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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.

 

 

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Woolly Maggots

I’ve favoured a return of our wild megafauna to our mountains for some time, now as a general wish to see wildlife flourish on our island. This includes letting the red deer extend their range beyond the small confines of Killarney NP, where it seems only those with friends in the right places and a pile of cash in their back pocket can get to hunt stags. It includes getting wild boar back, as far as our scant natural habitat is still suitable for them. And of course in includes letting the wolf roam the uplands, as those uplands regain their balance in terms of flora as well as fauna.

There are clear barriers to such steps. One of them is the lack of that suitable habitat, and another, connected to that, is the extent of sheep farming.

sheep_in_field_a8v9997

Sheep in a field. See any trees? Only habitat for tellytubbies.         Photo by Paul Mutton.

I have long marvelled at the fact that sheep are still farmed in Ireland. I’ve spent decades hearing about and seeing how destructive they are to the uplands – anyone whose seen the golf green fields where farmers have them on the lowlands can imagine their effect on a wild landscape. When I was still in college in the early 90s we learned about overgrazing at important conservation and recreation areas of Ireland (like the slopes of Errigal Mountain in Donegal, Connemara NP). Some call them woolly maggots, for obvious reasons.

 

upland grazing Snowdonia.jpg

Sheep in the mountains. Hard to spot a tree here, either.        Photo from http://snowdonia-active.com/news.

Simultaneously, I’ve spent decades pushing these animals ahead of me, both in cars on the roads and while trying to hunt or just hill walk without them scattering every shred of wildlife I might have otherwise had the chance to see. I even spent an hour saving one, which had got its leg caught in the wooden slats of a footbridge. It gave me scant thanks, and I was sure the farmer wouldn’t have been too pushed either way, given the huge numbers of dead animals you see while walking in our mountains. But I didn’t think letting it die of thirst was a valid option for anyone with a conscience. If my car jack wasn’t able to push up the slat, I was going to smash its skull in with a wrench, or a rock. A better end, despite the visual image you’re probably conjuring up right now…

Anyway, I remember a farmer telling me more than a decade ago that the wool was barely worth the effort to shear the sheep, and that the merchant only took it from him under no obligation to actually return money to the farmer. If it sold, he gave a portion of the sale, if not, then he… I’m not sure what he’d have done with the wool – throw it out, donate it, or what.

I’ve only eaten lamb a few times in Ireland, and I never liked it much. How much lamb is eaten round here and how much a lamb is worth, I’ve no idea, but I never imagined it was much (again, seeing how little attention is paid to them on the hill).

 

George Monbiot has the numbers. He reckons it’s less than 1% of the British diet, and the wool has almost no value. And it’s probable that the flooding caused by overgrazed hillsides means less food is grown downhill than otherwise would be, meaning sheep grazing actually reduces agricultural production.

He’s submitted a whole list of problems with the current Common Agricultural Policy and its effects on the environment.

One of these is that without subsidies sheep farming on uplands would be so clearly a waste of time that the sheep would disappear from the mountains by themselves.

And if that happened, well, two obvious effects would be that there would be no problem with sheep kills by reintroduced wolves up there (down the slopes any remaining sheep are easily protected in electrified pens at night), and the deer and other fauna would have something to eat and habitat to hide in as they spread over a landscape currently almost devoid of plant cover.

And real money could flow into these areas from people who want to see the wildlife, just like the reintroduced red kite (hopefully right now spreading across and out from Wicklow) brought £8 million in tourism revenue to parts of Scotland.

Seems simple maths to me.

Small surges forth from huge setbacks

2017 didn’t start with very much good news. There were more attacks on innocent people just like last year. The rich and powerful are continuing to play their chess game with the planet, and have moved their rook into position to fuck things up in a big way. We, the pawns, stand ready to do what we can to oppose, but expect the worst they can impose upon us.

And 2016 slips right into its place in the graph as the hottest year ever recorded, right in front of 2015 and 2014.

Just like we see with all species, the numbers of predators, especially large ones like lions and wolves, have collapsed in the last number of decades.

A large part of the problem are the conflicts these large predators come into in areas where livestock are farmed. There are many different ways to prevent kills (such as guard dogs and electric fences) but in many cases farmers whose livestock are preyed upon take action and kill the predators (one supposes it is the same animal(s)). Thus, one dead cow or goat means one dead tiger or leopard. The former can be replaced a lot faster than the latter, unfortunately.

Just yesterday, a bear was poisoned in Italy.

But there are signs of some steps back from the brink. In Spain, where the population of wolves is actually increasing, the government of the Community of Madrid have increased the compensation fund to help farmers whose livestock are attacked (though it seems at 500 Euro per sheep, there’s a large temptation to fudge the death of an animal to look like a wolf-kill – which was widespread in some areas of Spain and caused a scandal last year).

