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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?

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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.

 

 

Bison in my Back Yard!

Some good news about re-wilding.

Rewilding Europe have been posting on facebook in the last week or two lots of good news stories of the reintroduction of bison, and second generation tauros (ancient cattle stock) in several places around Europe. The most notable location piece of news for me was from Holland, where Princess Laurentien attended not their first, but their third bison reintroduction project.

I don’t think bison were ever present in Ireland, and I’m not suggesting it be brought back – but it struck me that when I was studying ecology in University, we were told that the Netherlands were trying to reconstruct and reconstitute their bogs. While we in Ireland still had lots of biologically important fens and bogs, and were busy destroying them under the turf cutters of Bórd Na Mona (producing what they called renewable electricity from it into the bargain; not sure we’ve quite stopped, either) the Dutch had already realised they’d made a balls of things and were scrambling to return some of what they’d destroyed.

The other thing is that the Netherlands are famously densely populated, while Ireland is famously under-populated. If they can find a space to squeeze in a herbivore the size of a bison, surely we can find some room for some boar, or at least stop bitching about the red deer in Kerry taking over our country roads like the bastard hedgerows trying to trip up our country walkers.

 

Another story which hasn’t made the social networks yet, but was in our local newspaper in Pamplona, is that an association right here in Navarra, where I am writing now, has been set up to promote the reintroduction of Bison in the region.

Bison were apparently killed off here in the twelfth century – and there is a bit of a kerfuffle about the fact that the animals killed off are not the same species as the ones which survived in the rest of the continent, though of course with rewilding, you do what you can with what’s left – It’s not so much going back in time as moving forward.

Some of those I discussed the news with were a bit leery – if they’ve been gone since the lovely Romanic churches were being built, perhaps they should not return. (And yet the rebuild Romanic churches.) There were apparently visions of running into these wild and therefore clearly dangerous animals on the country roads.

When I explained that it would be a herd of 5 animals to start, and would build to perhaps a hundred over a decade or two, located up in the hills where they’d forest to roam in, things calmed down. I also explained that generally bison are not aggressive – as any visitor to Yellowstone NP can testify (well, I can).

But it also struck a note with me – if gentle herbivores can engender such fear, then what terror must the idea of returning wolves create.

People assume the bison were killed off because they were dangerous. Likewise the wolf, the boar, the bear, the lynx, the golden eagle, etcetera and etcetera. Not that they merely competed for food with our farming ancestors. Or through blind ignorance.

They thus consider a reintroduction dicing with death. When it’s the opposite.

Leaving these creatures to struggle on in the few places left wild enough for them to so far survive is dicing with death. Theirs and ours. At least emotionally, in our case, but possibly more.

I just watched Racing Extinction two nights ago, and it’s a scary future we’re not facing.

 

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 and Returning to an Ancient State of Things

There is a bit of confusion about this. Is rewilding returning to the way things were way back when?

Some think that rewilding advocates want us to go back to a time when the entire country (or continent) was clear of humans and their animals, simply by clearing out the sheep and letting things return to their natural state.

That’s not the case.

First of all, there is no natural state in Europe. Our wilderness areas are no such thing. Megalithic farmers left their mark on everything, including of course, our wildlife.

Much of this effect was the extermination of megafauna, making things a little less interesting. Or a lot.

But other species did well with the changes they instituted.

For example, the corncrake probably proliferated in Ireland because of tillage farming. Until we changed our methods of doing that.

The barn swallow only became so abundant, I’m sure when we built places for our beasts, their feed and flies that live on the shite. The same goes for barn owls: mice and rats weren’t so prolific until they had our food to eat on the farm.

But when we think of the way our island should be, those three species seem key. Perhaps they’re not actually going to stay so important in a rewilded landscape, however.

We have a tendency to think how things were when we were kids is the way they always were, and not wonder if there were former states.

