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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?

Mouflon field.jpg

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.

 

 

The Wolf, Farmers, Forest Guards, and Fraud

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

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?

Peter and the Little People

Out now on pre-order, with a discount, my new book, aimed at readers from 8 to 80 and parents who’d like to read to their kids a book they will enjoy themselves…

 

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https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/museitup/fantasy/peter-and-the-little-people-detail

This is my fifth book under my own name.

Out on  May 24th. Your kids’ll love it.

Here’s the blurb:

You’ve heard stories about Little People: leprechauns and their like. Ireland is full of people who’ve had strange experiences out in the fields in the early morning. All just tall tales and myths, of course.

At least, we assume so…

But Peter knows better.

A boy with a love of wildlife and talent for spotting animals, Peter often sees what he calls elves in the fields as he travels Ireland with his dad. Sometimes it’s just a flash as they drive by, but he catches sight of something too swift for most people to keep their eye on. And Peter is young enough to trust his own eyes more than the adults who tell him these creatures are not real.

When his family go to spend the summer with his granny on her farm, Gemma from the farm next door offers to show him the badger sett under an old Ring Fort. Peter accepts gladly. To his surprise and delight he finally gets a chance to do more than catch a glimpse of the Little People. Will the Little People be just as happy? Perhaps, when Peter learns about some plans for the farm, they might be.

10% of the Author’s Royalties will be donated to WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, and to IWT, the Irish Wildlife Trust.

PETER AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE fb

I have decided to donate to IWT because they are the people who look after our Irish wildlife and ensure that the species Peter loves are protected from going the way of the animals the Little People used to see, and will remain in good health in the future.

Here’s an excerpt

When they travel in cars, most adults look at the road, to make sure that whoever is driving is doing it as well as they would if they sat at the steering wheel. Or else they watch for the signposts that tell you how far you are from the next town or where to turn off for Galway or Tullamore, if there is a junction coming up. Most children only look at the other cars—to see if they can spot a red one, or count how many white cars there are. Both adults and children look at the houses and people by the roadside. Few of them look at the trees and fields and hardly any look for animals.

Peter was an observant passenger, though. For this reason, he was more likely than most children to see the Little People. To Peter, seeing the Little People became very much like spotting a stoat or red squirrel. You had to be watching hard to know what you were looking for and to be able to pick it out from the leaves and twigs and grass around it. And you have to be satisfied with just a very quick glimpse.

Links:

https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/museitup/fantasy/peter-and-the-little-people-detail

http://www.amazon.com/Peter-Little-People-David-OBrien-ebook/dp/B01EQ77FI2

Fire and Water

We’re just about done with possibly the hottest December on record, with heat waves across the northern hemisphere. Simultaneously, there is record flooding in England and Ireland, and huge fires across northern Spain, where I live; seemingly unconnected, but not really.

Both phenomena are either caused by or exacerbated by bad laws.

Today in my email inbox are two mails. One is my automatic notification of George Monbiot’s Guardian article about the predictions of flooding in York because of the actions of farmers (grouse farmers, to be sure) in the watershed upstream, burning and draining peatlands so they don’t hold rainwater as well as they should.

Athlone floodingFlooding in Athlone. Photograph: Harry McGee, from Irish Times

 

The other email is a request to sign a petition to change the new Spanish law, which means people get rich by burning land. 50,000 hectares have burned so far, and most fires have been set on purpose. Forests which have been burned can now be rezoned for building, making a tidy profit for anyone who invests in a forest and a few gallons of petrol.

 

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It seems amazing that we can have such stupid laws when we are faced with such grave global problems. In Ireland, in fact, the minister responsible for environment will change the law to allow field and hedge burning even later than before, in response to the problem of illegal fire setting last spring. Mind boggling, even if we discount the fact that the birds the law is there to protect are breeding even earlier as the climate warms.

Yet, when I talked to a farmer I know about the article I wrote about the illegal fires, she told me she doesn’t get paid for having gorse on her land, so not being able to burn was losing her money – though to date I haven’t seen her burn the patches she has.

Just as we can’t blame corporations for putting their shareholders ahead of the wellbeing of their customers and workers, since the law obliges them to do so, we can’t blame farmers from trying to get the money the law says they are entitled to, as long as their fields are in “agricultural condition.”

Some farmers I know here in Spain are actively digging trenches and putting in plastic drains under fields in far from the wettest part of the world by any stretch of the imagination. These fields have been farmed for centuries, but nowadays the machinery is so heavy it can only be used on dry soil. The state subsidies for starting farmers stipulates that the five-year plan have such modern machinery to be efficient, so staying out of muddy fields after a rain is not an option. And never mind that the water not held in the fields just goes faster to the Ebro, a river notorious for flooding, and which flows through large cities like Logroño and Zaragoza. A whole pig farm was swept away last year, and farmers are asking the river be dredged so the water can flow faster away from them. Which is counterproductive, we know. But farmers are paid to farm, not to mange the environment in a sensible manner. Or to protect other people’s homes from flooding and wildfires.

