in those few outliers who don’t give a monkeys about out, and their, environment.
So, the calls for reintroducing lynx to Britain have transformed into action. The Wild Lynx Trust is actively seeking licences bring to test populations to three different areas of that island Aberdeenshire, Cumbria and Norfolk.
Of course, there are concerns for human safety – unfounded and ridiculous ones which don’t warrant discussion, though one article did state that they are not considered a risk to people.
And this week, both the British Deer Society and the Wild Deer Association of Ireland have issued statements expressing grave reservations about the reintroductions. The latter’s just in case anyone gets the wild idea of restoring the lynx to Ireland, where it’s been absent for longer, admittedly.
Now, I’m an advocate of deer societies. I used to be a member of the BDS, and I was very active in the Irish Deer Society when I lived at home. If I was still there, I would be still. They’re usually the only advocates for the deer.
But they also advocate for deerstalkers. Most of their members are deerstalkers – which is not as strange some might assume, but that’s another day’s discussion.
And in this case they are putting the stalkers before the deer – the lazy ones at that.
Deer hunting is hard. But we all know that going in, and if we go home with no venison, well, that’s hunting too.
As long as the deer and the habitat are healthy, we’ve done our job.
Venison is great and a healthy meat, but we’re not going to starve when we have veggies and rabbits.
Anyway, the BDS says “Lynx will clearly not address growing populations of fallow deer in England and Wales nor areas of local overpopulation of red deer in Scotland,” and that “Lynx are efficient killers of roe deer – the species which presents the least threat to woodland.” They basically suggest that the lynx will feed on the roe and ignore the fallow and probably muntjac.
The latter is an unknown quantity as yet – they’re smaller than roe, are very secretive and I think present the perfect prey for lynx, but they’re from outside the lynx’s natural range., and so won’t know for a while.
So if the lynx keep the roe under control and hunters were already doing that okay, well, the hunters just need to leave the roe to nature and concentrate on the fallow – and the muntjac if need be.
We can’t expect the lynx to do all our job for us, but it can help out and spread the work, as it were.
But that’s not the point either.
The WDAI actually, and inadvertently, get it right when, in trying to claim that Ireland is completely different from Britain with regard the deer. They says lynx will have an impact only on the natural balance of the ecosystem, in terms of other native or indigenous species, such as the Irish hare or ground nesting birds, partridge for example and of course the migratory species.
That is the point.
We seem to need to give reasons for reintroductions in terms of it being necessary, to solve some problem (usually of our making).
Did people say the salmon and trout were going fucking mental before the reintroduction of the white tailed sea eagle? Did they say there Scots were being attacked by birch trees before bringing back the beaver? Was Wicklow’s Avoca vale run amok with small mammals before the red kite began to soar over it once more?
Conversely, did they say the fox should be eradicated because it does a shit job of controlling rabbits, while it snacks on the odd lamb or two? Actually some would love that, so perhaps bad example.
No. And if they did, they were frowned at and told to go stand in the corner until they copped themselves on.
These animals need to be reintroduced because they belong, they make our islands richer, our hearts glad. Not because we’re putting them to work.
Perhaps the lynx won’t miraculously solve our deer problem. But in Ireland, it will certainly help with the rabbits (and foxes would do a better job if they weren’t snared and poisoned and shot so much).
And most importantly, it will be another cog in the machinery of our environment. It will help the natural balance, it will give some more stability, so populations of deer, among others, are not so subject to the vagaries of our human nonsense, and resultant wide variation in numbers. For example, we have increases in the overall number of hunters – more or less inexperienced and ineffective – during economic booms and lots of unscrupulous poachers during recessions.
Lastly, the BDS calls for “a clear exit strategy.”
What exit strategy? The stated aim is to have hundreds of lynx in the country. After the five years, does anyone really believe that there will be a call to remove them? Based on what? Human safety? If they really need to be eradicated, it won’t be that hard. We made them extinct on the island before. With medieval technology. We won’t be overrun with cats we can’t eradicate, for heaven’s sake.
The opposite scenario will probably be the problem – also referred to by the WDAI, who say “the lynx may even fall foul to gamekeeper traps, snared as does the fox and will become persecuted.”
Given our recent experience of poisoning raptors in Ireland that hits the heart. Of course, when Ireland has grown up a bit, when those old ways of thinking have died out because those who thought like that have died, there will be a life for all wildlife in Ireland.
Nature is, so far, waiting to return, as soon as we, humans get out of its way. In a damaged form in still exists even in Europe in between the farms and across their mosaic of monocultures. Recently, I read the good news that many species of large mammal have returned to the abandoned areas around Chernobyl that I’ve talked about before: https://davidjmobrien.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/chernobyl-and-rewilding-islands-2/
Meanwhile in Ireland, the hen harrier, a protected raptor has hardly been out of the news recently – and it’s nearly all bad news.
