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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.

 

 

Will We Ever Rewild Ireland?

While every week practically, there is some good news from somewhere around Europe or further regarding the rewilding of our environment, it seems Ireland is sadly lagging behind. The golden eagles we restored to our landscape are struggling, and might go extinct again.

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Irish golden eagle chick; photo taken from Golden Eagle Trust, credit Laurie Campbell

In the Italian Apennines, bears are making a comeback. A recent article said that bears, and other predators need some understanding, and the goodwill of the locals. If not, they’re doomed. The bears have this goodwill, though, and prevention is better than compensation. Electric fences keep bears out of bee hives and chicken coops, and sheep folds. The sheep have to be brought in closer to the farmhouses and protected. This makes it more expensive, but considering how much money could be earned by small towns and villages providing wildlife viewing opportunities and tourism as farmers get older, and their children leave because they don’t want to farm, that’s not considered an unwise investment. And the bears have always been around, if a little higher up the mountains.

As the reintroduction of lynx to Great Britain rolls forward, people ask if this predator will target sheep. The answer, from other countries, is that it’s very unlikely, as long as the rest of the ecosystem is functioning and the sheep aren’t in the forests – where really they’re not supposed to be.

These forests are, in fact, the reason lynx are needed in the environment – to help rejuvenate them. Over-population of deer is preventing regeneration, and lynx are designed to hunt deer. This article on CNN indicates that lynx reintroduction has support of 90% of Brits, and the effects on the environment are expected to be significant, if it follows the pattern of cascading impacts wolf reintroduction had in Yellowstone National Park.

The article also states that returning predators is “not a quick fix for long-term decline” because “the removal of predators for decades causes changes in a system that make it resistant to the effects of reintroduction.”

One of these changes is the attitude of humans, especially those who work the land. While the Apennine farmers have always lived with bears, and European farmers with lynx, and farmers in northern Spain with both bear and wolves, farmers in Ireland and Britain have had it relatively easy. The idea of changing their practices on a livestock that already loses money and only subsists because of EU payouts is rather daunting. “When projects do not have public support it can prove fatal for returning species.” As it is, we know how much goodwill predators have in Ireland.

It can be done, though. In China, where the tiger was extirpated 65 years ago, a few breeding females have recently been spotted. And rehabilitated Amur tigers have been released back into former haunts, one of which has given birth to two cubs.

Apart from ensuring that the predators are not overtly killed by those opposed, the habitat has to be suitable. Rewilding Europe helped rewild Dutch rivers penned in by dykes and canals, and only then could forest return enough to allow beaver recolonisation. The Amur tigers have thousands of square kilometres of birch forest still intact despite logging, and the lynx in Britain will only be released in forested areas.

Irish forest cover is still very low compared to the rest of Europe, with sheep still grazing in woodland, on top of whatever deer population is there. The land has been so changed that there is a debate as to whether the Scot’s Pine survived and can considered native. Some think it is an invasive on peat bogs and should be removed. It’s hard to be angry at Scot’s Pines at the best of times, though. A recent Economist article says it’s a waste of time and energy trying to eradicate even the bad ones, but considering that the bogs are not necessarily the best environment in terms of providing habitat for as wide a variety of species and a robust environment, I think we should give the Scot’s pine a free pass and let it get on with growing. It will help rewild the landscape, providing habitat for more species than the bogs do. As I said before, and George Moniot said yesterday in an interview, rewilding is not an attempt to turn any clocks back.

Having any trees grow might be hard, though, unless the sheep are reduced. Making our environment suitable for reintroduced predators will involve keeping such targets out of their way, and reducing the destruction they and their husbandry is responsible for.

The predators we’ve already reintroduced might die out again if we don’t.

In Donegal, a place as wild as we can claim to have in Ireland, the constantly overgrazed and burned bogs are not producing enough food for the golden eagles to breed. Instead of getting fat on hares and grouse, like they do in Scotland, the poor eagles have to hunt badgers and magpies.

News like that makes even the most gung-ho Irish rewilder pause and wonder, if the golden eagle can’t clasp a foothold on our island, what hope will the wolf have?

It will only have a hope if it finds the goodwill of the rural community.  And  George Monbiot said yesterday, the countryside is not inhabited only by farmers. If 90% of Britons favour having lynx in their forests, there, then we can hope a majority of Irish will also approve. And  when sheep inevitably disappear from out hillsides as the payments propping them up are removed from EU legislation, and in some places to help the much-loved golden eagles, the forests can return to provide a home for them and many other species.

