The BBC reported today that the EU is to “allow farmers to receive full compensation for any damages caused by attacks from protected animals like lynxes, wolves and bears.”
Sounds good, right? And only fair… The news was greeted by some conservation NGOs and Rewilding groups as grounds for celebration.
But here’s the thing. The policy is being hailed as a way of promoting tolerance of large carnivores across Europe, but there is very little scientific evidence that compensation payments actually do this.
Predators continue to be heavily persecuted, regardless of compensation being paid for losses. Indeed, cryptic poaching (as it is called) is the single biggest factor limiting predator recoveries across Europe.
Compensation is already paid out in many European countries. Italy has been paying out compensation for wolf attacks for decades, but this outlay has resulted in no demonstrable increase in tolerance for the wolves amongst farmers there. France has been paying out compensation above market value for bear attacks in the Pyrenees for years, but farmers remain violently opposed to the bears. Norway pays out the most compensation, but predators there remain subject to regular calls for culls (most recently 42 wolves representing a cull of 75% of the entire Norwegian wolf population) and predators are only permitted in specially designated zones while poaching continues.
The problem is that if you pay farmers 100% compensation for any livestock they lose to predators then there is no incentive for them to look after their animals. In fact, such a scheme perversely rewards poor husbandry, ensuring that a farmer gets full market value for any old, sick or infirm animal they leave wandering the hills or woods.
It is also open to abuse. Farmers in Switzerland frequently allege that dead or missing sheep, lost while ranging unsupervised over summer alpine pastures, have been killed by wolves and lynx. Yet the same numbers of sheep are lost in areas both with and without large carnivores. Since farmers are only compensated for livestock losses due to large carnivores (and not those caused by bad weather, lightning, disease, falls or feral dogs), wild predators invariably get the blame whenever they are in the area.
In Spain some 200,000 Euros of claims have been falsely made by a network of farmers using doctored photographs, contributing to the public impression that wolves are a problem and actually exacerbating the conflict.
Predators pose challenges to livestock farmers and communities living alongside them. It is only right that they should receive financial support to mitigate those real and opportunity costs. But there is a better way than repeatedly paying out compensation, which in any case can generate resentment when claims are contested or slow to be paid out.
Research has shown that conservation payments, paid out to support good animal husbandry and reward farmers who can prove they are coexisting with predators (via recorded sightings on camera traps or documented breeding success) can avoid the moral hazard and perverse incentive of compensation payments and deliver desired conservation outcomes. This has worked in Sweden, encouraging coexistence between Sammi reindeer herders and lynx and wolverines (although not even this scheme has convinced the Sammi to allow any wolves to survive in their lands). It could work in the UK too if and when we reintroduce the lynx.
Farmers should not be left worse off for having to coexist with predators. But the right framework for financial reparation has to be used to avoid all the problems we already know are caused by compensation schemes.