Those of you who follow me on Twitter, will have seen the photos I posted of the forest fire that burnt through the hills near the village n the Valdorba/San Martin de Unx area of Navarra where I stay on weekends outside Pamplona.
The fire came close, about a km away, but the wind thankfully shifted and it did not come up the other side of the valley towards us in the end, though we did have to evacuate officially after emptying the house of anything we wished to save – which for me only amounted to the spare medicines I keep here, one book from my large collection and a couple of jumpers with sentimental value. I did think it prudent to take 800 year old statue of the Virgin Mary out of the little church, just in case.
The fires here are not generally set by farmers looking to clear land, though they are sometimes caused by accidental sparks from machinery during harvesting. The extreme heat and extended drought made any spark potentially disastrous, and the high winds made fires spread almost unstoppably – there were several over that same weekend in the province.
The cause of this fire hasn’t been clarified, but the local farmers union are adamant that the underlying problem is the reduction in sheep grazing on the hillsides and the environmentalists push to leave the mountains to themselves rather than intensively manage them…
Well, I hadn’t been able to go up to see the aftereffects of the disaster until a few days ago – now a month after the event.
I cycled down to the valley to the village of Maquiriain which was close to being burnt, but was eventually also saved, up along the main road that was the final fire break, to a village at the head of the valley called, Olleta, and from there turned up to the top of the hill and then back along the tracks joining the windmills.
It was a long cycle, and hot – the tail end of another heat wave that passed over us the week before. In the interim there had been a storm or two, but mostly dry sunny days with the chilly north wind blowing as usual.
The most obvious thing is that the experiment of planting pine trees was a huge error, just like it is in many other areas of the world. The living trees left should be felled for timber or paper and native trees let grow – or be planted or seeded from local trees if necessary – instead.
The trees that burnt most were pines and those nearby suffered from the heat.
The densest stands of oak did not suffer so much and seemed to have protected one another (probably because of increased humidity within copses) and even some fields.
The huge snowfall we had in October didn’t seem to have dropped so many boughs in the area I saw as in trees around our village, so probably didn’t have a huge effect, but I did see that under the trees with fallen limbs there was more ash when the wood burnt, and the trees probably also suffered from more open canopy effects.
The juniper bushes burnt to crisps, as did a lot of box, and some other small shrubs I’d know the name of, though that has to include roses and brambles. These will regenerate, I suppose from seed, and some brambles are already coming up. The evergreen oaks are sprouting – from trunks that lost all their leaves and are only sticks, as well as those with shrivelled brown foliage.
Those with trunks too badly burnt have some sprouts from roots, and I suspect more will come with rains and patience for them to get to the surface.
The sheep or other grazers would have probably not had changed much at all. The grass would have been eaten before it burned, yes, but not the juniper and box, as even the horses don’t od much to stop it, so fire is actually the best way to reduce it, and the forest will benefit long term – if the climate change can be reduced in time to have any forest.
The farmers union and other lobby groups are sponsoring a story-telling event for the local kids: how to avoid causing fires in the future. One hopes it does not slant towards recounting legends and myths of the old days… when the mountain was not wild, but was more like a commons-like park or ranch.
Just to be clear, I am in favour of cattle on the hill, as I am the horses, but I wonder if the farmers union would agree that an underlying condition we need to deal with is reducing the CH4 levels from intensive cow production so as to reduce climate change leading to heat waves and forest fires of the future…
In the Mist
Calling cranes cross overhead like ghosts in the gloom,
Bells echo down the hillsides from hidden forest horses
Like shots across the valley, voices and dog barks below
Reveal others on the path as invisible to us as we to them
Knowing surrounds only by memory and sounds in the
Silence, the mist expands our senses out like landscape,
Until the sun lifts the veil and sends down into our pocket
Of the earth, a gentle caress of golden warmth and sets
The sky blue brightness shining off mountain cloud
Shimmering across imagined land beneath silver shroud.
The Same Scene a Thousand Times
A painter can select one scene,
One view, from a certain lookout,
Turn it into their subject: treat
It a thousand ways, in varying lights.
But can a poet? Write a thousand times
Of one mountain range and valley?
Of all the many shadows and scudding
Clouds along its sides, and all
Aspects of the mists across its sky.
A painter can settle in one spot,
A cottage on a cliff:
Paint through the window.
A poet may install himself
In the same place,
But can he use words more than once
To illustrate the landscape?
Or once used, need he seek new views
To inspire new vocabularies?
It seems the answer lies in the
Lines, led along by eyes, looking
In ever-finer focus always finds
The mind inspired to write.
I have no photos of the scenes that inspired the first poem, but the second poem was inspired by sunset in the same spot I watch sunset most Sunday evenings, and each time it’s inspiring, but can I write of the same valley for the rest of my life? Possibly. It depends less on the inspiration and more on my ability I suppose!
Thoughts on seeing a recently-cleaned water pond on Saint Patrick’s Day
On a Sunday, the seventeenth, I went for a walk in the countryside about the village.
I walked along the hedges, trimmed now in March before the birds came come along and put a fly in a farmer’s plans.
I paused over an old walled water pond, for the vegetable plot, to perhaps look upon a frog, or salamander.
It was scrubbed clean. The concrete pale below the clear water reflecting the crystal blue.
Not a boatman stroked across the surface, ne’er a leaf lay upon the bottom to hide a frog or newt.
For what would a farmer do with silt? A streamlined machine these fields, these springs,
And cleanliness is next to godliness, of course. The wild world was sterilised of sprits in favour of clean sheets.
