It’s the classic childhood story. A cute lamb skips out of the farmyard, while the wolf schemes in the shadows. Innocence and malice, all so simple – except it isn’t, of course. It’s the Hollywood version of a war which in reality has no victor, hurting the world’s most vulnerable farmers and causing horrendous suffering for wildlife. Away from the dinner tables and restaurants that serve animal products without hinting at the conflict behind them, a small army of conservationists is battling to keep livestock and predators alive.
When people talk about the environmental costs of meat, they usually mean that it is literally a resource hog, swallowing 90% of the world’s soya production, a third of its grain, and a terrifying proportion of its fresh water. Feeding our billions of factory-farmed livestock requires crops on a mind-boggling scale – and the Amazon is being destroyed to grow them. Meanwhile, the seas are emptied of wild fish to feed our disease-riddled farmed fish. I understand that many people do want to eat animal products, but this is about the most inefficient and inhumane approach in human history.
But that’s not why I’m writing this post. Increasingly, people are reading that farmyard story from the wolf’s perspective, and wondering how livestock and predators can share the same space. Answers are desperately needed. From snow leopards in Mongolia to foxes in the Yorkshire Dales, there is not a wild carnivore species on earth which is not involved.
I often hear people call predators ‘evil’, or that they only attack livestock out of some guilty desperation. Both are anthropomorphism. Wolves and jackals do not have the mental capacity to know that one prey species is the property of the farmer down the hill, and another is fair game. Ending conflict requires studying the predator’s instincts and lifecycle, and working with it.
Animals offer one answer. Llamas, for example, drive coyotes away from livestock.
Turkey is not native llama country. But it has long been home to some remarkable dogs – they accompanied the Ottoman Janissaries on their parades, and guarded flocks against wolves and leopards.
I saw kangals in Turkey last month, living much as they have ever since shepherds and sheep arrived in Anatolia. But the photo is of a dog at Crufts Dog Show this week.
This Anatolian shepherd was even larger.
In Hungary, komondors have a similar purpose; they have guarded sheep from wolves since at least the 12th century AD. Their extraordinary coats offer a kind of armour against predator bites.
Traditional livestock guardian dogs have been imported to high conflict spots around the world, from wolf country in Alberta to cheetah habitat in Namibia. Of course, they are not a complete answer, but there is good evidence that they can significantly reduce the problem.
Ultimately, however, what happens to wildlife on farmlands is the consumer’s choice. Most governments are reluctant to protect ‘problem’ wildlife, even critically endangered species, and it may be that retailers have the greater power to change the status quo. In a world where people are increasingly disconnected from the production of their food, it helps to remember that everything on the shelf has a history. If a product is labelled Predator Friendly, that history doesn’t involve killing wildlife.