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Why do hunters have to be such arseholes?

Okay, modify that: why do so many hunters have to be arseholes? After all, I’m one myself; a hunter, not an arsehole.

Seriously, I see so many gobshites who should never be allowed to take up a weapon, it’s embarrassing.

The good news this week that Danish wolves exist again was tempered by the sad fact that the authorities are not going to tell anyone where the wolves are – and what a boon for eco tourism it would be, if we could all go and see the wolves! – because they are afraid of hunters going there to try kill them.

Why would hunters want to kill wolves?

(If that seems like a stupid question, I have another – are you sure you’re not an arsehole?)

Do they really feel that the wolves (five of them, for Christ’s sake) are going to reduce the numbers of animals they can hunt?

The government has that all regulated, and mostly it’s because of the other hunters that you can’t kill more. In Ireland, where there are relatively few hunters, we can hunt lots of deer each (depending on the area, of course) but here in Spain, where I am currently applying for a hunting licence – after several years of living here – it’s hard to get a spot in a red deer hunting area, and it’s a lot more expensive.

What’s the solution to too many hunters?

Perhaps act like an arsehole so that people don’t want to be associated with you.

In fact, that’s one of the reason I never bothered applying for a hunting licence here before. It’s a much more dangerous activity here than in Ireland.

The type of hunting can, perhaps, be more hazardous – larger groups of people in an area, hunting animals that are on the run.

But that’s no excuse for the number of hunters killed by their companions every year.

That’s just recklessness.

orange jacket

If you have to wear an orange jacket, there’s something wrong with the people around you (photo from Washington Dept. of Fish and wildlife).

In the course I had to do for the hunting exam, I encountered a few of the kind of shitehawks I’d never want to share a cup of tea with up on the hill, never mind hunt with. Dangerously dismissive of the rules, they argued that since they had the guns, they should win the arguments with the walkers and the mushroom pickers that can fuck up a hunt. And they seemed inclined to think that anyone who moved off his post during a beaten hunt deserved to get shot, rather than consider it their duty to identify the target before shooting at something moving past them.

I won’t be hunting with those guys – if indeed they’ll be hunting with anyone, for I’ve serious doubts they’ll study for the exam. Nor will I be running to join a boar hunt, to be honest. I’d rather hunt alone here. I can go home to Ireland for companionable hunting. At least I’ll know I’m not going to get killed by my companions, and the only animals getting shot will be ones permitted.

Yet, separate and apart from my personal problems, the more important point is the issue of our good name. Hunting is getting a bad name, despite its importance in our and other societies. I consider it a necessary activity as well as an interesting one, and believe it will continue, but it will do some in a much more regulated and restricted fashion in most places.

Hunters should not have this bad name. As a collective, disregarding my own intense love of nature, we should be the most vocal, the most powerful guardians of the environment out there. Our integrity and conviction should be unquestionable. It’s a matter not of our personal preferences, but of the survival of our sport.

Hunters should have better long term planning than some are currently displaying.

But, then again, given our human history thus far, perhaps that’s just beyond us.

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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.

 

 

Reservations about Lynx Reintroductions

lynx_eurasischer_lynx_northern_lynx
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).
But why?
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.

The Wind has Changed

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.

He sees no reason not to reintroduce wolves to Scotland.

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.

Why not?

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.

And growing.

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.

 

 

 

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!

vultures 2

 

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.

 

vultures 1

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.

 

vultures 3

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.

Cover of Five Days on Ballyboy Beach

Five Days on Ballyboy Beach by David J O'Brien - 500

This is the cover of my second novel, published 19th September 2014 – I don’t want to reveal too much about what the plot is – best to just follow  the path and see where it ends up…

Available now at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and lots of other places via the book’s Tirgearr Publishing webpage.

You can read some of the reviews on the Tirgearr page, or here on this website:

 

Spainish Wolves Increasing (and the sky isn’t falling on anyone’s head)

this is a newspaper article about the increase in population of Iberian wolves in the a region of the north of Spain, where wolves had never been exterminated and slowly recovered since protection was given (though the packs are hunted where densities are highest. The latest comprehensive census shows wolves are spreading out through other areas and where they are in low density are protected.

The regional wildlife authority suggests that the population south of the River Duero has increased enough to allow hunting and says that since population has increased where wolves are already hunted it shows that the permitted hunts are not limiting the population.

There are some areas where wolves have not increased despite the potential for it – good food sources etc.- and that needs to be investigated. The laws against leaving out dead livestock for scavengers (a big source of food for protected vultures here) has also slowed down the population increase.

So where wolves are left alone, or even hunted at low levels in a ecologically responsible manner, they can increase 20% over 13 years, and few problems between wolves and humans have been recorded (the only ones being between some farmers who have had to change some of their livestock management practices).

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deer management going forward in Ireland

Above is a link to an article I wrote for IWT the Irish Wildlife Trust recently, and posted on their website, discussing the problems facing deer and deer managers in Ireland and our responsibilities going forward.