Predators: Cry wolf?

In Norway the sheep play an important part in maintaining the cultural landscape, and therefore their grazing on non-arable land is an important aspect of their economic role. If Norway “grows over”, it loses its appeal as one of the world’s most attractive tourist-destinations. But the down-side is that a growing number of sheep die during the time they are un-supervised, since herding is no longer part of the animal welfare priority.

Predators such as bears, wolves, wolverines, lynxes and eagles are said to be the main animals that prey on sheep. Depending on different sources, lynx is the predator wrecking the most havoc (around half of the cadavers have been reported taken by lynx), but a study done by Mysterud and Warren from 1988 to 1993 showed that sickness was the main problem (20%), followed by accidents (14%), bears (14%), wolverines (13%), lynxes (12%), eagles (9%), foxes (8%) and wolves (3%). Since the main claim from sheep-farmers seems to be that wolves and bears are the main problem, and that these predators should not be in areas where there is sheep-grazing (evidently the other predators are acceptable as part of the Norwegian fauna also in sheep-grazing areas) – the statistics don’t quite compute. But then this is an area where there is a lot of controversy. The Norwegian Ministry for the Environment has suggested that instead of money being reimbursed to farmers that lose their sheep to predators, a sum could be awarded at the beginning of the season that could cover expenses for protection of the herd, based on the given area´s perceived “danger-level”.

A quick look at the sums being paid out in compensation for loss of sheep (and probably for reindeer), makes it quite obvious why the government is changing strategy to prevention: Between 1990 and 1997 the total sum increased from around 9 million NOK to 35,5 million. (The actual numbers are on the left hand here.) This represents about half of what the farmers have petitioned, so that while they asked to be reimbursed for 44 300 animals, they received money for 26 800 sheep in 1997. If the increase has been just as incremental in the last 13 years (a quick google-search was unable to find the latest numbers – but it seems that the farmers in Hedemark are for 2010 asking reimbursement for just this one area to the tune of what was demanded for the entire country in 1990 – around 9000 animals), though by 2007 the number of sheep being reimbursed had increased “only” to 39.600, so about 13.000 in ten years. Interestingly enough between 1992 and 1993 the number of animals that were reported taken by predators decreased, but this seems to have been a year out of the ordinary.

According to the Ethical Committee for Farming, it is more acceptable with “loss of sheep than other farm-animals because they live the closest to ideal animal husbandry”. But they do recommend that in areas with very high losses, one should stop un-monitored sheep-grazing. They recommend fences as one way of avoiding excessive losses. Interestingly in the work done in connection with organized grazing, one mentions hiring shepherds as an option, a practice that is usual in many other European countries. The cost-argument in Norway seems a little hard to understand when confronted with the millions being reimbursed yearly. Another interesting aspect that is seldom brought forward is that breeds like the Old Norwegian Short Tail Land Breed (Spæl sau) and other breeds have well-developed instincts to scare off predators. As well as being more “intelligent” and less prone to falling down crevices and generally being more sure-footed in the Norwegian terrain.

The conclusion Torstein H. Garmo and Erling Skurdal make in the Sheep Book in their article on Sheep Grazing on non-arable land, is that since the Government wants sustainable populations of wolf, lynx, bear, etc to survive there will always be conflict. We would rather propose the three following alternatives: Breeds that are intelligent enough to survive on their own, shepherds and/or ensuring that grazing only takes place in areas without predators. The statistics to the left here show the number of sheep (top line), cows (middle line) and horses/goats graze on non-arable land in Norway, in a historic perspective. (All statistics are from the Sheep Book.)