This means that the phrase, “we’ve always done it like that” should have the emphasis on the we’ve, but not on the always. Those who were before might have different memories of the way things were.

This is important because people might be resistant to rewilding on the basis that they think it’s seeking a return to what we remember, when it’s an attempt to create a landscape that just does what it needs to do, to keep our environment and ourselves healthy.

In his Irish Times column, a few months back, Michael Viney asked “Did the lynx make its own way to Ireland or did a dried leg of meat arrive with a Mesolithic voyager?”

Among the thousands of bones in the National Museum of Ireland is “a single femur of a lynx, from Kilgreany Cave, in Co Waterford, that lived about 9,000 years ago[ ]when the first hunter-gatherers arrived in an Ireland that then held bears, wolves and wild boar, all later hunted to extinction.”

Many other animals which are accepted as parts of our native fauna also arrived with mesolithic voyagers, and voyagers since then, including the hedgehog and rabbit.

The fact that there are no more lynx fossils is irrelevant to the question. Perhaps it did make it, and many more, but they died out because of scare food in an impoverished fauna that Ireland had, and still mostly has compared to Britain and continental Europe. If not, so what?

Rewilding is not just returning former resident species to the country, in the same way that it is not seeking to remove the rabbit or the hedgehog, or any other species that wasn’t here when those hunter-gatherers first came ashore to a wooded island. It is making a whole new ecosystem, by making it possible for these species to mingle and mix, to seek out appropriate homes in various corners of the country.

The fact is that the lynx could help with an ecological imbalance we have now. We can put it to work. Even if it wasn’t here before, it can fit now.

Viney goes on to ask if the lynx, which is on the cards for re-introduction to Great Britain along with the already returned beaver, should be used in Ireland as means of controlling deer, which have no natural predators in Ireland since the demise of the wolf. He reckons that it might negatively affect the ground-dwelling birds. Well, perhaps, but other birds will do better. And the ground-dwelling birds might well be more abundant than they otherwise would have precisely because they never had a large predator affecting them (though I don’t think the fox is too bad at finding nests).

Similarly, as Viney mentions, the beaver was never here. Nevertheless, it could still help with our native fish, and could help make our landscape wilder than it is, and closer to as wild as it should be.

Beaver ponds might hinder the passage of salmonids, Viney points out. Perhaps the salmon had it easy, however, (apart from anglers) with our denuded landscape providing often-flooding rivers which flow straight and clear when they might not have if men hadn’t cut the trees.

 

Another point is horses and cattle. Rewilding Europe, which has made great strides in returning animals such as bison to former haunts, also wants to bring horses to many habitats. Now we all know that the wild horse is basically extinct in Europe – Przewalski’s horse and the Tarpan are close, but not exactly the same as the horse that used to roam here.

But that doesn’t mean that the landscape would not do much better with horses there or should be devoid of them forever.

Horses should be returned to do what horses do. And any types of horses are okay, depending on the area and climate – Tarpans in Eastern Europe, Connemara ponies on Achill, Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in various parts of England. It’s about rewilding the landscape, getting the animals to do what they should be doing for the area they live in, shaping the habitat, making spaces and microhabitats for other species – just like theEuroean Elk returned to Denmark after five thousand years.

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The last reputed Tarpan in Russia (photo wikipedia commons).

exmoor pony

An Exmoor Pony: does what tarpans did for the Russian steppes on English bogs (photo from What’sonExmoor, the Exmoor Guide, http://www.whatsonexmoor.co.uk/exmoor_gallery.htm)

 

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Connemara Ponies near the “Wild” Atlantic Way (photo from: http://irelandways.com/ways/the-wild-atlantic-way)

 

Since Aurochs are extinct we can replace them with other types of cattle which descended from it, and let them do that the Aurochs did in the habitat. We just need to choose the more primitive breeds of horses and cattle that can be left to go wild in the landscape and get along without management. That will take us nearer to wild than we are now, and any step in that direction will be one worth taking.

croatia_istra_visnjan_boskarin

A Boskarin bull – a primitive cattel breed from Croatia with similarities to the Auroch (photo from http://croatia.hr/en-GB/).

