The Uncertainties of Co-Existing with Predators: Experiences from southern Europe

Written by Michele Nori and Duccio Berzi

Co-existing with wildlife is always a matter of tension and contestations. Predators like wolves and bears have long been a source of trouble for pastoralists and other people who live in rural areas. But as numbers and types of predators are changing, in part due to the expansion of ‘rewilding’ schemes, there are new challenges. There are flaws in the compensation schemes for pastoralists whose animals are attacked, and major questions over how losses are calculated, who should bear the costs, and how pastoralists’ interests are represented in law and policy. All these domains characterise the uncertainty pastoralists live through all over the world.

Wildlife has a great deal of support and empathy of environmentalists and citizens in general, often proportionally to how far away they live from them. There is evidence that attitudes toward wild predators appear to have become less favourable the longer people co-existed with them. It’s no surprise that largely urban populations have only a very limited idea of what it really means to co-exist with predators, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on animals they prey on. We are talking about elephants trespassing game reserves, bears encroaching on touristic routes, and wolves preying on pastoralists’ flocks and herds.

Predators and uncertainty in Europe

Pastoralists in southern Europe are increasingly exposed and vulnerable to wolf attacks. Over time, they have developed and tailored techniques, instruments and strategies to play an active role in mitigating them; these include installing fences, dissuasive traps, shepherding dogs, and electrified night pens. The implications of these measures for the environment are often costly, with militarised fortresses in the mountains and tourists frightened by large guard dogs. These dissuasive measures appear to be becoming less and less effective in European pasturelands and mountainous areas.

This is partly related to the fact that predators consistency is increasing, and predators themselves have undergone changes too. Wildlife that was once rare and on the verge of extinction is now populating mountain ranges in large numbers. New hybrid species have evolved, such as those resulting from wolves interbreeding with stray dogs (often originating from towns and cities). Shifting conditions have also brought new ethology and behavioural patterns. This means that predictive and preventative models are inefficient, as predators may lose their fear of humans. As these emotions and habits are acquired and socialised in the origin group or herd, their loss of fear further complicates their relationships with humans and the protection of flocks and herds.

The whole interface between humans and wildlife is, by definition, an uncertain area. Data about predators’ presence and consistency are sensitive and contested, as figures can indicate very different narratives. It is not straightforward to define the difference between endangered or invasive, or the boundary between defending or attacking. Data and accompanying narratives can hide very different and differently vested interests, from tourist agencies that include wildlife in their packages, to environmental organizations and technical agencies that rely on public funding to protect animals – some of which in reality are no longer under threat of extinction. Indeed, in some areas it is pastoralists that are on the verge of extinction.

Counting the wounds

The amount of damage that wild predators cause to pastoral flocks is contested too. Take wolves: in some regions pastoralists only get compensation if their animal is killed by a wolf, so vets are called in to look at bite-marks. But what about bites by stray dogs and other predators? Research in some areas indicate that a large portion of aggressive predators may be hybrids, such as in a recent study in the Appennino Tosco Emiliano National Park, where over 3 million euros were spent on Life projects aimed at the conservation of the wolf. The study indicates that wolf-dog hybrids appear to make up more than half (50 to 70%) of the local population. Where this ‘wildlife’ preys on local flocks, pastoralists are not entitled to compensation.

This raises a number of questions. First, why should those inhabiting remote and inner areas, getting their livelihood from resources that others consider as marginal, pay the cost of damages from these wild and stray animals, which constitute an asset for the whole community?

And what about the ways the damage materializes and is quantified? According to a recent study commissioned by the European Parliament, sheep are by large the preferred prey in Europe.

It’s not only bites that harm flocks. In most cases, only animals that die because of direct bites by protected predators count for remuneration (often through lengthy and complicate procedures). But other losses involve animals that have fled away, disappeared in running away, those killed in falls in rocky areas, losses from miscarriages, or where animals stop producing milk due to trauma and shock from attacks.

No compensation, however, can offset the emotional aspects, the bonding between the breeders and their animals, not to mention the outcomes of years and generations of genetic selection, the knowledge of pastoralists and their attachment to the territory.

It is not exceptional for a predator attack to compromise the productivity of a flock for an entire year, especially if the attack happens during times of pregnancies and summer milking. This in turn shocks the livelihoods of pastoral farmers. A Spanish farmer, Mr. Codesal, describes a wolf attack in these terms: “It’s like in a nightclub when there’s a fire. There’s a stampede and people get trodden on and hurt. This is the same.”

Who should compensate those communities, and protect their livelihoods? Who is responsible for accounting for the damages that predators cause to local herds and flocks?

Across Europe, compensation rules differ widely from place to place. According to existing laws and regulations, the ‘operational perimeter’ of wolves and bears varies from one place to another; so does that of farmers, flocks and herds. The claims, damages and compensation pastoralists can expect also vary significantly between different countries. So do the incentives to prevent damages and to adopt tailored methods and techniques. If you are a pastoralist, you will have different rights if you are on the French or the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, if you graze in the Alps or the Apennines in Italy, or even if you live one side or the other of the same river, such as the Duero in Spain. This creates further uncertainties for European farmers, as their herding activity involves moving from one place to another, and even crossing boundaries and administrative borders.  

Participation and representation

Apart from the technical questions on how these damages and costs are assessed and quantified, a more pressing one relates to who should bear their burden. Pastoralists rarely participate in the decisions that are taken on their livelihoods. From global conventions, to EU regulations, to national implementation and local practices, decision making is fairly strictly a top-down process. Although rules can be interpreted at local level, the laws and regulations that govern them have normally been decided elsewhere, at a higher level. European and national laws constrain the actions of pastoralists, limiting their room for effective manoeuvre in tackling the uncertainties and challenges of living alongside natural parks, game reserves and rewilding areas.