In Ireland, the town of Athlone on the Shannon is hoping the river won’t inundate it, while politicians suggest paying people to move out of floodplains that should never have been built on in the first place. At the same time, some locals say they never had a flood in 75 years until trees were cut down on the local mountains.

The rules are more than faulty. They’re stupid. Except for those they benefit, of course. Big landowners are making millions off them.

The politicians have thus far, even including the recent Paris agreement, decided it’s supposedly less damaging to their precious economy to deal with the consequences of climate change rather than prevent it.

This is a test of their ideas.

The warming climate will bring much more such fires and floods.

Building flood defences is all well and good, but it’s more wasted money dealing with consequences rather than wisely trying to prevent them. Forests and bogs can absorb a lot of the water destroyed homes from the recent storms, if they aren’t burnt to the ground.

As Monbiot said, flooding fields or towns: which is it going to be?

Common sense says the former, of course. Let’s see if anyone in power got some for Christmas.

 

 

Is it possible to bring back species where men are still farming?

 

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.

 Heather_dead_Barry_ODonoghue_NPWS Heather the hen harrier: picture copyright Barry O’Donoghue NPSW

 

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.

Normal programming will now resume…

First, thanks to all of you who read and liked my blog posts about Five Days on Ballyboy Beach, and thanks to my hosts for having me on their blogs. Also, welcome to the new followers!

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I wanted to post this link to a radio show on the BBC  about rewilding, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026lnqs
and features among the guests, George Monbiot, author of Feral – book I haven’t yet read, but don’t really need to in order to know I agree with 95% of what it says.

I was intrigued to hear George talk about the feelings he got when spear fishing for flounder in Wales at the start of this programme: George is against hunting, I think, especially the kind of hunting that goes on in Scotland among the rich (one of the reasons he was for a Yes vote last week) and he knows many of his readers are, too, yet the passionate feeling he experienced in the tidal flats were identical to what hunters feel when stalking. It is one of the reasons why, my non-fiction book about the sociology of hunting will argue that hunting will continue and become in some circumstances accepted by nature lovers of all stripes.

Hunting makes one feel part of the ecosystem, part of nature. Our genetic memory, our brains, cannot separate us from these feelings because we hold a gun rather than a trident like George did: the concentration is the same, the intensity of the feeling is the same, one becomes immersed in the hunting experience.

I also wanted to post a few photos from just beside my house in the country outside Pamplona from two weeks ago.

 

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This for me was a metaphor for rewilding.

It’s a privilege to be able to see such spectacles still, since Spain still has a lot of wildlife now lost to much of the rest of western Europe.

A dead cow had been left in a paddock (used for storing straw and farm machinery nowadays) on Friday. The truck that normally collects dead livestock since the BSE crisis was busy. Nowadays, the carcasses are taken to a place where vultures and other scavengers can feed from them – Spain has large populations of endangered scavengers as well as other bids of prey – because starvation was affecting breeding successes, and causing some vultures to harass non-quite dead yet lambs, at least according to some farmers – otherwise these large scavengers might end up the way they did elsewhere.

On Sunday, the carcass was spotted by some vultures and within minutes, there were dozens. It was spectacular. The great birds came in from all directions, making a bee line for our village when they saw others descending.

And I thought, this is the way it is supposed to be. Nature is out there, waiting to come back in, and if we just let them, wild creatures will return, swoop in to take their former places.

Then the farmer realised they’d landed.

 

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And he was worried that if he didn’t have a carcass to show the collection truck on Monday morning, he could get a fine – even though he’d reported the death and was told that they’d have to wait till Monday – so he came over and chased away the vultures.

They reluctantly took to the air and wheeled around above us, waiting, then hoping he’d leave. But he stayed all afternoon. And eventually, the last of the great birds stopped circling and glided off in a straight line, making for a roost on the last of the afternoon thermals, disappearing off into the blue distance from whence they’d come and the sun set on a dead cow as if they’d never existed, had been extinct for years.

And that was another message for me – we expend energy in keeping Nature at bay, with our rules drafted only because we now do extremely badly what we had once done well, for centuries.

The dead cows of yore were taken by mule team to a spot not 200 metres distant and left for vultures. But now the same farmer chases them away.

And if we let Nature do what it wants to do, it would be so much easier for us in the end – who needs to call a truck if the birds come to you for free? Nature does for free what we waste time and money and carbon dioxide doing ourselves.

Time to rewild.