 

 

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.

Let’s all try to get along..

We’re going to have to learn to all get along, eventually…

I had originally thought of using that title for a blogpost/rant about cycling in the city – but everyday I get on my bike new things occur to me about that, so it’s not quite finished!

Marsican / Abruzzo brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) adult in spring mountain meadow. Critically endangered subspecies. Central Apennines, Abruzzo, Italy. May 2012

Anyway, I decided to write this after reading that a farmer had killed a bear central Italy (http://www.rewildingeurope.com/news/the-sad-story-of-a-killed-young-bear-brings-24-mobile-electric-fences-to-the-central-apennines/ The photo above is from the cited article, copyright Bruno D’Amicis/Rewilding Europe, of Marsican / Abruzzo brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) adult in spring mountain meadow. Critically endangered subspecies. Central Apennines, Abruzzo, Italy. May 2012
).

I asked myself the question: How much effort is wildlife worth?

I mean, really, how much effort is too much to bother with? Will people (the great mass of us in general) keep on saying, “That’s asking too much of us. We’re all for wildlife and nature and that, but really, we have priorities…”

There are always priorities.

And we have to place human life above other life (for the moment: let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet!). So if there is a conflict between an aggressive bear and a human, well, yes, shoot the bear. Even in cases where a bear has become a nuisance because people have not made the effort to keep their food safe or their garbage cans closed, it’s probably necessary to kill the bear.

This can go to extremes, of course: just today a deer in my local park (a mini-zoo in the old walls closed off to the public – I’ve videos on my youtube channel…) that gored a worker who didn’t make the effort to take precautions during the rut, and went in to feed the animal with no protection (a stick!) and no other person to help (or even know about it) if there was a problem has been removed – most probably via lead injection.

Was that necessary? Hardly. The deer hasn’t become a man-killer, like a man-eating tiger…

But that wasn’t even the case in Italy. The bear was raiding chickens. Instead of going to the bother of putting in an electric fence, however, the farmer decided it was handier to shoot the bear, so he did just that. End of problem.

But not exactly. The bear is protected. The farmer will pay a fine – one hopes. The move to rewild Italy has meant the expansion of the bear population into areas from which they’d been eradicated, and where people had got used to, got lazy about, not having to take elementary precautions for their livestock from these predators.

Of course, farmers still put a fence around their chickens, to protect them from predators that haven’t been eradicated – foxes, stoats and weasels, etc. Is it that much more effort to put in an electric fence? Obviously was for this guy. Will his fine exceed the price of an electric fence? Well, that’s hard to know.

And farmers still shoot foxes – they’re just hard to exterminate across a whole landscape.

To give an example of just how reluctant some (even wildlife-advocates) can be to do anything different, or inconvenience themselves in the least, an English angling spokesman Mark Owen, head of freshwater at the Angling Trust, was quoted in a recent Guardian article about rewilding (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/19/-sp-rewilding-large-species-britain-wolves-bears) as saying that reintroducing beaver would produce “a list of concerns, including half-gnawed trees posing a threat to fishermen.” I mean, come on! Give me a fucking break, as they say.

Can we ask the anglers to avoid sharp sticks? Or should we start to put fences along the rivers to stop the poor lads potentially falling in?

Of course, it’s mostly a wish to keep things the way they are: keep the sheep on the hills, the rivers running straight and fast. “Don’t inconvenience us with new situations we have to change our habits for.”

But inconvenience is something we all have to look forward to, people. It’s a coming!

Hopefully, if we do things right, it will be relatively minor instead of very fucking major. But it’s coming.

After the shooting of the bear, the rewilding team decided to pay for farmers to install electric fences, so lower their inconvenience. Perhaps, if we, as a society want wildlife, we have to pay for the farmer’s fences? Perhaps.