This raises two related issues about participation and representation. Firstly, when decisions about these areas are made, the views of conservation biologists and other external experts should be considered alongside those of the local communities who live there. Conservation of bears or wolves in Europe works best when decisions are made from the bottom up, not when governments impose guidelines on local inhabitants. If the local population is informed in real time, it feels part of the decision-making and is made accountable accordingly. Otherwise, there will be problems: even in cases when decisions might be technically sound, if there is no participation or transparency, wrong perceptions and fake news begin to spread, polarising the debate between victims and culprits, animals and humans.

The second issue is that pastoralists should ask themselves whodoes represent their demands and rights. Large farmers’ syndicates and unions traditionally tend to serve more intensive systems, and they have little interest in shifting policy attention (e.g. on Common Agricultural Policy funding) to more extensive systems. Herders’ organizations tend to act only at a local level, often in sporadic ways, and face difficulties in being heard at national level; the European level is even harder for them to reach.

Despite this, recently some important initiatives have enjoyed a degree of participation and resonance. These include the Manifesto by the Pastores de Picos de Europa in 2002, and the more recent one in 2014 in France, impact analyses (such as this one in France), petitions (such as this one in Spain), seminars (such as this one in Italy), or exchanges of experiences (such as the one that took place in 2019 between delegations of the Pyrenees and the Alps on the coexistence with bears). These have, however, been mostly sporadic endeavours, which might have a temporary or local impact without affecting the overall, larger picture; but they do provide important insights and openings in debates dominated by mainstream conservationism.

Which biodiversity and whose reality counts?

Overall, urban-based environmentalists have more to say on wildlife than the communities that live with them day and night. This is perhaps due to the rural-urban divide and the related cultural gaps and power asymmetries that characterise most societies in Europe. This creates an unfair reality on the ground, however, as rural communities end up paying for the choices and preferences of urban-based constituencies.

What’s more, the general policy framework has proven to be very rigid, in spite of the rapid dynamics, shifting equilibria and changing habits and attitudes in nature and society. Global treaties, such as the Convention of Bern of 1979, are still a main reference point in preserving wild flora and fauna, including predators, from extinction threats. For certain species, though, those threats are evidently outdated, as wolves, bears and lynx are now flourishing in large areas of Europe’s mountains. Overall, things have changed dramatically since then: throughout Europe, large areas of countryside have been abandoned, some wildlife populations have increased (especially wild boars on which carnivores feed and grow) and, as we have seen, predators’ numbers have also grown and their behaviours have changed.

Wolves and other large carnivores, less and less intimidated by humans, have now come down to the valleys, even reaching the peripheries of large cities such as Rome, Florence and Berlin. In Europe, we might be soon faced with the need for measures to protect urban citizens from these animals, while the problems of pastoralists and rural producers and dwellers are not yet taken into account.

Ironically, given its history with the treaty of 1979, Switzerland was the first country to step back from its original stance on the protection of predators. This was followed a few years later by France, in 1993, in response to concerns about wolves encroaching from the Maritime Alps into neighbouring areas. Other countries, including Austria, Greece and Slovenia, are also now opting to permit more dissuasive measures, including selective shooting in some cases.

As a result, in several regions, the presence of wild predators represents an important threat to pastoralists and pastoralism. Their increasing numbers and behavioural changes threaten the management of entire local ecosystems, as herders abandon areas more exposed to attacks, and concentrate into other areas with fences and fortifications. This reduces the overall mobility of herds, with problems of overgrazing in some places and undergrazing elsewhere.

The question is therefore, simply and clearly: what biodiversity are we talking about, and what is it that we want to effectively protect and conserve? Is it that of wild forests and wild animals, or that of complex farming systems that interact and co-exist with nature and wildlife? Scientific indications are clear that mosaic pastoral landscapes are able to provide for important forms and patterns of biodiversity, in some areas more effectively than where few animal or vegetal species monopolize the ecosystem over the long term.

A wider critical challenge is to look at the processes by which decisions are made about these issues. Who should take such decisions, responding to the tensions between the dangers to wild predators and those created by them? Who should decide which biodiversity is to be prioritised and protected? Whose perspectives and decisions count when we talk about faraway mountainous territories? Is it those who try to eke out a living there, or those that might visit them occasionally at the weekend, or see them on a TV documentary? Whose realities and choices count?

This blog is part of our series on climate change, biodiversity and livestock.

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One thought

  1. You ask, “what biodiversity are we talking about, and what is it that we want to effectively protect and conserve? Is it that of wild forests and wild animals, or that of complex farming systems that interact and co-exist with nature and wildlife?”

    May I suggest the answer is another question, Who benefits from avoiding pastoralists as experts in complex farming systems?

    More than the wolves benefit, and It’s not just because the networks of outside professionals making the decision exclude the networks of inside professionals whose only role is to live the decision’s consequences.

    Telling truth to power also means showing power its addictions do not make for policymaking.

    Too few in the techno-managerial elites see the disturbing parallel between, on one hand, their wanting to save wildlife (or Planet Earth) from further harm and pain by means of seductively straightforward “treatments” like letting wildlife roam (or getting rid of methane-producing livestock. . .) and, on the other hand, Purdue Pharma’s promotion of OxyContin as a treatment for chronic pain that masked the lethal addiction with believing in this kind of “straightforward” medicine.

    Policy-making should not be a form of substance abuse.


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