I’ve favoured a return of our wild megafauna to our mountains for some time, now as a general wish to see wildlife flourish on our island. This includes letting the red deer extend their range beyond the small confines of Killarney NP, where it seems only those with friends in the right places and a pile of cash in their back pocket can get to hunt stags. It includes getting wild boar back, as far as our scant natural habitat is still suitable for them. And of course in includes letting the wolf roam the uplands, as those uplands regain their balance in terms of flora as well as fauna.
There are clear barriers to such steps. One of them is the lack of that suitable habitat, and another, connected to that, is the extent of sheep farming.
Sheep in a field. See any trees? Only habitat for tellytubbies. Photo by Paul Mutton.
I have long marvelled at the fact that sheep are still farmed in Ireland. I’ve spent decades hearing about and seeing how destructive they are to the uplands – anyone whose seen the golf green fields where farmers have them on the lowlands can imagine their effect on a wild landscape. When I was still in college in the early 90s we learned about overgrazing at important conservation and recreation areas of Ireland (like the slopes of Errigal Mountain in Donegal, Connemara NP). Some call them woolly maggots, for obvious reasons.
Sheep in the mountains. Hard to spot a tree here, either. Photo from http://snowdonia-active.com/news.
Simultaneously, I’ve spent decades pushing these animals ahead of me, both in cars on the roads and while trying to hunt or just hill walk without them scattering every shred of wildlife I might have otherwise had the chance to see. I even spent an hour saving one, which had got its leg caught in the wooden slats of a footbridge. It gave me scant thanks, and I was sure the farmer wouldn’t have been too pushed either way, given the huge numbers of dead animals you see while walking in our mountains. But I didn’t think letting it die of thirst was a valid option for anyone with a conscience. If my car jack wasn’t able to push up the slat, I was going to smash its skull in with a wrench, or a rock. A better end, despite the visual image you’re probably conjuring up right now…
Anyway, I remember a farmer telling me more than a decade ago that the wool was barely worth the effort to shear the sheep, and that the merchant only took it from him under no obligation to actually return money to the farmer. If it sold, he gave a portion of the sale, if not, then he… I’m not sure what he’d have done with the wool – throw it out, donate it, or what.
I’ve only eaten lamb a few times in Ireland, and I never liked it much. How much lamb is eaten round here and how much a lamb is worth, I’ve no idea, but I never imagined it was much (again, seeing how little attention is paid to them on the hill).
George Monbiot has the numbers. He reckons it’s less than 1% of the British diet, and the wool has almost no value. And it’s probable that the flooding caused by overgrazed hillsides means less food is grown downhill than otherwise would be, meaning sheep grazing actually reduces agricultural production.
He’s submitted a whole list of problems with the current Common Agricultural Policy and its effects on the environment.
One of these is that without subsidies sheep farming on uplands would be so clearly a waste of time that the sheep would disappear from the mountains by themselves.
And if that happened, well, two obvious effects would be that there would be no problem with sheep kills by reintroduced wolves up there (down the slopes any remaining sheep are easily protected in electrified pens at night), and the deer and other fauna would have something to eat and habitat to hide in as they spread over a landscape currently almost devoid of plant cover.
And real money could flow into these areas from people who want to see the wildlife, just like the reintroduced red kite (hopefully right now spreading across and out from Wicklow) brought £8 million in tourism revenue to parts of Scotland.
Seems simple maths to me.
So, the calls for reintroducing lynx to Britain have transformed into action. The Wild Lynx Trust is actively seeking licences bring to test populations to three different areas of that island Aberdeenshire, Cumbria and Norfolk.
Of course, there are concerns for human safety – unfounded and ridiculous ones which don’t warrant discussion, though one article did state that they are not considered a risk to people.
And this week, both the British Deer Society and the Wild Deer Association of Ireland have issued statements expressing grave reservations about the reintroductions. The latter’s just in case anyone gets the wild idea of restoring the lynx to Ireland, where it’s been absent for longer, admittedly.
Now, I’m an advocate of deer societies. I used to be a member of the BDS, and I was very active in the Irish Deer Society when I lived at home. If I was still there, I would be still. They’re usually the only advocates for the deer.
But they also advocate for deerstalkers. Most of their members are deerstalkers – which is not as strange some might assume, but that’s another day’s discussion.
And in this case they are putting the stalkers before the deer – the lazy ones at that.
Deer hunting is hard. But we all know that going in, and if we go home with no venison, well, that’s hunting too.
As long as the deer and the habitat are healthy, we’ve done our job.
Venison is great and a healthy meat, but we’re not going to starve when we have veggies and rabbits.
Anyway, the BDS says “Lynx will clearly not address growing populations of fallow deer in England and Wales nor areas of local overpopulation of red deer in Scotland,” and that “Lynx are efficient killers of roe deer – the species which presents the least threat to woodland.” They basically suggest that the lynx will feed on the roe and ignore the fallow and probably muntjac.
The latter is an unknown quantity as yet – they’re smaller than roe, are very secretive and I think present the perfect prey for lynx, but they’re from outside the lynx’s natural range., and so won’t know for a while.
So if the lynx keep the roe under control and hunters were already doing that okay, well, the hunters just need to leave the roe to nature and concentrate on the fallow – and the muntjac if need be.
We can’t expect the lynx to do all our job for us, but it can help out and spread the work, as it were.
But that’s not the point either.
The WDAI actually, and inadvertently, get it right when, in trying to claim that Ireland is completely different from Britain with regard the deer. They says lynx will have an impact only on the natural balance of the ecosystem, in terms of other native or indigenous species, such as the Irish hare or ground nesting birds, partridge for example and of course the migratory species.
That is the point.
We seem to need to give reasons for reintroductions in terms of it being necessary, to solve some problem (usually of our making).
Did people say the salmon and trout were going fucking mental before the reintroduction of the white tailed sea eagle? Did they say there Scots were being attacked by birch trees before bringing back the beaver? Was Wicklow’s Avoca vale run amok with small mammals before the red kite began to soar over it once more?
Conversely, did they say the fox should be eradicated because it does a shit job of controlling rabbits, while it snacks on the odd lamb or two? Actually some would love that, so perhaps bad example.
No. And if they did, they were frowned at and told to go stand in the corner until they copped themselves on.
These animals need to be reintroduced because they belong, they make our islands richer, our hearts glad. Not because we’re putting them to work.
Perhaps the lynx won’t miraculously solve our deer problem. But in Ireland, it will certainly help with the rabbits (and foxes would do a better job if they weren’t snared and poisoned and shot so much).
And most importantly, it will be another cog in the machinery of our environment. It will help the natural balance, it will give some more stability, so populations of deer, among others, are not so subject to the vagaries of our human nonsense, and resultant wide variation in numbers. For example, we have increases in the overall number of hunters – more or less inexperienced and ineffective – during economic booms and lots of unscrupulous poachers during recessions.
Lastly, the BDS calls for “a clear exit strategy.”
What exit strategy? The stated aim is to have hundreds of lynx in the country. After the five years, does anyone really believe that there will be a call to remove them? Based on what? Human safety? If they really need to be eradicated, it won’t be that hard. We made them extinct on the island before. With medieval technology. We won’t be overrun with cats we can’t eradicate, for heaven’s sake.
The opposite scenario will probably be the problem – also referred to by the WDAI, who say “the lynx may even fall foul to gamekeeper traps, snared as does the fox and will become persecuted.”
Given our recent experience of poisoning raptors in Ireland that hits the heart. Of course, when Ireland has grown up a bit, when those old ways of thinking have died out because those who thought like that have died, there will be a life for all wildlife in Ireland.