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Rewilding my garden, as long as the rabbits eat the right plants….

So I have this garden in the country. It’s not quite mine, in that I don’t own the house, but it has befallen to me, more and more, to look after it.

It’s big. There are a dozen young trees, a long hedge, grape vines, shrubs, and there’s a lot of grassy area to mow.

I say grassy area because it’s far from being able to be called a lawn. More like a playground for moles.

But I don’t mind the moles. I prefer daisies and other wild flowers to grass in any case. It’s great to have moles, and it would be even better to see them once in a while.

Even better than moles, are rabbits. And we have them, too.

Unfortunately, in the case of the rabbits, I do have a problem at the moment.

I’ve planted a new hedge. It’s to hopefully block the wind that sweeps down from the pyrennes – the call it the Cierzo. When a wind has it’s own name, you know you’re up against it. Anyway, the new hedge, once established, will help, I hope. And it will cover the chain link fence that goes along the low back wall (put up to stop the cows coming in to graze the garden – picturesque till one of them breaks your windscreen while trying to swipe a horn at the herding dogs, and the farmer never owns up.)

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But to get established, the hedge has to not get eaten by rabbits.

And for some reason, the rabbits have decided it’s tastier than all the grass and dandelions and everything else growing right beside it.

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the bottom half of the plant is nibbled to nothing…

 

So I had to take action.

Now, I didn’t stand watch with a shotgun at twilight. Even if I had time for that lark, I’d rather a rabbit in the garden than ten up the hill where I can’t see them from my bedroom window.

I haven’t seen the rabbit yet, but given the circumstances (plants nibbled at the bottom, a stone wall with a hole under one of the stones where a rabbit could get through the fence, and grass grazed on the other side) there’s no other culprit.

 

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This photo is sideways, but you can see the easily accessed holes and the nibbled tuft of grass.

 

So I covered the damaged plants to let them recuperate, blocked the hole and hoped the little gits can’t get in any other way.

 

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Eat your way through that, rabbit!

I feel bad, in a way, but there’s lots of other stuff to eat, and once the hedge is big enough, after this first summer, I’ll unblock the hole and let them nibble to their hearts content. After all, rewilding should always apply to our own gardens, and a few rabbits will mean I don’t get asked to strim the bank so often, making it win-win for everyone.

Introducing Species: A Mouflon Quandary

 

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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?

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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.

 

 

Deer Management on a Very Small Scale.

I’d like to say mismanagement right off, but we’ll get to that.
The place I’m talking about is Pamplona’s city park, called the Taconera, made out of the old city walls/moats.

Now that the festival is over, the city has gone back to being famous for it’s fortifications, and it’s small herd of red deer that live in one section of these.

There have been deer there for decades. There were other mammals, like goats, and wild boar for a long time, but they were removed over the years. The deer are accompanied by a lot of fowl and a few wild species, like pigeons, magpies and pestering Jackdaws.

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View of the main enclosure with pond.

The deer did go at one point (for unknown reasons, though the public was told it was due to inbreeding; a patent lie) but a new herd of two stags and eight hinds were purchased four years ago, not long after I moved here.

At first, there were no problems. The calves all settled down in their fairly open enclosure, and learned that the people looking down on them were no threat, and in fact dropped bread for them to eat (there is a lot of left-over bread in Spain; too much for mere ducks to consume).

Those in charge, I assumed, had been in charge of the previous herd, and had years of experience of deer.

I was wrong.

Through a friend, I found out that the vets who are responsible for the deer are better at their other job of health inspection than large mammal husbandry. Those who feed the animals are merely gardeners, and are ill-equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary, or indeed aware that their activities and actions can actually create future problems for their wards.

The first problem happened when the hinds became pregnant as yearlings and gave birth as two-year-olds. This was a big surprise to the vets. I’ve no idea why, other than extreme ignorance of deer biology.

They assumed the small calves “hiding” in the short-cropped grass (no areas had been left grow into a meadow for such, or has been since) had been abandoned by the dam, and my explanation to the contrary came too late for the first calf out of the six born that year not to have been given bottles – of what kind of milk, I don’t know.

I went along and filmed one of the births, which was posted on the local newspaper website. You can see one of the pesky jackdaws. They like to pluck hair too; for their nests, I assume.

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Still photo of newborn calf with dam

Next year, more calves were born. The herd rose to around twenty, but some were removed – why, or which ones, was never explained. One of the features of this park is that there is no scrutiny, no explanations, no public information. I’ve tried to get answers from the local council, writing emails, but gotten no reply. I’ve written letters to the same newspaper that published my video, pointing out problems in management and husbandry, but received no acknowledgement, much less had them published.

