Politicking with predators

Even these two are in competition for their livelihood.
Even these two are in competition for their livelihood. Photo: Michael Wigle, Jumping Mouse Studio

Living in harmony: a false belief system

Until two years ago, I had thought that I could live ‘in harmony’ with nature and wildlife. I didn’t own a gun and didn’t want one. I had the ‘citified’ belief of a newbie to the area that if I didn’t bother the bears, then the bears wouldn’t bother me–ditto for cougars, foxes, etc. However, it is simply not true no matter how much you want to believe it. Everything out there is trying to make a living just as I am. Unfortunately, when you are trying to make a living by raising all your own food, you present a sumptuous smorgasbord to a host of predators.

Not only that: if you do as I was doing–let an area of the land or lawn ‘go back to nature’ (as gardening tips in magazines for city-slickers suggest, in order to create habitat and lessen one’s carbon footprint)–what you end up with is just that: habitat. This is a great idea for urban folk and for those living in less wild areas than rural/remote British Columbia. There are wonderful stories of people living ‘in harmony’ with nature in this way: ‘Isn’t it cute to see deer re-populating this valley’; ‘We now have a riot of bird calls in the morning,’ and the like. However, I have come to learn that this idea cannot be applied universally, and certainly not to the conditions in which I live, because what I have managed to do here is create a wonderfully rich and diverse cover for the large predators (one that camouflages a cougar, for instance, quite nicely) as they find their way to that ‘sumptuous smorgasbord’.

This is a big topic and one that engages and enrages people depending upon their view and experience, of and with, the subjects. So here’s my story.

Facing reality: a shift in beliefs

So there I was on a gorgeous, sunny day quietly minding my own business, head down planting my strawberry runners into a new patch–which happened to be quite close to the area I had set aside to let nature have her way with. I was taking care to build the beds up into raised beds so that next year they would come on early, when suddenly I got the feeling I was being watched. At first, I thought I was just being silly and tried to shake the feeling off. However, after several minutes the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, so I paid attention. ‘Cougar,’ I thought, ‘I’m being watched by a cougar.’

I took a look around to see if I could spot anything and when I didn’t, I thought, ‘This is just paranoia creeping in, because you are alone on the farm without a dog (aka my early warning system).’ I went back to what I was doing. A few minutes later when the feeling would not go away, I decided that I had better listen to my instincts and head inside. I put on a pot of coffee and began to make my lunch. While filling the kettle I stared out the kitchen window at the new strawberry patch, and out from the long grass came the cougar. It was a big, full grown cat easily outweighing me.

Calling for back-up

I called the Conservation officer right away and he came running, literally. I’m lucky to live right across the street from the office. He and a biologist came with the CO’s dog and tried to track the cougar, but to no avail. ‘Grass is too long,’ he said. That perfect cover for the cougar also meant he couldn’t be tracked!

After lunch, I abandoned my Martha Stewart aspirations and got out my power brush cutter. As I mowed down the beautiful mixed grasses, wildflowers and lilies, I again got the feeling of being watched. This time I immediately came inside the house. Again, within a minute of my getting inside, out jumped the cougar. This time, he was headed back towards the CO’s office. Sure enough, a few seconds later his dog was barking excitedly and moments later the chase was on.

Unfortunately, the CO and his one dog were not a match for the cougar and it got away.  I say unfortunately, not because I want to kill cougars, but because I wanted that cougar killed. It has kept coming back and consequently, I no longer feel very safe on the farm. After that incident, I felt violated and unsafe in my own home. The feeling was akin to the feelings evoked by a home robbery I experienced in the city. Now I felt my personal space once again violated, but this time on a much greater scale. This cougar could cost me my life, or at least the life of some of my animals, and therefore my livelihood.

Myths and Realities

There are many issues here, too many for me to deal with comprehensively in one post. For example, we should really have more than one Conservation Officer in this area. It is really dangerous work and they should  not have to face these predators alone. But this issue in itself is huge, so I’ll leave it at that.

Another is, and this will upset some readers, that this cougar should have been shot. These kinds of predators need to be ‘trained’ (or retrained, as the case may be) not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities and generally to where humans are is that we are no longer shooting at them. Consequently, they no longer see us as an equal predator, or even as a threat. These animals have figured out that they can get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of them marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the books by bear behaviour expert, Gary Shelton: Bear Attacks, Bear Attacks II, and Bear Attacks: Myth and Reality.

The bible on the realities of bear encounters.
The bible on the realities of bear encounters.