The dragons were already gone before Saint Patrick stepped upon a snake.
A day will come when none of us will see one, no matter where we seek.
Of course, the day seems to be coming faster than we feared, with the new UN report about to come out today, Monday, declaring that a million species are about to go extinct if we don’t turn this shit, sorry ship, around toot sweet, as they say.
Which is terribly hard to tell your kids when they ask at the age of eight.
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?
There is a bit of confusion about this. Is rewilding returning to the way things were way back when?
Some think that rewilding advocates want us to go back to a time when the entire country (or continent) was clear of humans and their animals, simply by clearing out the sheep and letting things return to their natural state.
That’s not the case.
First of all, there is no natural state in Europe. Our wilderness areas are no such thing. Megalithic farmers left their mark on everything, including of course, our wildlife.
Much of this effect was the extermination of megafauna, making things a little less interesting. Or a lot.
But other species did well with the changes they instituted.
For example, the corncrake probably proliferated in Ireland because of tillage farming. Until we changed our methods of doing that.
The barn swallow only became so abundant, I’m sure when we built places for our beasts, their feed and flies that live on the shite. The same goes for barn owls: mice and rats weren’t so prolific until they had our food to eat on the farm.
But when we think of the way our island should be, those three species seem key. Perhaps they’re not actually going to stay so important in a rewilded landscape, however.
We have a tendency to think how things were when we were kids is the way they always were, and not wonder if there were former states.
This means that the phrase, “we’ve always done it like that” should have the emphasis on the we’ve, but not on the always. Those who were before might have different memories of the way things were.
This is important because people might be resistant to rewilding on the basis that they think it’s seeking a return to what we remember, when it’s an attempt to create a landscape that just does what it needs to do, to keep our environment and ourselves healthy.
In his Irish Times column, a few months back, Michael Viney asked “Did the lynx make its own way to Ireland or did a dried leg of meat arrive with a Mesolithic voyager?”
Among the thousands of bones in the National Museum of Ireland is “a single femur of a lynx, from Kilgreany Cave, in Co Waterford, that lived about 9,000 years ago[ ]when the first hunter-gatherers arrived in an Ireland that then held bears, wolves and wild boar, all later hunted to extinction.”
Many other animals which are accepted as parts of our native fauna also arrived with mesolithic voyagers, and voyagers since then, including the hedgehog and rabbit.
The fact that there are no more lynx fossils is irrelevant to the question. Perhaps it did make it, and many more, but they died out because of scare food in an impoverished fauna that Ireland had, and still mostly has compared to Britain and continental Europe. If not, so what?
Rewilding is not just returning former resident species to the country, in the same way that it is not seeking to remove the rabbit or the hedgehog, or any other species that wasn’t here when those hunter-gatherers first came ashore to a wooded island. It is making a whole new ecosystem, by making it possible for these species to mingle and mix, to seek out appropriate homes in various corners of the country.
The fact is that the lynx could help with an ecological imbalance we have now. We can put it to work. Even if it wasn’t here before, it can fit now.
Viney goes on to ask if the lynx, which is on the cards for re-introduction to Great Britain along with the already returned beaver, should be used in Ireland as means of controlling deer, which have no natural predators in Ireland since the demise of the wolf. He reckons that it might negatively affect the ground-dwelling birds. Well, perhaps, but other birds will do better. And the ground-dwelling birds might well be more abundant than they otherwise would have precisely because they never had a large predator affecting them (though I don’t think the fox is too bad at finding nests).
Similarly, as Viney mentions, the beaver was never here. Nevertheless, it could still help with our native fish, and could help make our landscape wilder than it is, and closer to as wild as it should be.
Beaver ponds might hinder the passage of salmonids, Viney points out. Perhaps the salmon had it easy, however, (apart from anglers) with our denuded landscape providing often-flooding rivers which flow straight and clear when they might not have if men hadn’t cut the trees.
Another point is horses and cattle. Rewilding Europe, which has made great strides in returning animals such as bison to former haunts, also wants to bring horses to many habitats. Now we all know that the wild horse is basically extinct in Europe – Przewalski’s horse and the Tarpan are close, but not exactly the same as the horse that used to roam here.
But that doesn’t mean that the landscape would not do much better with horses there or should be devoid of them forever.
Horses should be returned to do what horses do. And any types of horses are okay, depending on the area and climate – Tarpans in Eastern Europe, Connemara ponies on Achill, Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in various parts of England. It’s about rewilding the landscape, getting the animals to do what they should be doing for the area they live in, shaping the habitat, making spaces and microhabitats for other species – just like theEuroean Elk returned to Denmark after five thousand years.
The last reputed Tarpan in Russia (photo wikipedia commons).
An Exmoor Pony: does what tarpans did for the Russian steppes on English bogs (photo from What’sonExmoor, the Exmoor Guide, http://www.whatsonexmoor.co.uk/exmoor_gallery.htm)
Connemara Ponies near the “Wild” Atlantic Way (photo from: http://irelandways.com/ways/the-wild-atlantic-way)
Since Aurochs are extinct we can replace them with other types of cattle which descended from it, and let them do that the Aurochs did in the habitat. We just need to choose the more primitive breeds of horses and cattle that can be left to go wild in the landscape and get along without management. That will take us nearer to wild than we are now, and any step in that direction will be one worth taking.
A Boskarin bull – a primitive cattel breed from Croatia with similarities to the Auroch (photo from http://croatia.hr/en-GB/).