The first article I read suggested that farmers be given money to compensate them for protecting hen harriers in Special Protection Areas. This seemed ridiculous, if not abhorrent to me. After all, am I compensated for protecting schoolchildren from bullies? No, it’s part of me obeying the law like the rest of us have to obey the laws. This smacked of a blackmailing protection racket – pay us to protect the birds, or you might find the birds are dying out there.
When I read that a Scottish game keeper was found guilty of killing goshawks and other predators of gamebirds he was raising, I wonder why we, too, can’t simply protect our endangered and vulnerable species by enforcing the laws that are there to protect them, rather than paying protection money to those who would view them with a caustic eye.
However, it seems apparent that unfortunately, our little island, while too small, too built up and densely populated for wolves or other large animal to be released into, is indeed wild and deserted enough that wildlife crime is virtually impossible to prevent or prosecute.
The negative view of the hen harrier in Ireland just seemed to increase. Farmers and other unscrupulous landowners who see such birds as a barrier to them planting forestry or installing wind turbines simply make such barriers disappear. That’s if they are unlucky enough to have their land selected for protection because the species was still there when the sites were designated: just good habitat didn’t qualify, so those who’d killed off the birds in the first place were in a better position. And kill off the birds some did. Just a week later the headlines proclaimed that a much-studied and named hen harrier was shot.
It seems that there is an impasse here. Ignorance and fear and lack of resources make it almost inevitable that our wild birds and mammals lose out on this island. From a Trinity College professor going on national radio and making a show of himself with inaccurate information about all sorts animals, including raptors, to the fact that the huge deer poaching problem is beyond the capability of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to handle, to the illogical farm supplement system, everything conspires against our wildlife.
Some farmers cling on to a way of life that perhaps has changed from an occupation to a pastime, in that there’s little money to be made from upland sheep farming, and they are only kept alive by subsidies. If these subsidies were used to make farmers wildlife guardians and protectors of habitats (though allowing scrub forest in my view is better than keeping prime hen harrier habitat, since it will eventually allow even more emblematic species to thrive) then we wouldn’t have these clashes. Turning from sheep to forests and wind turbines is a way to stay on the land, but if there were good sturdy populations of hen harriers, there would be less need to ban turbines on their habitat and we should be encouraging forests for wildlife as well as for timber.
Believing that you have to remove the wildlife to stay on the land because every little penny counts is sad, but could be alleviated by compensation where that wildlife does indeed financially impact the farm. Unfortunately, often such conflict is only in the human’s mind: foxes, though widespread, really inflict tiny amounts of damage on lamb numbers, white tailed eagles just aren’t a threat to them, and yet they get shot and poisoned because of this perception.
Finally, doing away with the local wildlife because it causes inconvenience and you don’t believe you should have to bother about preserving it (exemplified by the current movement to allow hedge cutting in summer) has to be something that people will reject because they are afraid of being caught and punished. Wildlife crime has to be considered just that. That will mean enforcing the law. At the moment, too many people think they can carry on doing what they want regardless of how the world around them has changed. I wrote about this before. Catching the culprits and making examples of them will not only give pause, but will eventually change mindsets. And if a farmer disagrees with the new kind of farming, then he should perhaps get out of the game. Most teachers who started working when you could smack a child kept teaching when corporal punishment was banned. Some kept hitting the kids now and then (I’m sure many had similar experiences to me), but eventually even they stopped or they left the profession. Now, the very idea of hitting a kid is equally abhorrent as that of poisoning a white-tailed-eagle that the government spent thousands of euros and man-hours reintroducing for the good of the country and its citizens. Or should be.
I’ve been spending a lot of time working on a sequel to Leaving the Pack, but I have a couple of posts that I’ve been meaning to write and post about the recent problems that have beset the few birds of prey we have in Ireland… meanwhile, here are a few poems I had been thinking of at the same time. Sorry they’re not very fluffy like the snow we’re having this winter…
The Popular Farmer’s Front Stand (at the Environmental Secretary’s Address)
The farmers stood around, shoulders huddled and
Muttering as the man took the podium, turning
Away, they heard one of their number say, and
Nodded in concert. “What has the environment
Ever done for any of us?”
New Year’s Resolution
This year I don’t purport to be a better person,
To improve on my impatience: but only to pretend
By letting other people’s shit slide by, instead
Of reacting to it the way it sure as shit deserves.
Dining with the Wealthy
I aspire to share their table;
Taste the same delicacies
But despise their company.
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.
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.