This will help reduce such retaliatory killings, since farmers don’t see their livelihoods under threat from the predators. There are also movements to protect livestock using mastiff dogs and restoring pens – this helping much more in the long term as farmers readjust to the new reality of a rewilded landscape.

The world needs more of this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it possible to bring back species where men are still farming?

 

Nature is, so far, waiting to return, as soon as we, humans get out of its way. In a damaged form in still exists even in Europe in between the farms and across their mosaic of monocultures. Recently, I read the good news that many species of large mammal have returned to the abandoned areas around Chernobyl that I’ve talked about before: https://davidjmobrien.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/chernobyl-and-rewilding-islands-2/

Meanwhile in Ireland, the hen harrier, a protected raptor has hardly been out of the news recently – and it’s nearly all bad news.

 

The first article I read suggested that farmers be given money to compensate them for protecting hen harriers in Special Protection Areas. This seemed ridiculous, if not abhorrent to me. After all, am I compensated for protecting schoolchildren from bullies? No, it’s part of me obeying the law like the rest of us have to obey the laws. This smacked of a blackmailing protection racket – pay us to protect the birds, or you might find the birds are dying out there.

When I read that a Scottish game keeper was found guilty of killing goshawks and other predators of gamebirds he was raising, I wonder why we, too, can’t simply protect our endangered and vulnerable species by enforcing the laws that are there to protect them, rather than paying protection money to those who would view them with a caustic eye.

However, it seems apparent that unfortunately, our little island, while too small, too built up and densely populated for wolves or other large animal to be released into, is indeed wild and deserted enough that wildlife crime is virtually impossible to prevent or prosecute.

The negative view of the hen harrier in Ireland just seemed to increase. Farmers and other unscrupulous landowners who see such birds as a barrier to them planting forestry or installing wind turbines simply make such barriers disappear. That’s if they are unlucky enough to have their land selected for protection because the species was still there when the sites were designated: just good habitat didn’t qualify, so those who’d killed off the birds in the first place were in a better position. And kill off the birds some did. Just a week later the headlines proclaimed that a much-studied and named hen harrier was shot.

 Heather_dead_Barry_ODonoghue_NPWS Heather the hen harrier: picture copyright Barry O’Donoghue NPSW

 

It seems that there is an impasse here. Ignorance and fear and lack of resources make it almost inevitable that our wild birds and mammals lose out on this island. From a Trinity College professor going on national radio and making a show of himself with inaccurate information about all sorts animals, including raptors, to the fact that the huge deer poaching problem is beyond the capability of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to handle, to the illogical farm supplement system, everything conspires against our wildlife.

Some farmers cling on to a way of life that perhaps has changed from an occupation to a pastime, in that there’s little money to be made from upland sheep farming, and they are only kept alive by subsidies. If these subsidies were used to make farmers wildlife guardians and protectors of habitats (though allowing scrub forest in my view is better than keeping prime hen harrier habitat, since it will eventually allow even more emblematic species to thrive) then we wouldn’t have these clashes. Turning from sheep to forests and wind turbines is a way to stay on the land, but if there were good sturdy populations of hen harriers, there would be less need to ban turbines on their habitat and we should be encouraging forests for wildlife as well as for timber.

Believing that you have to remove the wildlife to stay on the land because every little penny counts is sad, but could be alleviated by compensation where that wildlife does indeed financially impact the farm. Unfortunately, often such conflict is only in the human’s mind: foxes, though widespread, really inflict tiny amounts of damage on lamb numbers, white tailed eagles just aren’t a threat to them, and yet they get shot and poisoned because of this perception.

Finally, doing away with the local wildlife because it causes inconvenience and you don’t believe you should have to bother about preserving it (exemplified by the current movement to allow hedge cutting in summer) has to be something that people will reject because they are afraid of being caught and punished. Wildlife crime has to be considered just that. That will mean enforcing the law. At the moment, too many people think they can carry on doing what they want regardless of how the world around them has changed. I wrote about this before. Catching the culprits and making examples of them will not only give pause, but will eventually change mindsets. And if a farmer disagrees with the new kind of farming, then he should perhaps get out of the game. Most teachers who started working when you could smack a child kept teaching when corporal punishment was banned. Some kept hitting the kids now and then (I’m sure many had similar experiences to me), but eventually even they stopped or they left the profession. Now, the very idea of hitting a kid is equally abhorrent as that of poisoning a white-tailed-eagle that the government spent thousands of euros and man-hours reintroducing for the good of the country and its citizens. Or should be.

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.