Large carnivores have killed livestock ever since humans domesticated animals. This new overview looks at the extent of the issue and examines the political and social fallout.
Ever since humans first domesticated livestock it is certain that they have experienced conflicts with large carnivores who failed to differentiate between wild and domestic prey. In fact, all the characteristics that farmers select for in their livestock only serve to render them more vulnerable to carnivore depredation! Throughout history livestock herders have developed a suite of approaches to protect their livestock, but the almost universal approach has involved the use of special breeds of livestock guarding dogs, close shepherding, and the enclosure of livestock at night into robust corrals [Link]. Early descriptions from Roman times describe a system that persist to this day in most parts of south-eastern Europe and central Asia. Herders have also always engaged in predator control which ultimately lead to the extermination of large carnivores in many parts of Europe. Now that large carnivores are recovering in most parts of Europe many of these ancient conflicts are re-emerging and gaining a lot of political and public attention. A recent report for the European Parliament [Link] presents an overview of the conflict in 21 European countries, as well as outlining strategies to reduce the impacts on livestock producers and the associated social and political conflicts.
Sheep (and goats in some countries) are by far the most widespread killed livestock across Europe. In addition, large carnivores kill cattle, horses, donkeys, dogs, and bears damage beehives and fruit trees, but these rarely occur on a large scale. During the period 2012-2016 an annual average of 22,000 sheep were killed by large carnivores in the 19 EU countries for which we had data. This figure doubles if we include Norway and Switzerland. For perspective, these countries contain a total of 31 million adult sheep. The level of damage is rarely directly related to the size of national large carnivore populations. For example, the losses in Norway and France are approximately 30 sheep per wolf, whereas in most other countries the rates of loss are between 1 and 15 sheep per wolf. The difference for bears is even more extreme, again with Norway and France losing 10-20 sheep per bear and other countries losing 1-2 per bear on average. The differences are very much due to the different ways that sheep are farmed in different countries.
In the Nordic countries, somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 semi-domestic reindeer are compensated as being killed by large carnivores each year, which constitutes a very significant percentage of the 500,000 to 700,000 reindeer that are herded. The reindeer situation is especially complex as losses to predators are interlinked with other factors such as stocking density, climate, and human disturbance. Furthermore, there are few effective mitigation measures to protect widely ranging reindeer herders.
In contrast to reindeer, there are several effective traditional methods (shepherds, dogs, night-time enclosures) and modern methods (electric fencing) to protect sheep, goats and cattle. However, the challenge is to find ways to reintegrate these methods into the unguarded husbandry systems that developed in western and northern Europe in the decades after large carnivores were exterminated. The effective methods to protect livestock almost always involve extra costs, extra constraints and extra labour in an industry that is already under threat from many socio-economic drivers. Although the traditional systems are still largely in place in much of southern and eastern Europe, changing socio-economic situations make it harder to retain good shepherds and conduct an economically viable activity. In addition, to protection of livestock, there will also inevitably need to be a certain degree of targeted lethal control, and some economic measures to facilitate and incentivise changes and protect herders against unforeseeable economic losses.
The challenge is therefore not so much in terms of not knowing what measures are needed, but rather it lies in finding ways to integrate different measures into locally adapted and integrated strategies that both protect livestock and provide a practical and economically viable livelihood for livestock producers. Because extensive livestock production is being threatened by a whole suite of other social, economic and political factors apart from the return of large carnivores this requires adopting a broad, cross-cutting multi-sectorial approach that coordinates the policies of many different government departments. This is far from easy, but it is possible.
Unfortunately, there is an ever-increasing trend in this era of confrontational popularist politics to ignore this complexity and simply blame large carnivores for all the challenges facing livestock producers and rural communities [Link]. This strategy of using carnivores as scapegoats may gather some easy votes in the short term but does little to help either rural communities or wildlife in the long term. In fact, all it does is drive a wedge ever deeper between extensive agriculture and environmentalists, two stakeholder groups with a huge amount of common ground and shared interest. It also diverts attention from the real factors that threaten traditional rural livelihoods. With the ongoing process to revise the Common Agricultural Policy there is much to be gained from a broad coalition of stakeholders fighting for the future of rural life. Sustainability is a widely shared goal but cannot be achieved if whole species groups are excluded from the landscape. Nobody claims that coexistence is easy to achieve, but it certainly cannot be achieved if it is rejected outright.