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.
So my old mate Dave – that’s Sir David Attenborough to you lot – has come out.
Out of a slightly different kind of closet to the one you’re thinking of.
He’s said it.
And at first I didn’t realise anything was out of the ordinary.
I mean, why wouldn’t he?
Well, there are some reasons.
But the times have changed. So quickly it’s rather astounding.
Suddenly rewilding is happening.
And it’s a little akin to our changing attitudes towards being gay, actually.
I’m forty, and I remember when I was in my twenties that coming out was an ordeal for most men, and women.
Lots of them didn’t, until they’d left university (with doctorates, not just bachelor degrees), until they’d left Ireland.
The idea of gay marriage was in the same category as human missions to Mars – some crazy fools were saying it would happen some day but most of us were fairly (but not rightfully) sceptical.
Well, maybe not in the same category as going to Mars – one is a worthwhile step forward for humanity, the other is just some geeks spending money making the masses wonder if perhaps we can survive without Earth.
Anyway, here we are : suddenly the right for gay people to marry is common fucking sense. People wonder why it’s taken us so long to cop on to the fact.
Even in middle America (as traditional as middle Earth in many aspects: Americans sometimes think they’re immune from the general rule that people in the centre of large land masses – like central Asia, the outback of Australia, WestMeath – are slow to change and often reluctant to keep up with the rest of the world. But they’re not) state after state is changing the law.
A lot of this is due to the direct action of brave citizens:: something rewilding advocate George Monbiot, and his new mate Russell Brand advocate for in lots of situations.
Wild boar were released (accidentally, in some cases) in several locations, in Britain and Ireland. At least in Britain, they were let live and the sky didn’t fall.
The Scottish government had a small experimental reintroduction of beavers, which they might recapture once their data is in… Meanwhile, beaver were released in another location in Scotland, and also in England, and suddenly people want them to stay.
The MFI millionaire who wants to have wolves on his estate also wants lynx. And now the path for at least a small lynx reintroduction is being laid (in birch tree plantings).
David Attenborough reckons a fence around those Allandale wolves is necessary.
But he never said that before.
All those years of wildlife work and I don’t recall him advocating wolf reintroduction to Britain once.
Because it wasn’t a serious suggestion for a respected biologist to make.
I remember when I started my PhD thesis, on deer population biology and management. Twenty years ago now, too.
I was told there was a government scientist who worked on the deer in the same area (he actually ended up being my external examiner) who the hunting community disliked. Mostly they just thought he was an idiot for having voiced the opinion that wolves should be reintroduced to Ireland.
They called him “the wolfman.” Yeah, clever lads the Irish.
So I never voiced the opinion that I agreed.
I worked with those hunters on my project, and since in different ways (hunting myself, of course).
Wolf reintroduction was not something I ever mentioned to anyone but close friends.
Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for the Irish Wildlife Trust about deer management in Ireland (the link has since been removed when they rejigged their website. I must post the original here).
I didn’t mention wolves.
But then they asked me to.
So I did.
Not that enthusiastically.
I reckoned the readers who could have influence in implementing any change I advocated (mostly by getting more deer hunted to reduce numbers – not popular among many hunters) did not want to hear me talking shite about bring back the wolf. It was considered less than a pipedream: a sure sign of being a hippy and having taken too many drugs.
I did get some feedback from hunting organisations…
But then I noticed that the wind had indeed shifted. Not much, but it wasn’t blowing my own piss back into my face.
I said in a blog post straight after, that if we didn’t start pushing now, we’d never get to realise our objective in twenty years. And it was my decision to start pushing myself.
Since then, I’ve blogged probably once a month about rewilding. And every month there are more articles about it in the newspaper.
The wind was blowing the other way.
Snowballs were rolling.
The idea of rewilding Ireland, and Britain, has snowballed so big that the most influential biologist on the planet now thinks that the time has come, that the public can get their minds around it.
(Just to be clear: I’m sure Sir David always would have liked to see it. Now he feels he can say it. He’s lots more to lose than me. Well, the planet has more to lose, since Sir David has the standing to influence other places on the planet where protection and extinction prevention is paramount.)
There is nothing that can stop it, now.
Just like gay marriage, even in dear old quaint little ultra catholic Ireland where until after I was born unmarried mothers were living as slaves in state-sponsored laundries….
I only hope that things have changed so fast that we can have wild wolves not in twenty years, but two. And that Sir David can narrate the first documentary about their release.
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.