But the sway of the farmer is waning – their insistence that we keep everything the way they prefer is not going to last forever. Sheep farming might be what people think has been going on forever on our hillsides, but not in the way it’s currently practiced, where sheep could be left untended for weeks on end. The word shepherd meant something – still does in many parts of the world. But sheep farmers have labelled their way of life a tradition that must be supported by subsidies. There was a time before we left our hillsides to be grazed to the nub and there will be a time afterwards.

Farming doesn’t have a premium on the past as future. Nobody thought of implementing subsidies to keep cinemas afloat when video took their business away. I saw a video shop in Barcelona on the television just last week – looking for some government help to stay open, because they were the first, and would probably be the last ever video store in the country, and were an example of an industry that has gone by the wayside.

So sheep farming, as currently practiced might have some value as a show piece, but we can keep flock or two around Bunratty Castle and preserve them that way, if we really have to, like we have people spinning yarn and making wooden barrels – all those traditional skills and jobs that are no longer economically viable.

Farming, of course, is vital in a way that coopering is not. We need to have a source of food – and I’m willing to pay top dollar for meat, as I think we should be for all our food, especially milk and eggs.

But we all need to learn to get along, and move forward. Because I was thinking that while paying farmers for livestock that are killed by bears and wolves is the sensible thing to do to get acceptance for large predators, it might not always be considered the best idea.

No. If the farmer’s keep losing expensive animals, perhaps we (the people) should eventually prohibit livestock that are going to be expensive for us to pay for, or, if there is a farmer who is too lazy to put up fences and bring in stock and keep them protected, well, let him pay for his own animals.

If he reacts like the farmer in Italy, and kills the predator let him go to prison for a proper time, and confiscate his farm to pay for further conservation to remediate his actions…

It could all escalate pretty quickly.

Yet the balance of power between farmers – who traditionally had political clout – and non-rural folk, is going towards the city dwellers – who, ironically, want to see bears and wolves, as well as beavers and lynx, return to places they themselves perhaps rarely visit…

The countryside is changing. It’s inevitable.

So let’s all try to get along right now.

 

 

The Island Children learn to leave could be the same the tourists start to flock to?

I talked some time ago about rewilding Islands, and pointed to a few places in Ireland and Scotland that would be prime areas to try bring back a few of the former fauna (and flora) of Europe.

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper shows just how much at least Achill needs some lateral thinking on how to keep the island’s ecomomy going – and stop the few kids left there from going away.

Why not give rewilding a chance on the island?I remember once, going to Achill. We crossed the bridge and drove for a half an hour or so, but there was nothing really to keep us driving out toward the western edge. We’d seen all the sheep we wanted.If the blackfaced sheep are not a tourist draw, and are not keeping farming going in a way that makes the population think of it as a viable option to return to after they’ve been away at college, why not bring in some deer, let the forests grow and prepare the land for the iconic fauna that would make many tourists do more than just cross the bridge and turn back?With hotels closing down, what have they got left to lose?

 

Returning European Bison to the Wild

This is great news, and rewildingeurope.com have disseminated the news today that some bison from British and Irish wildlife parks have been taken to Romania where they will be set free in the Carpathian Mountains.

I have been thinking about bison myself in writing a sequel to my novel Leaving the Pack: one of the characters is from the Carpathians, and lived there before the bison were driven to extinction in the early 20th century, and his grandson would like to do some rewilding for nostalgia’s sake.

And now that I read this news, I wonder, if one day soon there will be so many wild populations of bison throughout mainland Europe, that they can join up again into an actual range once more – and who knows, maybe bring it back to places like France and Northern Spain where it lived in the times of the Romans.big boar jabali

I saw a huge wild boar galloping through a wheat field last weekend. And I can’t help hoping that someday it could be a bison, or herd of bison…

Further information about wolves and deer management in Ireland

 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. Image

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.