The real problems came when the two stags grew each year and fought during the rut. Conflicts were minimised when two-year-olds, because one stag broke an antler, though he was dominant. His antler was not great the following year, but during their fourth year, they were both spectacular.

The staff’s lack of experience from bad husbandry bore ill fruit.

They had treated the deer as domestic pets.

Worse, they still do.

However, during the rut, these are dangerous animals.
The solution for the park was to put the deer up on a revelin, a triangular mound surrounded by lower ground, and close the gate at the bottom of the ramp they use to access this high ground (their favourite place and the only continuous shade under some big cedars to shade them).

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The revelin. You can see the gate is closed and little grass remains.

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Cedar trees giving shade.

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Hind and calves in shade of trees in early summer.

Unfortunately, one of the stags was kicked off the ten-foot wall. No biggie for a deer, but he could not get back up. And down below he was left alone without even a shrub to thrash his antlers against.

And then a gardener came in.

I wasn’t there, and there was only a witness after the gardener had been fending off the testosterone-crazed animal for a few minutes, raising the alarm.

But it’s not hard to figure out what happened.

The deer had no fear. He’d been raised to consider humans harmless. Suddenly one was approaching – it had to be a rival, another deer which he could spar with, could expend his energy on. So it attacked.

People don’t get attacked in the wild because even the testosterone-fuelled anger can’t over-ride fear of humans, them being hunters and all.
On deer farms, most stags get their antlers removed, just like bulls are dehorned.

In this case, going in alone was a mistake.

The man survived, but he won’t go back to work there.

The deer did not survive. It was removed next day. I asked if it might be donated to a soup kitchen, but got no reply.

That’s all fine and dandy. Mistakes happen. We learn from them.

Or we don’t.

There was still a pricket (a one-year-old stag with simple straight points) up with the other mature stag. It was kicked out a few days later, down on the lower level. Of course, the lessons had been learned. The gardeners would not expose themselves to danger again.

No. I witnessed several scenes of stupidity.

While the guys entered in pairs, they didn’t stick together the whole time. One guy stood five yards from the young stag and fed it corn, then took photos of it with his phone, while his superior walked away – a good fifty yards away.
I saw them stand in front of the big stag behind the fence while the stag made the gestures I’d observed while I’d studied the choreography of fighting in deer as an undergrad. The stag won each stand-off. They did not open the gate to feed the hungry deer, now running out of fresh grass up on their small enclosure.
A few days after that, the young stag was gone.

I asked where it was, and was curtly told it was gone and further enquiries could be made to the city council. These enquiries, as I said, went unanswered.
Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they’d had another scare with it. It seemed so peaceful, but I’m sure the first big stag also looked peaceful till it attacked.

What followed was a debacle of the highest order.

The deer remained in their enclosure of less than half a hectare for the rest of the winter. All eleven of them.

Every attempt to enter the enclosure simply further enforced the idea in the stag’s mind that this was a battle against rivals, and he was keeping his harem safe from them with his threats. The men backed down every time. They were afraid, and treated the deer as a danger rather than showing it who was boss – who was the fucking human, for god’s sake.

The grass was grazed away. Animal welfare groups threatened the council with court cases unless the situation was improved. Eventually the gardeners resorted to throwing up hay onto the wall.

The stag remained in rut in part because the hinds were not all pregnant – because they didn’t have enough forage to achieve sufficient body condition.
Then the newspaper reported that the stag would be sold to a farm, and no stag would be present for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they’d artificially inseminate the hinds after a number of years.

That was when I wrote a letter to the paper pointing out that if just one of the hinds were pregnant with a male calf, their plans would not work out quite like that.

I saw a group being led through the park one morning, marking places on the walls, and on their exit, the stag was taunted – to demonstrate its antagonism, I suppose. A few days later, the stag was still there, but had lost its antlers.
The farm did not want the stag with its weapons intact. Of course – it’s a deer in need of re-education.

Why antler removal had not been used right after the attacks was another mystery, for a while. I found out, from that friend, that someone in the office considered it unsightly for a stag to be in the park with no antlers. But starving the hinds was ok…

That raised its own set of questions. Who are these deer for? For us, the public? Then why not let us know what is going on? Why not just get rid of the deer otherwise? If the public will disprove of a de-antlered stag, surely we object to the stags (and hinds and calves) being removed without explanation.
A week or two after that, some safety barriers were installed. These are like the fences you see in a bullring, if you’ve ever seen them, where the humans can hind behind a narrow gap between the wall behind them and the barrier in front.
Useful. Especially five months beforehand.

