Wildlife vs. Farming in Italy

Written by Biancha Thiglia 

PHOTO: Jordan Ferrè (https://goo.gl/tlbBdf)
Many of you may have seen the viral video “How wolves change rivers”. It illustrates a process called trophic cascade, the formalization of the deep interconnection that every single specie has with the rest of the ecosystem it lives in. As apex predators, top of the food chain, wolves have an even more fundamental role in conservation. In the video, the effect of their reintroduction in the Yellowstone Park is illustrated as an unstoppable and beneficial cascade. The predator has been able to control large prey population and prevent it from drastically diminishing vegetable species to the point that some of them even reappeared. Preys population grew stronger and more balanced while smaller animals were able to feed again on previously overexploited flora. Other predators and scavengers started to feed on wolves’ preys carcasses so bears, eagles and small canids grew back. And like them, specie after specie, the whole ecosystem was restored and restarted thriving. Now the wolf is the symbol of a healthy ecosystem and a guarantor of biodiversity. 

 Brought to the brink of extinction in the second half of the eighteenth century, its population stayed isolated in the Sibillini region for decades. But with urbanization, the wildest parts of the Apennine started to represent again a territorial opportunity for the predator. So it spread back, from Sibillini to the central Apennines, heading northwest until it reached for the Alps. Following the path embedded in their genes, wolves are now spreading all over Alps, reuniting with their kin from Eastern Europe as well as Western populations, enriching their genetic variety. With them, Italian wildlife is gaining back its balance. Like in the Yellowstone, the whole ecosystem is benefitting from their stewardship, keeping wild boar and roe deer populations under control and allowing other species to thrive. But biodiversity is not the only benefit for having wolves around. Tourism is demonstrating being enhanced by such a strong indicator of wilderness.

PHOTO: Fabio Pierboni, (https://goo.gl/WxybSt)
While a reduction in ungulates benefits agriculture and farming, the coexistence with a large predator is greater than its benefits for farmers, creating an increasingly stronger conflict. Not used to the presence of the wolf, they have been working at the countryside for decades, now more than ever benefitting from a less intensive and more natural trend. Suddenly they are called to face an additional negative externality related to working in close contact with wildlife. The wolf (canis lupus, canis lupus italicus in the case of the Apennine Wolf) is a protected specie under international agreements and EU policy but episodes of vandalism and poaching voiced the discontent. While preying of domestic animals – especially sheep and goats – is well documented, only a minimum percentage of registered livestock appears to be lost due to canids actions. Each loss is refund by European subsidies and anti-wolf measures are strongly encouraged and co-financed. Not only fences but also dogs that are specifically bred to face wolves and protect the herd are given -and fed- free of charge to farmers, together with other means of coexistence. But this is not enough to prevent any change in farming practices and lifestyle as it is suggested by the case of a goat farmer in Liguria region. She used to free-range her goats in her hectares-wide property but, with the return of the wolf, safety measures had to be put in place. Now her animals do not wonder free in the whole property but only in half of it, the part that has been protected by a fence and other anti-wolf measures. 

After years of protests and despite the still endangered status of the wolf in Europe, a culling programme for individual animals that had shown to be particularly invasive is being discussed. Controversies are rising as conservationists expose how an individual elimination could lead to further attacks to livestock. Apennine wolf packs follow the structure of a family. The dominant couple is the reproductive one, represented by a male and a female that will usually stay together for life. The female gives birth every year and the cubs will grow with them until adulthood. While the reproductive couple is stable, the offspring will disperse in order to find a mate and found new packs. When a single individual is killed, the delicate social balance in the group will break creating emotive and hierarchical instability. Out of control and coordination, hunting would be undermined and the disorder would lead to a focus on easier preys, like cattle. 

While seeking consensus, such a plan would probably lead to further damage to farmers. Hybridization with stray dogs is another major threat both to conservation of the wolf and human activity, as dogs and wolf-dogs are more familiar with anthropic areas and less reluctant to hunt domestic animals. The greatest misconception about wolves however, regards their aggressiveness. Although now close to urban centres, they are extremely shy animals and reluctant to attack human beings. Their always preferred option is a prompt escape. This tendency is however often neglected for sensationalism. 

PHOTO: Jordan Ferrè (https://goo.gl/Q05iFW)
So the economical damage to farming can be taken as the only drawback of the return of the wolf while on the other hand there are enriched tourism and a the rebirth of the national ecosystem. The cultural demonization of the animal doesn’t help in finding alternatives to a forceful removal of individuals. Coexistence appears not to be an option to many that want to pursue a lifestyle that is close to wildlife without having to accept its implications. Although monitoring, wildlife management projects and anti-wolf measures are sponsored and put in place by institutions, it is impossible to keep on thinking farming as it was before a more widespread presence of a large predator.