Living with predators

There’s room in Scotland for different land uses — farming and top predators can co-exist

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The Norwegian Farmers’ Union recently spoke out against reintroducing top predators to Scotland saying that they kill too many sheep and make life difficult for farmers. While highlighting their concerns, they recognised that decisions on helping restore the ecosystems of Scotland will be for the people of Scotland to decide.

So we need to put all the facts on the table and debate them properly. 

In nature, there is always going to be a measure of conflict between livestock and free roaming predators. That’s not denied or doubted. But as the president of the Norwegian Farmers’ Union said, it’s important to investigate what goes on in other countries.

Norway actually operates quite a different model of sheep farming to farmers in Scotland. A large number of sheep are released into forest and wooded areas. This makes them vulnerable to predation by lynx, which are ambush hunters.

Norway has done a lot of research into this and demonstrated that changes in sheep management could reduce losses. Effective actions include fencing in sheep and/​or moving sheep from forest to alpine grazing areas.

In Scotland, the vast majority of sheep graze on open land. The risk to sheep from lynx would be small unless they were in trees. There’s no reason why sheep farming cannot continue to play a role in the countryside alongside predator introduction.

Looking at Switzerland, which has around 170 lynx, there are around 50 sheep lost to predation each year. Anti-predator measures include guard dogs (which you also see in Spain), keeping lambs away from the forest edges and shepherding the sheep more closely. Sheep are kept away from grazing in wooded areas. In Switzerland, lynx kill around 7,000 roe deer a year.

Studies suggest that if there are deer available then lynx, and wolves, will choose to eat deer rather than sheep (see, for example, Roger Panaman, 2002. Wolves are returning. ECOS Vol.23, no.2). In some areas of Scotland, deer densities are higher than sheep densities. This, combined with the open hill nature of sheep farming in Scotland, would dramatically reduce the risk to sheep.

So there are many ways to mitigate loss of livestock and live with predators. In Sweden, for example, farmers are paid for having lynx on their land. The payment they receive depends on how many lynx there are. This indicates the value that society puts on the lynx, keeps predator losses to a minimum, and acknowledges the difficulties they can cause farmers.

Top predators bring many benefits. Lynx help to keep deer numbers down and so help to protect young trees growing. This would help Scotland increase its tree cover and encourage much greater biodiversity. In addition, lynx can help farmers by reducing the fox population and the associated damage that they cause farming.

The presence of predators can also be a tourism boost. A study commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2010 calculated that wildlife tourism in Scotland is worth £276m a year. Imagine how that could grow as more missing species are allowed to return.

Sea eagle tourism on the Isle of Mull has demonstrated this, bringing in up to £5 million a year to the island’s economy and supporting 110 full-time jobs. John Lister Kaye’s pioneering beaver demonstration project in the Highlands has attracted 5,000 visitors and generated £3 million over six years (while biodiversity within the beaver’s habitat has increased by 400 per cent).

There is room in Scotland for different types of land use. We need to look collectively at the bigger picture of damaged ecosystems and revisit our current approach, which is simply managing progressive decline and accepting that we will lose in the long term. We need to think now about restoring the good health of our natural resources for generations to come. We need to question the status quo and gain inspiration from the alternatives. 

Finally, we need to work with rural populations to ensure choice, to create independent thinkers and to develop a strategy that does more than simply manage the decline of our natural resources. 

Further reading

Sheep in Scotland: facts and stats

The economic impact of white-tailed eagles on Mull

The economic impact of wildlife tourism in Scotland