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Hind and calf beside a safety barrier along the wall

Not such a great necessity if you’re planning to have only hinds in the herd for the next five to eight years…

Perhaps they’d read my letter.

So the stag was shipped off, and the hinds were allowed down to graze on new grass and put on some weight before birthing. Five of them had given birth over the course of a week or more. Another was born a few weeks later.

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The wall off which the stag was pushed. The first born calf of the year is sitting in a nook, soaking up the sun after having learned not to jump himself…
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I assume at least one more will give birth this year. I haven’t been by since before the festivals started, in early July. The deer were enclosed up on the revelin despite the heat wave and the only water available down low. I hoped the plan was not to leave them there for the festival, but next day the gate was open.
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Hinds and young calves in late July.

What concerned me most was seeing, a few weeks before that, the gardeners feeding the deer the leaves and twigs of the trees they’d pruned in preparation for the festivals. I don’t object to the deer getting some variation in their diet, some roughage, some browse, of course. The problem was that as the gardeners went by with more branches, they held them out to the hinds, encouraging them to approach, and in one case, eat out of his hand.

A calf born to that hind will grow up believing humans are nothing to be feared. When he grows a nice rack at maturity, and testosterone tells him these beings, who are no threat, are rivals for his hinds, he’ll do what nature tells him, and through human stupidity yet again, he’ll be shipped out to a farm. If he’s lucky.
A gleam of hope has appeared recently in the change of city mayor, and the council. The head of the department responsible for the deer has been changed. The new leader is a biologist, who studied with some folk I know, and hopefully will be a bit more enlightened about the management of this tiny herd. That way, I, and the few citizens like me who are aware of and interested in the minutia of the herd, can enjoy them without the frustration as we’ve felt watching such a mess being made, and, more importantly, the deer are allowed to be as wild as possible, as free as possible, and not suffer as they have, simply because of their keepers’ ignorance.

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Calf suckling

I must add an addendum here, even as I post this.
I had a stroll past the park yesterday after being away on holidays, and saw that the herd now consisted of 8 adult females. All of this year’s offspring have been removed. Since it’s only the middle of August, all of these were of course still suckling from their dams. I’m not sure, however, of the animal welfare issues in separating them if the young are sold to a farm – whether they will be given supplemental milk – but given that the hunting season for female deer is always delayed until at least October in consideration that dams will be yet lactating (and I found during my studies that a third of hinds were lactating still in January and February), I find it a bit callous to say the least.

With just hinds in the herd, it seems that we may as well empty the park completely of deer. There will be no rut to watch, no births to witness, no calves to observe take their first steps or suckle; just frisky hinds mounting one another and going through oestrus every month all winter.

Who wouldn’t rather see some sheep or goats down there instead?

The end of the summer

So August wasn’t so treacherous this year. I got the final edits and cover art for my second novel, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach ready for its release on the 19th, I did some more rewriting of a novella and had it accepted for publication in the new year with Tirgearr Publishing, and I wrote a short story based on my safari in South Africa last year, called At Last Light on the Sage Flats, which will be the title story to a collection of short stories I’m putting together for the end of this year. Oh, I finished that first draft of The Ecology of Lonesomeness, too.

I also started the sequel to Leaving the Pack – not quite sure of the title yet, but the working title is Leading the Pack.

And I am three-quarters way through reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I have had on my shelf for about twelve years! I didn’t get around to season five of Breaking Bad yet, though – but the autumn is coming (feels like it even here, too – we didn’t have what you’d call a Spanish summer this year), so I’ll get to that, when I have a second draft done of Lonesomeness….

 

Meanwhile, here is one of the few poems I had a chance to finish, about doing very little….

 

 

 

Getting Old, Slowly

 

Along the ridge a row of windmills go slowly round.

You can hear them when the wind turns south.

Twenty-five years they’ve ringed the valley

And show no sign they’re soon to fall.

Similarly, we inhabitants stand around,

Eating from our gardens here, seasonally

Watching flight of swallows and their fellows,

Observing numbers (often) ebb and (seldom) flow,

Grass get cut instead of grazed and oak trees grow tall,

New abodes are built and others crumble to the ground,

Sitting upon a porch of an evening, the sky yet

As wonderful as youth, and starry as can still get,

Achieving only that act of getting old slowly.