As for me, the issue of predators directly affect my livelihood: we have lost several chickens to hawks and foxes, baby ducks to eagles and ravens, and the Mallard drake to a fox. As for fruit trees, the bears have broken branches off the apples and the pears. Some people say, ‘Just go out and buy some more’; ‘Why are you keeping fruit trees in bear territory? If you have animals and fruit trees then you are just asking for predators to come’; or (my personal favourite), ‘Well, you are in their territory.’ Am I really ‘in their territory?’ If so, isn’t all of the North American population? The reason we have the agricultural areas we do is because we’ve shot everything that moved there, and let them know they don’t belong here any more. It was a matter of survival and economics. After all, we all need to eat.

A right to livelihood

This is a personal economic loss. I am trying to make my living at home by what I like to call ‘direct economics’. Instead of trading my time in an office for a wage and then going to the store and buying food, I want to close that loop. Not only do I feel this is personally important to me, but I believe it is the best way I can help the planet: my food miles are very short, I don’t have to travel to work, my animals are treated decently (some would say spoiled), and I’m not polluting the water table.

Should I not have the right to own land where I chose to? To grow my own food, and make my living directly in this way?  To own fruit trees and raise chickens and turkeys instead of making a wage and having to buy them? If so, then I also need the right to push back a predator in order to protect my livelihood. If not, I will be forced to move to an already over-populated area (but an area carefully depopulated of wildlife), get a job, and be once again rendered totally dependent upon an agricultural system that is ruining the  environment (erosion, aquifer draining, desertification, water poisoning), mistreating animals, creating numerous diseases and mortal dangers for human consumers, and so on.

All is not lost

When I sat down to write this morning, I actually didn’t intend to go off the way I did above. What I had intended to write about was a bit more of a good news story and I was surprised at the turn of the tenor. Now I know first hand how a story can take a life of its own (I used to be skeptical when writers would say things like, ‘I didn’t know the story would go like this, or like that’).

Anyway, the good news is that mostly I do politick with the predators. After the cougar incident, we built more housing for the goats: by more, I mean more expensive and thus safer. In addition, I learned that when the bear comes and breaks branches on my apple tree, it is time to go pick all the apples as a preventative measure.  I have also come to several agreements with the bears. When I do harvest all the apples, I make three piles: one for fresh eating, one for preserving and one for the bears. I take the last pile out to the spot where she enters the property and dump them there. I have found that over the course of a few nights, she will come and eat them all and not bother to re-enter the property.

Also, I have several well established grape vines climbing on a pergola at the edge of the property; two green, two red. Every year a grizzly bear comes and eats the grapes. She likes the red but leaves me the green. She wrote up the contract and I signed on. To date, it is working nicely.


Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

17 responses to “Politicking with predators

  1. I appreciate the thought processes you go through in your politiking and the challenges you are facing in competing with the predators. None of it is easy i.e. your survival, their survival. Your 3 apple pile and red-green grape contracts do show a genuine willingness to communicate with your adversaries to work out a reasonable agreement. I like your approach. It kind of reminds me of Ken Stranahan’s philosophy on Griz Bears. He told me once that if he feeds his butchering scraps to them, he, at least, knows where the bears are and that they’re not wreaking havoc in the neighborhood. I found this to make pretty good sense.
    Since Ken’s death this year, I’ve heard many stories of bears in that area being troublesome. I keep thinking that they must be Ken’s old buddies trying to make do with the loss of their old routine.

  2. So, Ken and my link continues: He bred my horse and once owned the land I’m on! Thanks for the reply, it honors Ken’s memory.

  3. It’s a tough decision to make especially after all the cute and cuddly wildlife programmes on the TV.

    Here in France it’s hunting season; most city Brits accuse the French of shooting anything that moves. While that make be partially true (and they usually manage to kill at least one hunter per week for the first month) I’ve found a strange paradox while living in France. Despite the hunting there is more wildlife. This seems strange but because they treasure their hunting, they make space for it to live but as you say if it ventures round farms it knows it will be shot.

    I’ve lost a couple of chicken to buzzards so have had to stop them free ranging and they are now confined to an orchard and have had no indication of there being a fox around – again these are high on the ‘shoot on sight’ list as most of the French around here have free ranging chickens.

    Thankfully there are no other really large predators, just deer and wild boar which make for a very tasty hunt dinner at the end of the year.

