Spate of wolf attacks on sheep farms in Rapla County reignites debate ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Eurasian wolves.
Eurasian wolves. Source: Сhristels/Pixabay

Wolves have plagued sheep farmers in Rapla County in central Estonia in recent days, with three fatal attacks on stock in the past week. The incidents have also brought out disputes between three of the main interested parties – farmers, hunters and environmental officials – including even how many wolves there actually are in Estonia

ERR's online news in Estonian reports that wolves are a common sight in at least one region, Rapla County, this year, making zoos redundant for those who actually want to see one.

According to the local residents, wolves have lost their usual shyness near human habitation and are inspecting farms, fields and houses. 
"I left the bus station, walked calmly home and at one point I saw something moving. It was a wolf," local school-age resident Kristiine Kärner told ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) earlier in the week.

"Next, I called my father and told him a wolf was in the field, and I didn't dare to continue home, but then the wolf ran back into the woods, so I was able to go home then," she went on.

"It crept around behind the house. We were in Mom and Dad's room and saw from the corner of our eyes that something was moving, then we saw that a wolf was there," Annika Arro, another resident school pupil, said.

Local hunter Viktor Reino added that wolves had become so emboldened that they are even attacking sheep in broad daylight.

In the latest case, eight sheep carcasses were found in the village of Paisumaa, with many sheep still unaccounted for.

Unprecedented level of attacks

Last weekend, two farms in Rapla County lost 52 livestock.

One of those affected was farmer Rain Raudsepp, whose farm saw 39 sheep attacked, eight of whom were killed, AK reported. Destruction on this scale was something Raudsepp said he had not experienced in 10 years of farming at the location, 7 kilometers from Rapla town.

Another farm, 4 km from Rapla, had suffered 11 sheep killed with two more unaccounted for.

The wolves have often killed, but not eaten, their prey, though in some cases the animals have been eviscerated as well.

Rapla County sheep farmer Rain Raudsepp. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Veterinarian Enel Niin said that at the Raudsepp farm, only one was partly devoured, though the missing ones could have also been eaten.

As to possible causes, Viktor Reino said that a succession of mild and often snowless winters has made hunting difficult, which in turn has boosted numbers and led to a large number of wolves looking for food and who become less afraid of humans.

Even keeping dogs has not solved the problem, said Eero Praks, owner of Tooma farm.

Some of the sheep carcasses, killed by wolf attack at a Rapla County farm. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

He said that he had left sheepdogs in the vicinity of the sheep overnight, but the dogs had fled inside at some point, and reemerged very shaken the next morning.

At least one carcass was found in the barn at Tooma; all of the night's mayhem took place about 50 meters' from the family's bedroom window, they said.

Hunters and farmers at loggerheads with environmental officials

Of possible solutions, hunters and environmental officials have a difference of opinion.

Eero Praks says that hunters should get more leeway in decision-making, given their know-how and experience with the species.

Andres Lillemäe, depty director of the hunters' association (Eesti Jahimeeste Selts) added that arguments about the actual numbers of wolves in the country have been going on years.

"In the case of wolves, there has been a different opinion between researchers and hunters so far. When [researchers] say 100, then we say 200," he said.

Nikolai Laanetu, a zoologist who taught hunting at the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Eesti Maaülikool) and the University of Tartu, says that the state allows too many large predators to hunt lands.

"I was once in a working group on larger carnivores where I defined an optimal level of numbers - 10 litters [of wolf cubs, to a maximum of 15, and a minimum of seven," he said.

Marko Kübarsepp, Chief Specialist at the Environmental Agency's (Keskonnaamet) wildlife department said that last summer, based on currently available data, the number of wolf litters in the country had stood at 25. 

"Compared with last year, six litters had been added," he said.

Compensation is paid, but not to full value of lost livestock

The state compensates livestock farmers for carnivore damage. However, the price of a dead animal cannot be recovered in full, say the farmers, with often hundreds of euros knocked off the actual price.

According to the Nature Conservation Act, damage cases are reviewed once a year, meaning those farmers who have lost sheep in the recent attacks will bot get their compensation before next spring – and the loss in terms of potential lambs who would have been born next spring is not accounted for.

"Losses will be reimbursed, by some amount, in about a year. But the fact that these 39 sheep would have brought about 80 lambs next year will not be compensated by anyone," Raudsepp said.

Center Party MP Erki Savisaar, chair of the Riigikogu's environmental committee, says that that parliament will not determine how many wolves there are and where hunting should occur.

Environmental officials and hunters have to find a common language, Savisaar said.

"Once people have got into a fight, there is nothing to do. Negotiators need to be changed. This is also a common practice. And, of course, the ministry can also play a role as national conciliator."

The Environmental Board is preparing an amendment to the Nature Conservation Act, with changes to both the deductible rate for compensation, and the compensation procedure itself, to be changed, Tõnu Talvi, chief specialist at the board's nature protection department said.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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