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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.

 

 

Irish Wildlife Trust Winners

As I get back into the swing of things after summer, first thing I have to do is congratulate David Devins of Co. Leitrim and Damian O’Sullivan of Co. Cork, who both won copies of my children’s novel, Peter and the Little People in the summer IWT Irish Wildlife Magazine’s book competition.

As you might know, I have pledged to give 10% of my royalties on Peter and the Little People to this NGO (if you’ve read the book you’ll know why) to help the great work they do.

At the moment a new battle has emerged for them, and us all, to tackle – the possible introduction of more destructive insecticides in Ireland, which threaten bees and other useful and important insects.

 

It seems that the fight to protect bees, like the fight to stop much environmental destruction will be continual, as companies try to introduce more chemicals.

It’s similar to George Monbiot’s post this week, that though the TTIP agreement seems to have been abandoned in the face of so much negative public opinion against it’s implementation, there are other similar treaties in the works, all designed to take power to legislate international companies from government – and thus public – hands. At the end he suggests we can never let our guard down, for the corporations and their cronies are always working against us and our environment, and they only need to succeed once, while we have to beat them every time.

Similarly, the bees and other insects only have to be erased from the planet once, and we have to save them every year, every week, every day.

Do your bit – join the IWT or whatever similar organisation operates in your country. And be vocal, even through the internet. It’s not quite the direct action that seems necessary to protect the Dakota water supply, but it’s effective when there are enough of us.

Competition in Irish Wildlife

As you know, 10% of my royalties from Peter and the Little People, my children’s novel about wildlife and leprechauns, will be donated to the IWT, the Irish Wildlife Trust – in addition to the 10% going to WWF.

For anyone who’s a member of the Irish Wildlife Trust, have a look in the summer edition of their Irish Wildlife Magazine and you’ll see that there are two copies of the novel up for grabs on their competition page!

 

competition iwt page

Check it out – the answer is dead easy!

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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.

 

Five Minutes from a Hectic Schedule

Five Minutes in Spring

 

Five minutes on a park bench

To catch sight of birds other than doves,

 

A walk along a tree-lined street

Instead of screen-staring upon a bus,

 

A pause between passing engines to

Actually hear the blackbird,

 

Lingering by a flowing fountain

To listen to the lovely gurgle,

 

A long gaze upon a hillside

Growing shades of green for grazing,

 

A halt, a hesitation, to inhale the

Heady horse chestnut scents;

 

Five minutes in spring, just five,

To remind us this here is life.

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It’s been a busy few weeks here in Pamplona.

I’ve my children’s book, Peter and the Little People out today!  You can get it here... https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/museitup/fantasy/peter-and-the-little-people-detail

As well as that, I’ve a novella under the name JD Martins, One Night in Boston, out tomorrow!     You can get that here…   http://www.tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Martins_JD/one-night-in-boston.htm

What with promoting these and my other books, and preparing a blogtour for One Night in Boston, as well as normal life stuff like end of school year, taking care of the kids and having a baptism, I’ve not had time to do much reading or writing, or getting a chunk of time to get out in the mountains.

But it’s vital to take just a few minutes as spring spins past to appreciate why we’re here, to pause to see just how fast life is flying by. Then get back to the kids and exam correcting, and the edits of the book you swore would be done by Christmas…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The kind of Park I like to see.

Last year, I spotted a park in Pamplona that had a section planted with wild flowers. It was a beautiful sight in late spring and all during summer, and attracted all the passers-by. Including kids who couldn’t resist plucking a few blooms – and good luck to them (if only I could convince a certain 70-year-old to stop plucking the orchids she comes across on her walks in the country – she does it knowing I’ll give out to her if I see the flowers later…).

This year I’ve seen another park, not too far away, in the town of Mutilva, which gave me another emotional lift to see that not every park needs to consist of close-shaved grass.

 

20160425_171501They have only mowed the grass along the verge of the paths, and a few extra paths to walk through the grass between the unmown sections, inviting visitors to stroll through the meadow and get close to the wildflowers that are already coming up and blooming – the kids will just go straight into those flowers.

20160425_171348It also means the hillside will be greener for longer this summer when the rains stop and it won’t need to be watered – like much of the public gardens here.

20160425_171410The smell of cut grass is nice, but the scent of wildflowers that blew down the hillside when I just took a walk there was a whole lot better.

It’s not the only park in this suburb, and many of the others have only daisies and shorn dandelions today, but it’s nice to see even one exception to the rule of lawns, so good on the town council. I hope their example will be followed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter and the Little People

Out now on pre-order, with a discount, my new book, aimed at readers from 8 to 80 and parents who’d like to read to their kids a book they will enjoy themselves…

 

PETER AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE SOON.png

https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/museitup/fantasy/peter-and-the-little-people-detail

This is my fifth book under my own name.

Out on  May 24th. Your kids’ll love it.

Here’s the blurb:

You’ve heard stories about Little People: leprechauns and their like. Ireland is full of people who’ve had strange experiences out in the fields in the early morning. All just tall tales and myths, of course.

At least, we assume so…

But Peter knows better.

A boy with a love of wildlife and talent for spotting animals, Peter often sees what he calls elves in the fields as he travels Ireland with his dad. Sometimes it’s just a flash as they drive by, but he catches sight of something too swift for most people to keep their eye on. And Peter is young enough to trust his own eyes more than the adults who tell him these creatures are not real.

