Original publication: August 2018
Authors: John D. C. LINNELL, Benjamin CRETOIS – Norwegian Institute for Nature Research
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The revival of wolves and other large predators and its impact on farmers and their livelihood in rural regions of Europe

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The conflict between large carnivores and humans goes back to the origins of domestication, as does the ingenuity of livestock herders in developing ways to protect their livestock. In the last few decades populations of large carnivores like wolves, brown bears, Eurasian lynx and wolverines, have responded to improving habitat conditions and supportive legislation. They have returned to many parts of Europe from where they have been absent for decades / centuries and consolidated their presence in areas where they had declined. However, this recovery has also generated many conflicts with agricultural and rural stakeholders which involve both the direct impact that large carnivores have on livestock through depredation, and a wider range of social conflicts that centre on the challenges that rural communities face in the 21st century where large carnivores become potent symbols.


The aims of this report are to:

–     Summarise the current status of large carnivore populations in Europe.

–     Summarise the impacts that large carnivores are having on livestock production.

–     Place this into context against the ongoing trends within livestock production.

–     Outline the legal framework that governs large carnivore conservation.

–     Explore the potential of different interventions to mitigate the impacts of large carnivores on livestock production.

The report is based on the premises of the existing conservation legislation and agricultural policies.

Key findings

Based on data from all European countries summarised for the period 2012-2016 there are an estimated 1,000-1,250 wolverines, 8,000 – 9,000 Eurasian lynx, 15,000- 16,000 brown bears and 17,000 wolves present in continental Europe (excluding Russia and Belarus). These are however fragmented into 32 populations (9 for wolves, 10 for bears, 11 for lynx and 2 for wolverines) which vary widely in size from some tens of individuals (and accordingly listed as Critically Endangered) to many thousands (and listed as Least Concerned). Individuals of at least one large carnivore species have been registered in all European countries, except for Luxemburg, during the last 6 years. All carnivore populations overlap with at least one, and up to five, EU countries.

Large carnivore management is mainly governed by two pan-European legal instruments, the Bern Convention (CoE) and the Habitats Directive (EU). These instruments impose certain requirements for the desired level of conservation ambition (i.e. Favourable Conservation Status) for all listed species, although there are differences (depending on which annex / appendix a species is listed under) between species and countries with respect to the circumstances in which animals can be killed. With respect to agricultural interests these restrictions generally require that alternative methods of addressing conflicts have been tried first and that any killing should have no effect on the size of the population. These legal instruments do not open for blanket exclusion or open culling of large carnivores. However, over 900 wolves are deliberately killed each year in the EU, indicating that there is currently considerable flexibility in interpretation, albeit with large differences between how national governments interpret this flexibility.

Data on livestock killed by large carnivores (mainly compensation payments) was obtained from 19 EU countries (excluding Austria, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and Spain from which data could not be obtained, and the island states), plus Switzerland and Norway. Sheep, and to a lesser extent goat, represent the most abundant and most widespread livestock killed by large carnivores, and thus are kept as the main focus of the rest of the report. Semi-domestic reindeer represent a special case in the Nordic countries and are treated in an own section. Horses, cattle and beehives are also depredated, but at much lower numbers. Currently, 50% of all sheep in continental Europe are close (within a NUTS 2 region) to an area where at least one species of large carnivore occurs, but this varies dramatically between countries. Several have 100% overlap between large carnivores and sheep production while others have very little.

During 2012-2016 an annual average of 19,500, 1,200, 400 and 4 sheep were reported killed by wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines, respectively, within the sample of EU countries. Including Norway and Switzerland in the analysis would almost double this total because of the huge numbers of sheep killed in Norway. The numbers of sheep attributed as being killed per large carnivore accordingly varies dramatically. For wolves, Norway and France lose over 30 head per wolf, whereas most countries lose between 1 and 14. For bears, Norway and France also lose most sheep, from 10 to 20 per bear, in contrast to the other EU countries where loses are typically only 1 to 2 head per bear. The picture is even more skewed for lynx, with Norway losing 16 sheep per lynx, in contrast to the EU countries where loses are between 0 and 2 head per lynx. Overall, loses to large carnivores are the equivalent of 0.05% of the over-wintering sheep stock (c. 31 million) in the countries included. The total European sheep population is 86 million.

Semi-domestic reindeer in the Nordic countries represent a special situation. They are extensively herded across 30-40% of the area of Norway, Sweden and Finland in landscapes where wolves, lynx and wolverines are quite dependent on reindeer as prey. Although there is much uncertainty about exact numbers killed, losses are known to be very high compared to other livestock. Somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 are compensated per year, which is a very significant percentage of the total herd (in the order of 500,000 to 700,000 in total for the 3 countries). Reindeer are also exposed to climatic effects as well as negative effects of over-grazing in some areas. There are few practical means to protect reindeer, and current management strategies depend heavily on using lethal control to regulate carnivore populations and compensation payments to offset economic losses.

In contrast to reindeer, there are several tried and tested approaches available to protect other livestock like sheep, goats and cattle. The very high losses that we see in Norway (and partially France and Switzerland) are the result of husbandry systems where sheep graze freely in forest and mountain habitats without fencing, shepherds or dogs to protect them. The fact that neighbouring Sweden and Finland have per capita losses of sheep that are between one hundredth and one thousandth of that in Norway shows the dramatic effect of simply removing livestock from natural habitats and keeping them on fields or other fenced pastures close to farms. Additional protection can be provided by electrifying fencing and / or adding livestock guarding dogs to the herds. In cases where sheep cannot be fenced there is plenty of experience with the use of systems that use shepherds, livestock guarding dogs and night-time enclosures.

Adopting these protective measures can involve everything from minor to dramatic changes to the livestock husbandry systems, with costs and labour varying accordingly. Funding for protection measures can be obtained in part from EAFRD and LIFE. Experience has shown the need for both technical and practical assistance and support in adopting all measures. Although there is much resistance to change among farmers, the alternative approach of relying on the unselective culling of carnivores is not viable, because of legal constraints, controversy, high costs, and low effectivity.

However, there will always need to be some degree of selective removal of animals using lethal means even in systems where livestock are well protected because no system is 100% effective.

Compensation payments are widespread. While they help protect farmers against economic loss they neither increase tolerance or stimulate changes in husbandry practices. Although there will always be a need for compensation in the case of catastrophic exceptional events and cases when carnivores appear far from their normal range it is highly recommended that most funds be directed towards either financing protection measures directly or paying for risk of exposure, rather than losses.

The use of protection measures, selective lethal-control and compensation need to be integrated into a coordinated livestock strategy that takes the continued presence of large carnivores into account. This strategy requires integrating diverse agricultural, environmental (large carnivores, high-nature-value-farming), heritage and rural development interests. Neglecting to place livestock protection into a broader context will lead to both practical failure at reducing the direct impacts, and failure to address the broader social conflicts. Because of the controversy around large carnivores it is imperative that policies are formulated in inclusive processes that maximise legitimacy, although it is important to be realistic with respect to expectations. There is also a need for large carnivore management plans that embrace both national and population level needs. Formulation of such plans will also give countries greater freedom in management actions. Controversy will always remain around large carnivores and may be unrelated to the actual number of livestock killed. Perhaps the biggest challenge lies in designing institutional arrangements that manage to provide the large scale (i.e. the population approach that often requires international coordination) and cross-sectorial coordination that is needed while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to local social, economic and ecological contexts.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/617-488

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