  4. Hello Deborah,

    When I was in England, there were German tourist over for the fall grouse ‘hunt’ and I was totally disgusted. For one thing, the grouse were hand raised on a farm and then let go in to the field for the ‘hunt’. Some fellows would march up and down the fields with a stick to flush the grouse from their hiding spots in to the air where they would get shot at. As the person I was visiting said, ‘you may as well staple their foot to the floor and shoot them for all the sport that is in it’. Perhaps, this is the Brits way of preserving their hunting, I don’t know. But now, having lived here for just over 5 years, my view on wild-life and the role of hunting has changed dramatically. Having said that, I don’t agree with sport hunting at all. Not one bit.

    There are many here who would say that us humans need to be part of the predator equation in order to keep healthy populations of animals and some things in balance. For example, we have the ‘Ducks Unlimited’ group here in Canada and I once scoffed at their habitat preservation program when I learned that their main aim was to preserve if for hunting the very ducks whose habitat they were saving. I now understand where they are coming from.

    But in general, our ‘Disneyfied’ view of wildlife is going to get someone killed; already has all over North America and many are still not getting it. Luckily, we’ve not had anyone killed here in Bella Coola, yet. Each year many of us hold our breath thinking, ‘will this be the year’. Many believe it is only a matter of time. I wish the policy-makers would read Shelton’s books and come and have dinner with him; then perhaps we’d get some sensible decisions being made over here.

    As for your chickens, have you got room to have a dog? My dog keeps the eagles, hawks, ravens and the fox at bay. I only took losses with those animals during my dog-less hiatus!

  5. Ahh, finally someone who knows what it is like to be stalked by a cougar. We have seen a resurgence of the big cats in the time period since a law was enacted to stop the use of dogs for hunting them. We have changed our calving season to a little later than the deer and elk, and that helps, but once in awhile we lose a calf. I had to laugh, since I live near “wonderful” Portland, and all the people who voted that it would be inhumane to chase a cougar with a dog, and then kill it, are now demanding that authorities shoot coyotes on sight, because they were “stalking” several teenagers a week ago. This makes me sad, the coyotes are harmless. We have never had a problem with them. In fact they are an important part of our farm ecosystem.

    We only have black bear here, and the dogs keep them from the orchard near our house, and like you we watch for bear sign and pick at that time, knowing they know when the fruit is ready. I saw a broken limb and claw marks on a remote seedling apple yesterday, when I moved our cattle to a fresh paddock. I wish I had my camera!

    We too try to leave some fruit for the wildlife, especially the deer. In hopes that the deer will stay out of the garden. But, we mostly rely on the dogs and covering our root crops in the winter with deer netting, and that has worked so far. Our dogs are an essential farm tool, they alert us to two legged and four legged predators and are always by our side.

    I have to ask Deborah, are you sure a buzzard ate your chicken? Here buzzards are carrion eaters, but owls and hawks or even raccoons make a kill, but do not eat the entire body, which leaves quite a bit for something else to eat. Just curious…

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by my blog, I am woefully behind on answering my comments, since we are in the height of preserving season. I am trying to blog about the changes in our garden, but blogging is at the bottom of the list, compared to putting our food by. I will add you to my blogroll, and I look forward to reading more.

    Pavarotti – you’re looking good!

  6. Wow…I thought *I* had problems with the squirrels! This puts it in perspective!

    I think you are doing the right thing…I was bothered at shooting our squirrels , because we try to manage our woodland for the benefit of the local wildlife ( in the UK there is less and less of it!) BUT it got to the point where the Grey ‘s were destroying our crops …so we trapped and shot A LOT…and it has worked/ Grey ‘s are vermin over here, but I STILL got upset comments from some, accusing me of all sorts!

    I am glad we don’t have Cougars or Bears though…:-0

    You take care!

  7. The squirrels got every one of my apples…it was not a good year, but still! I’ll have to talk to them about the grizzly agreements.

    Actually, a friend of mine had the squirrels take all of her strawberries this year. She got not a one for herself. Came out one morning to see the strawberries all lined up on the nearest spruce tree like Christmas decorations, drying for winter harvest.

    Who knew squirrels knew about dehydrating…

  8. I have to agree with you about the ‘sport’ hunting in principle – those who do it for fun. Having said that, it provides an income for otherwise depressed areas and the unwanted kills are take up by the beaters – I had a few pheasants in th UK that way. In the UK if it wasn’t for this type of shooting I’m sure a lot more woodland would have been grubbed up and tarmacked or built on. I don’t think there is an easy option in the UK as there is so little land and so many people.

    Here in France the weekend hunt is generally for something to eat; having said that I don’t think they generally catch much, they make so much noise trying to control their dogs that most prey has plenty of time to get a field or two away.

