Blog Archives

Deer Management on a Very Small Scale.

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

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

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

IMG_6804
View of the main enclosure with pond.

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

IMG_4868
Still photo of newborn calf with dam

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

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

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

They had treated the deer as domestic pets.

Worse, they still do.

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

IMG_6803
The revelin. You can see the gate is closed and little grass remains.

IMG_7072
Cedar trees giving shade.

IMG_7075
Hind and calves in shade of trees in early summer.

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

And then a gardener came in.

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

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

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

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

In this case, going in alone was a mistake.

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

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

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

Or we don’t.

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

No. I witnessed several scenes of stupidity.

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

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

What followed was a debacle of the highest order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20150724_115519
Hind and calf beside a safety barrier along the wall

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

Perhaps they’d read my letter.

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

20150602_David O'Brien7
The wall off which the stag was pushed. The first born calf of the year is sitting in a nook, soaking up the sun after having learned not to jump himself…
David O'Brien5

I assume at least one more will give birth this year. I haven’t been by since before the festivals started, in early July. The deer were enclosed up on the revelin despite the heat wave and the only water available down low. I hoped the plan was not to leave them there for the festival, but next day the gate was open.
20150724_115503
Hinds and young calves in late July.

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

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

20150724_120721
Calf suckling

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

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

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

Dumb Animals and Unnecessary Death

Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. But I don’t think so.

This kind of thing has always pissed me off – see the poem at the bottom of this post, written in 2000…

So, I’m pretty much okay with killing animals when that’s what has to be done. Sometimes it’s for food (though individuals might not agree with that) and sometimes it’s for human safety. As I said in a recent post, there are always priorities, and human safety is paramount.

But I don’t agree with the killing of two animals recently (a park deer and a pet dog) – though they were done in the name of “human safety.”

They were actually done through 10% laziness and 90% sheer fucking stupidity.

When an animal has to suffer the consequence of some human’s stupidity it really fucking gets my goat. Really.

I must admit that have a real problem with stupidity.

Okay, we all do something stupid now and then.

It was pretty stupid – in hindsight, perhaps – to walk into an enclosure with a testosterone-crazy animal that weighs more than you, has more muscles – and legs- than you, and is armed with 14 spikes coming out of its head, alone, unarmed. But the dude didn’t know much about deer – the deer are normally very standoffish, and the rut is a different thing altogether.

That’s not the stupidity I’m talking about.

I’m talking about shooting the deer, afterward, as if the deer has turned into a man-eater, or a nuisance bear liable to break into someone’s home and attack their sleeping children.

It’s a fucking deer. Put it back with the rest of the herd and let it fight the other stags, and there will be no further problems. Though, of course, make sure the workers know not to make the same mistake again.

No, the deer made the mistake of being a dumb animal. And a tasty one at that – so what if it’s not in the wild and we’re not hunting it? We have an excuse, and a stupid excuse is better than none. So the deer died for doing what it does, which is why it was brought to the park in the first place, and we’ll make the same fucking mistake with the next deer that knows no different (they’ve already allowed a younger male to be in the same situation, alone in one part of the park with only humans to take its interest – there’s not even a bush to spar against). And then we’ll lament and shoot that deer.

Right now there is a lone deer in the same place which could attack a lone keeper.

That’s what I’m talking about.

This is institutional stupidity – the kind of stupidity that happens again and again because it’s ingrained in the system and you can’t seem to find anyone who has responsibility for something that actually understands a fucking iota of what they are supposed to know about.

That shit really pisses me off.

I mean the kind of errors that lead to the killing of a dog called Excalibur – yeah, pretty fucking over-the-top name for the runt it was, but that’s beside the point – are the same fucking dose of idiocy that might lead to the death of a shit load of people, not just in Alcorcón, Madrid (a place I taught English in for 2 years and got to know a lot of folk) but all around Spain, if not corrected pretty fucking quickly, and by that I mean last week already.

For those who don’t know, Excalibur was the pet dog of the Spanish nurse who was the first person to contract Ebola outside Africa during the current outbreak. She went hospital, her husband went in beside her, and her dog went to the biohazard fire.

The people who might be infected from this nurse will hopefully not get infected, and will hopefully not have pets.

The big mistake the government made – and it’s the minister of health, the one who refuses to resign even now, who made Mistake Number One – was to bring infected people out of Africa to let them die at home (they died) in the first place: creating the possibility of spreading the virus to a whole new population. All the eminent virologists in Spain are rightly up in arms about not being even asked their opinion. But that’s the point – those in power could give a fuck about the scientific and medical opinion, because they don’t want to follow advice: they want to do what they want and will do it. And they won’t apologise for it, and they sure as fuck won’t resign.

Even after international experts said it would be better to keep the dog alive to at least test whether human dog transmission is possible – information we might fucking need soon enough as we are embroiled in a breakout if these clowns don’t get their shit together – they went ahead and killed it.

Said they’d nowhere to keep it.

Like a dog can’t sit in a cage in a hospital ward – it’s not like your average appendicitis patient is going to be sleeping next door to the Ebola sufferer. Okay, maybe it’s not easy, but it can be done.

AAAnd they didn’t bother taking any samples. Why would they do anything clever like that? The dog has to die because it might be infected, but lets not find out, in case someone says we didn’t need to kill it. Whether or not it was infected, you didn’t need to kill it: it was scientific information on four legs, fuckwits!

There was a huge backlash against the idea of putting down the dog – the animal rights folks turned out in flocks and blocked the road, etc. It was nice to see – it would be nice to see the same reaction next time they think of bringing infected folk back home to die, or letting the president (the embodiment of stupidity having no glass ceiling in politics) return from wherever he has fled to avoid questions on the crisis.

Maybe the deaths of these animals – guilty only of being made dangerous by human stupidity (though the same can be said of bears and lions and many others) – will serve as an impetus to make us join together and get rid of the idiots? After all, it’s not just us they are endangering, but a whole planet full of other animals too.

Meanwhile, here’s that poem…..

 

Accidents will happen

 

A kid sliced his ear off the other day;

Down by me in the field, on a swing from a tree.

We used to have a swing there when I was young.

Anyway, he lost it somehow when swinging;

Cut clean off apparently.

 

So who was to blame for this minor tragedy?

The authorities, for not having a playground;

Or at least not preventing kids from making their own?

Probably the parents, for not taking proper care.

His peers, for forcing the obviously incompetent kid

Up the tree to launch off leaving his ear?

 

It was no one’s fault of course –

It was just a freak accident.

 

No. Sorry. Actually; it was the tree’s –

They cut it down next day.

 

 

 

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.