Livestock guardian dogs: Frontline Defenders

Since ancient times man and nature are in a complicated relationship. We depend on nature for many reasons. For example: we exploit numerous natural resources, we use or abuse nature for many recreational activities and last but not least we live on oxygen which is provided to us by nature. Mankind is the planets most dominant specie and we have a (increasing) dramatic effect on the environment.

I am active in predator/human conflict prevention, especially through the RIGHT use of livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) under the name Canine Efficiency. Livestock guardian dogs are probably the oldest coexistence tool to sustainably live along side predators. Nowadays this ancient practice is needed more and more. Why? Large predators are invading our lands and in rural areas their presence doesn’t remain unnoticed. Domestic livestock is to predators what we would call an easy meal. Like always, our goals clash with the survival drive of wild animals.

Today, farmers represent a vulnerable group in our society. Our economic system demands mass production and product regulations and high expenses make profitable farming a real challenge. It is not strange, when one is already under pressure, that there is few to zero tolerance for an additional risk factor. The return of predators, to areas where they were forced to leave by us in the past, creates tensions and fear among farmers. Many times even before the predators are actually present. 

Predator reintroduction programs result into real life drama’s most of the time. Farmers and conservationists are on opposite sides and they rarely come to terms. I can understand the resistance versus reintroduction very well, just like I understand why conservationists want to reintroduce. In my opinion the focus should be on natural return AND existing populations; both natural as introduced. The animals that are already present deserve a fair chance to live and coexist. The presence of predators is beneficial for the environment; they are the only true wildlife managers. Where predators roam, nature flourishes; from the smallest flowers to the largest mammals. 

In many places today, large predators are returning by themselves. Just like in the areas which they never abandoned, we have the obligation to respect these animals, their territories and their natural behavior. They are of vital importance for the environment and like any creature they deserve to live their life. In areas where predators never left, the majority of the (original) inhabitants know how to live with them. For example in my working area, the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, there is a lot of respect among most traditional (transhumant) shepherds regarding predators. They recognize the important role these animals play in nature and they know that they belong in the area. The biodiversity and richness in premium quality edible vegetation, which the livestock is consuming, are directly dependent of predator presence.

Traditionally coexistence is reached by using an ancient protection system: LGDs. From the time that shepherds discovered the benefits of dogs guarding and protecting their livestock against predator attacks until now, this ancient defense mechanism developed into a superb coexistence tool. All other predator deterrents, invented through time, are less trusty, less efficient and often more damaging than the CORRECT use of LGDs. Other deterrents can be good additional measures in combination with LGDs, especially when a (too) small number of LGDs are employed. The great advantage of LGDs, opposite to other deterrents, is the continuous effectiveness they represent. Technology fails humanity many times, LGDs will not. That is if they are run and managed in the right way.

LGDs always work, here during winter and lambing time

LGDs are the frontline defenders in the quest to obtain and maintain coexistence, thus to conserve nature and rural life. With the knowledge we have today we are able to manage and improve LGD use to the highest level. That is also what Canine Efficiency does in Romania; improving the LGD use of (often poor) transhumant shepherds to help them to maintain their sustainable lives. Just like many ‘modern world’ farmers, these traditional shepherds are under great pressure. Land is being privatized, large corporations are on the rise and the health regulations for (raw) milk products make it almost impossible for these shepherds to make a living. Besides the LGD activities, Canine Efficiency is also working on opportunities for shepherds to sell their products for a descent price.

In various European countries, for some time already, wolves are returning to areas where they were long gone. France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland are countries where wolf numbers are increasing. Governmental and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) suddenly need wolf management plans, damage compensation funds and conflict prevention measures. Pro wolf and anti wolf people clash, public opinion is involved and much money and energy is spent to reinvent the wheel. Many stakeholders work beyond their capabilities, resulting into unnecessary mistakes.