 

Rewilding a Charred Landscape…

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(Copyright: http://www.crossexaminer.co.uk/archives/8257 the examiner)
There was a guy I used to know. He used to say he’d rather ask for forgiveness than for permission. I didn’t like him much.
There is a similar train of thought in the Irish landscape.
Burn first, then they can’t do shit. There’s nothing to save, no special interest, scientific, or scenic.
If you burn the habitat, then there are no special species to protect, and you can put up all the wind turbines you like.
(Full disclosure: I love wind turbines. If there were decent populations of birds, I think the wind turbines wouldn’t be a problem. In Spain I see hen harriers every weekend in the wheat fields on my way to my family’s village, and the place is surrounded by windmills.)
Since the start of the season (take your pick – burning season or prohibition on hedge cutting and burning season, depending on your inclination), we have had what seem like dozens of out-of-control fires burning across the country.
The idea is that if you burn the fuck out of it, nobody will bother you about saving it. How can we rewild a charred landscape? If it is dust and a few blades of grass, nobody will tell me to take care of the toads, or the curlews, or the corncrake. If there’s no gorse, never mind birch, how can those boyos contemplate bringing back the lynx, or anything else.
People (the ones with a brain) are appalled, of course, and are waiting for the relevant authorities to take action, to prosecute the culprits and make an example of them.
Needless to say, fuck all has been done about it.
It’s Ireland, after all.
Some politicians have called for wasting time by creating task forces to regulate something already explicitly illegal.
The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has claimed it’s not her bag, baby, despite all logical and legal arrows pointing to the fact that it is her fucking bag, baby and burden to shoulder and she better get her fucking finger out. http://www.thejournal.ie/gorse-fires-heather-humphreys-2065294-Apr2015/
The Irish Wildlife Trust (great people, and I’ll be donating 10% of my royalties from Peter and the Little People to them) have produced a great video to clarify this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHry6wIMYcw
And as we watch the country go backwards instead of forwards, the great shame is that farmers don’t see they are kicking themselves in the arse along with every one else. It is their own communities which are dying, their kids leaving the country to go to the cities, because there is nothing stay at home for.
Yet burning only loses revenue. A recent letter to the West Cork Times shown on the IWT facebook page showed that tourism is not compatible with burnt ground, that people won’t go to Ireland to see a charred landscape.
And yet, rewilding could bring back so much money and prosperity. Just two white-tailed eagles were worth a million in tourist revenue over the last two years, because people go there to see a beautiful creature restored to its former habitat and living wild in Ireland.
If the fucker who kills them could only see that he is only losing a few quid for a lamb mostly only in his imagination – because they probably won’t attack his animals anyway, and definitely won’t if he just locks them up well during lambing season or keeps a proper eye on them. On the other hand, his kids can get some of that money, and the much more to come as word spreads like wildfire, if he stops the stupid practices of a regressive worldview, and embraces regrowth, regeneration, and rewilding.

Reservations about Lynx Reintroductions

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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.

 

 

 

Rewilding calls from the British Isles

The term rewilding has become part of our language. Just a couple of years after it was coined, rewilding is happening across Europe. Rewilding Europe (http://www.rewildingeurope.com/) have made great strides in returning emblematic animals like the bison and brown bear to former haunts on the mainland.
Without constant persecution, numbers of large mammals, including predators are up across Europe (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/18/brown-bears-wolves-and-lynx-numbers-rising-in-europe).

But what about the European islands?

Are they a lost cause?

Well, the word is being used, and calls are being made (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1498773.ece).
A slew of articles have backed up George Monbiot‘s constant mantra for lynx at least to return to the rewilded birch forests of Scotland: Wildlife trust calls for return of lynx to curb deer numbers (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1498780.ece), Simon Barnes: bring back the cat (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/others/article1842743.ece).

But it will be harder to have bears returned to Britain like they are returning to Italy and other mainland nations because citizens of that island are unused to living with them (http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/if-you-go-down-woods-today-you-re-big-surprise-europe-s-bears-are-back)

In Ireland, the lynx wasn’t around as recently as the bear and wolf, and it’s the wolf that most rewilding thoughts are focused on, including my own: https://davidjmobrien.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/further-information-about-wolves-and-deer-management-in-ireland/
And yet, it seems we’re farther back even than Britain. A recent article on Irelandswildlife.com (http://www.irelandswildlife.com/grey-wolf-re-introduction-ireland/) discussed the matter, and concluded that the time is not right, and probably won’t be for a long while yet.

It’s hard to disagree. I recently discussed the matter with an ecologist colleague. He laughed out loud at the suggestion of bringing back the lynx to a country whose farmers can’t stop themselves killing white tailed eagles they think are killing their lambs.

But we can’t stop pushing the word, the work that lies ahead. As long as people are talking about it, as long as people who would not think about it are beginning to understand it, to see what it’s all about, we’re making progress.

I had a lot of these ideas in my head when I was writing my new novel, The Ecology of Lonesomeness, last summer. It’s set in Scotland, where a lot of rewilding the island of Britain is focused, and rewilding is discussed often and in depth by the characters.

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“Loch Ness Rocks” by Ben Buxton – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loch_Ness_Rocks.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Loch_Ness_Rocks.jpg

I will tell you all about the story in another post.

However, I will say now that it turns the rewilding problem on its head, and asks what if there were an endangered species discovered to have hung on there, despite our cleansing of the countryside? Would it be protected?