When his family go to spend the summer with his granny on her farm, Gemma from the farm next door offers to show him the badger sett under an old Ring Fort. Peter accepts gladly. To his surprise and delight he finally gets a chance to do more than catch a glimpse of the Little People. Will the Little People be just as happy? Perhaps, when Peter learns about some plans for the farm, they might be.

10% of the Author’s Royalties will be donated to WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, and to IWT, the Irish Wildlife Trust.

PETER AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE fb

I have decided to donate to IWT because they are the people who look after our Irish wildlife and ensure that the species Peter loves are protected from going the way of the animals the Little People used to see, and will remain in good health in the future.

Here’s an excerpt

When they travel in cars, most adults look at the road, to make sure that whoever is driving is doing it as well as they would if they sat at the steering wheel. Or else they watch for the signposts that tell you how far you are from the next town or where to turn off for Galway or Tullamore, if there is a junction coming up. Most children only look at the other cars—to see if they can spot a red one, or count how many white cars there are. Both adults and children look at the houses and people by the roadside. Few of them look at the trees and fields and hardly any look for animals.

Peter was an observant passenger, though. For this reason, he was more likely than most children to see the Little People. To Peter, seeing the Little People became very much like spotting a stoat or red squirrel. You had to be watching hard to know what you were looking for and to be able to pick it out from the leaves and twigs and grass around it. And you have to be satisfied with just a very quick glimpse.

Links:

https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/index.php/museitup/fantasy/peter-and-the-little-people-detail

http://www.amazon.com/Peter-Little-People-David-OBrien-ebook/dp/B01EQ77FI2

The Letter or the Spirit of the Law?

Last month the Irish Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphries, decided change the law to extend the season during which burning and cutting hedges and other vegetation will be permitted, despite the protestations of thousands.

HeatherHumphreysMinister_large

 

Heather Humphries. The fake smile is probably because she knows we know she’s not qualified for the job we are paying her for…

Before this, farmers could cut and burn during February, then they had to wait until September to any further work of that nature on their land. This was to protect the wildlife, especially nesting birds.

But this year they can wait until March before burning, or start in August again. Though considered unnecessary by and large, this has happened because some farmers were burning illegally last year – what more elegant solution than to make it legal do conduct such burning?

I watched some of the debate in the Seanad on this legislation. It was frustrating, as well as hilarious at times, as some politicians tried to claim the change was necessary because hedgerows were taking over our country roads and making them impossible to walk – I’d say the speed at which cars travel the roads nowadays might be more important. There are roads I’d never cycle, never mind walk, which I did twenty years ago.

This extension to destruction season comes just as climate change means some birds are breeding earlier nowadays. This year has been an exceptionally mild winter and spring will come soon, and even stopping in March will affect some birdlife.

But though the rules have changed on the insistence and lobbying of some farmers and landowners, it does not mean that fires have to rage this year like they did (illegally) last year.

If the weather is warmer (and perhaps dry – it could happen!) now, then farmers can get their burning done even earlier than they used to. They don’t have to wait until after March just because they can. There is certainly no need to wait to get the hedge cutting done – ti’s something that can be done very quickly nowadays with the machinery available.

hedge_cutter

Hedgecutting in action. You don’t need months to get this done any more, but choose the wrong month and there will be a lot of bird nests getting cut in this particular hedge. Photo from http://www.dublinplanthire.ie

The farmers who care about the land (and there are a lot of them, despite how it sometimes seems) can keep obeying the spirit of the former law, rather than the letter of the new law. The law says we can drive at 100kmph in many places that we don’t even try reach that speed.

We can always do what we think is right, regardless of what the law says we can do. Plenty of anglers release their fish even when they can legally take them home. Some hunters let the fox slink away and just watch it, rather than take a shot, though they could legally shoot that fox, since it’s considered vermin (and would be asked to if the farmer was also watching).

If we are to rewild our lands and our lives, and indeed, keep alive the little bit of wildlife we have left out there, we have to rely on the good will, and good sense, of the majority in the face of the selfishness and, ultimately, as can see with climate change, idiocy of the minority.

In farming as in other matters we need people to do right because that’s the thing to do…. like avoiding paying taxes – if we all avoided paying our taxes like the elites do, every country would come to a halt.

And a majority of people wanted this legislation stopped. A majority of the senators I saw speaking were against it. But those in power pushed it through.

We can only hope that when they are gone from power, soon enough, this legislation can be reversed to rein in those few outliers who don’t give a monkeys about out, and their, environment.

 

Harbingers

Praying for an Early Spring

 

Sitting in shirt sleeves

This late January afternoon,

Lettuce sprouts in greenhouse,

Bumblebees in almond blooms;

Annuals keep flowering and

Geraniums haven’t faded.

Newts and salamanders swim in pools

Wondering, too, if it isn’t too soon

Despite the lack of ice and instead

Should still slumber.

 

And though we’d love to see some snow,

It would be safer to let winter go

Unannounced, unpronounced, this year,

For fear it will freeze the very things

That would bring life to the spring.

 

geraniums in snow

This photo is from the week before, but one snowfall does not a winter make: the geraniums are still as colourful, the snow melted mostly that day, the sunny sky remained. The lettuces were fine; there are cheap strawberries in the supermarkets already. Unfortunately my phone camera didn’t work when I was trying to take a snap of the almond blossoms or the amphibians…

 

 

 

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.