After the 1979 Bern Convention, in which the protection laws of numerous species and their habitats are set, many (scientific) studies were performed resulting into many detailed scientific reports and management plans. Sadly many of these reports end up unused and even worse; the same research and conclusions are done over and over again to reinvent the wheel or to obtain a PhD. No offense but this is far from efficient and on top of it; a real waste of money. Don’t get me wrong, good and useful work is done as well, unfortunately mostly in temporary projects with a shortage of manpower and time.

The best results are reached by small scale projects, for example; Mathieu Mauries who is fighting a lonely battle to promote LGD use. A small scale approach creates opportunities for high quality results, because the focus is on a small area and specific subject. A disadvantage of small scale is the small impact it has on pressing matters. To increase the impact and still being able to reach the best results it is necessary for all ‘experts’ to work in their own field. Those small specialist fields combined can reach the multiple desired results with a descent impact. Unfortunately the reality is that this kind of collaboration is quite unrealistic among mankind. However that doesn’t mean we should cease to address urging matters, trying to improve. When working on a specific (nature conservation) topic we should take advantage of knowledge and experience that is already present. That includes using and executing recommendations from the many management plans and reports which are already present. We collaborated with Prof. Dr. JL van Haaften in the last years of his life. He was one of the wildlife (conservation) specialists who were active in this field from the very start of the Bern Habitat Directive and even before that. The valuable management plans and reports in which he was involved are still used today.

The return of wolves across Europe has other reasons than many people say or believe. Where many people are joyful for the returning wolves, I am concerned. As much as I love nature, and especially nature’s wildlife managers; I know for a fact that the spreading of large predators in Europe is not so much because their numbers increase. As I mentioned before my main working area are the Romanian Carpathian Mountains; Europe’s last true wilderness and home to Europe’s largest predator population. As for the (permanent) brown bear density:  Romania has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. After Romania joined the European Union (2007) the country faces massive transformations on many levels. Features like industrialization and infra structure development must transform the country to western standards. Where some of the Romanians benefit from the EU membership, the changes are a heavy burden for many others. The traditional and self containing lifestyle is harder and harder to maintain and the vast forests and wilderness areas are heavily exploited by western European corporations like Schweighofer Holzindustie (a huge Austrian timber processing company).

The mass destruction of prime habitat is a great concern for nature conservationists who are active in this region. I, for example, am shocked many times when I discover that yet another great primeval forest has disappeared. The consequences of these practices are devastating for nature and man, both in and outside Romania. The return of predators to various European regions where they vanished a long time ago is directly depended of the mass habitat destruction. Really there is nothing new in the natural behavior of, for example, wolves. They still prefer vast wilderness areas to live and hunt in. They prefer not to engage with humans. They would rather live their lives far from human civilization, but they don’t have that choice since we take away all their prime living conditions. The will to survive is the main drive for all creatures, including large predators. The decrease of space and territories force wild animals to venture to other, less suited locations, including populated areas.  As you can see there are many reasons for concerns. All around Europe, but also in the US, people are confronted with increasing predator activity. Predators that want to survive, thus conflicts and clashes are inevitable. Unless we prevent those conflicts..

Luckily there are quite some people who are working on coexistence between man and predator. That  certainly is a good thing, but some very important details are often missing: efficiency and realistic common sense. The title of this article is: ‘Livestock guardian dogs: Frontline Defenders’. When the frontline suffers too many losses, it will fall and then it will only be a matter of time before everything else collapses. The frontline needs the attention, resources and expertise to hold ground. That most certainly goes for my work; conflict prevention through efficient LGD implementation, but maybe even more for core nature areas like the Romanian Carpathian Mountains. Again: when the core is destroyed, the rest will follow quickly.

A handful of people, me included, spend much time on this topic, trying to improve basic fundamentals to reach the necessary results. It’s high time for Governmental and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to support the frontline defenders . EU and national Agricultural ministries can save a lot of time and money through more efficient funding, less bureaucracy and leaving each task to those who know what they are doing. We have no problems with getting our hands dirty. Most of our work is done without pay. It is passion, connection and affinity with nature and rural life that drives us. There are too many reasons to mention here which endorse the vital importance of this subject. We are ready to continue and increase our work, for everybody who needs and wants our help. The time to invest in the Frontline Defenders is now!