    I hear what you say about having a dog, but I’m really not a dog person – I don’t do walks or discipline so having a dog would not be a good idea; I’ll just have to train the cats to do better.

    Throwback – I think it was buzzard as there was no trace of the chickens not even feathers and only one taken each time. The other birds of prey are too small and I think a fox would have killed or spooked more of the hens.

  9. Actually, sounds like a fox to me…birds of prey often kill and start dismantling the bird ‘in situ’. At least that is how it works here: when there is no trace it means fox.

  10. Em

    Hi! Just found your blog. I think this is the best story ever I’ve read on the topic of dealing with predator issue. I think you should try to get that published somewhere. After all, this is about seeing the bigger picture: killing some individual predators might be the only way to live a natural life without compromising global future.

  11. Dear Compostwoman,

    RE: squirrels…have you eaten them? Perhaps if you looks at the squirrels as part of your annual ‘harvest’ from your place, you can come to better terms with the killing of them. Plenty of people hunt squirrels in the USA and make stew from them. I’ve not tried it myself, but would be interested to know how it is if you give it a go.

    With your post, you raise an important food security issue, we simply cannot live ‘in harmony’ with wildlife; in ‘balance’ with (as you are doing by killing some of the squirrels), in cooperation with perhaps (as I am doing with the bears re: my grapes and apples). But the notion of live and let live is, quite simply, unrealistic and not well thought through.

  12. LittleFfarm Dairy

    In the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage has revived the idea of Grey Squirrel as an acceptable & indeed tasty dish. What a shame the wee critters have ‘fluffy’ tails – I bet if they had scaly rats’ tails, the public would be clamouting for them to be eradicated! They do so much damage, we believe it was a grey squirrel who killed al our goslings, last year.

    We had an extremely useful audit from the UK’s Organic Advisory Service, recently. Apparently – if they can get it – buzzards far prefer fresh meat to carrion; we’ve lost several free-range poultry including some lovely plump capons, this frustrating way. Carrion scavengers over our valley, are Red Kites; however although numbers of this rare bird are increasing they’re still few & far between, this far west in Wales.

    It’s a double-edged sword in terms of ‘formal’ hunting, here in the UK; & certainly our dog has proved no help whatsoever: a Husky type, she ignores foxes & other predators & in fact has never barked, once! Unfortunately as a ‘rescue’ dog who digs like mad & chases cars at remarkably high speed we cannot trust her to roam indiscriminately loose, on the property (she once snapped at one of our more ‘bolshie’ sheep which worried me in extremis; subsequently we are seeking to do the best for her in terms of rehoming whilst finding a more appropriate puppy, to share life, love & work here, on the Ffarm).

    As a result of my former military career (& in spite of my agricultural upbringing) I completely abhorred the prospect of having a firearm on our property; I’d had enough of that.

    However being angrily powerless to rescue my hand-raised, trusting hens from the deathly snatch of cunning vulpine jaws, I fully appreciate & support your change of attitude.

    I now keep a loaded rifle close by at all times….& my military training has given me the confidence I won’t miss; & that my defence will at least offer my wild adversaries a mercifully quick, clean kill.

    Yo Kristeva – better them than you, eh…?! Keep safe, m’dear. I’ll worry if you stop these wonderful blogposts….!! And rest assured, those of us “in the same boat” know, & understand…don’t give a hoot to those who don’t, & who don’t. Goforitgal.

  13. Thanks for the kind words earlier about my writing…I’m just glad someone’s enjoying it! I grew up in the city, no agricultural background, and no experience with guns. The whole thing has been a huge learning curve, but I’m enjoying it. Although I have days when I think, ‘gee, wouldn’t it be nice to live somewhere where I wouldn’t have to worry about my goats so much’, but then I would probably miss the wilderness. I do love it.

    On to your problem…have you thought of geese? I was just talking with someone the other day here who had geese and Muscovy ducks that kept all feathered predators at bay. My Muscovies are hopepless so I can’t recommend them. But geese…they are good guard ‘dogs’ when you don’t want a dog (or a second one).

  14. PS. Yes, squirrels will eat baby birds…I’ve witnessed it, and to say the least, was shocked that this ‘cute’ little fuzzy creature could be so ‘violent’. It’s all economics…vis-a-vis making a living. Even the squirrel needs to survive. I just mentioned the idea of eating the squirrels to another commenter who has been ‘reduced’ to killing them on her property and had been agonizing over it. I say, call it a harvest and make dinner (and you don’t have to claim them as farm revenue!).

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