The story starts in the spring of 2014, just one year after Aberdeen-Angus beef animals breeder OÜ Talunik started work near the town of Keila.
The company's plan was to sell purebred animals, and prospects were looking good – a single animal is worth more than €1,000. The farm had a total of around 50 heads.
The animals were taken to pasture come spring where the farmer planned to keep them until November. The company built three big pastures, two near Lehola and one near Maeru. The fences were completed towards the end of May, and the animals were herded into the pastures.
Then the trouble started: while things seemed to be just fine concerning the Lehola herds, that was not the case in Maeru. The cows, that had previously eaten out of people's hands, became so frightened over just a few weeks that they ran for the trees as soon as they saw a human being. The herd trampled the brand new fences and caused the farmer a lot of extra work.
“We could not figure out what the problem was. We thought someone had made a habit of frightening the cows,” head of OÜ Talunik, Armas Rüütel, said. The company set up round-the-clock watch to get to the bottom of the matter. Things became clear by the end of the second day: the animals panicked because of fighter jets landing at the Ämari airbase that lies just on the other side of nearby trees.
When we asked Rüütel to describe the noise in the pasture, she initially burst out laughing. “There is a building right next to the pasture, flying over which the jets come so low that you could hit them with a rock. At times it looks as though they will take off the chimney,” she explained. She added that she can even see the pilot's face, whether they're smiling or not. “We are talking perhaps 10-15 meters.”
However, let us return to the summer of 2014: once the reason for the panicked animals became clear, the company stationed a person to feed the cows some bread in the pasture during the day. This managed to calm the animals enough they were no longer severely bothered by the daily flights. The farm was pleased.
While the company planned to move away from the village of Maeru, the pasture could not be abandoned so easily as a five-year contract has been signed with the landholder and investments made into the pasture.
The cows that had shared the pasture with a bull started calving in early 2015. “If until then I had believed damage caused by the fighters would be limited to broken fences and man hours spent on babysitting and calming the animals, I now realized true damage was done elsewhere,” Rüütel described.
There was cause for concern: only 11 of the 17 cows in the Maeru herd calved, meaning the company missed out on six new animals. The two herds in Lehola produced 13 calves from 13 cows and 13 calves from 14 cows.
All things considered
Head of the Veterinary and Food Board's (VTA) animal protection bureau Tarmo Serva said that the reason for the animals' barrenness should be determined by the local veterinarian who would be best equipped to evaluate different circumstances, such as keeping conditions, feed quality, medicinal misuse, or other factors. He added that stress levels that lead to diagnosable health problems are usually caused by several overlapping sources.
The farmer called a veterinarian who performed an ultrasound procedure on the animals that showed no abnormalities. The reason could only be stress caused by fighter jets.
The VTA specialist said that Estonian regulations for keeping of bovine animals, based on studies carried out in Europe, designate constant noise of more than 65 decibels to be harmful to the animals. “In this case, noise levels should be mapped on location and the data sent to University of Life Sciences researchers for comments,” he recommended.
Senior veterinarian at the university's large animals clinic Alar Onoper said that the fact animals ran away when they saw their owner is enough to suspect high levels of stress. “Because these are very loud aircraft, the animals tried to escape; however, the noise is the same in a large area,” he suggested.
“All things considered, it is a good result only six animals were barren as fear and stress leave animals little time to seek out the bull,” Onoper added. The veterinarian said that while animals can get used to noise, they will never feel fully comfortable in such conditions, and advised against moving new animals into the area.
Considering that same year's calves were sold for €1,500 a head, Rüütel missed out on 9,000 euros in 2016.
“It is a lot of money for our young company. We had to considerably cut costs and are forced to take a loan to make it to the end of the year,” Rüütel said.
Because the animals became used to the fighters and calving went to plan the next year, Rüütel let things lie. However, after hearing the Defense Forces compensates people for damages it causes, she contacted the armed forces in November to find out whether her case would qualify.
The Defense Forces maintains that it has always compensated people for damages its activities have caused, but said that because they only received the farmer's letter this week, they have not had time to make a decision regarding the claim.
“What we can say at this time is that to be eligible for compensation the damage must be clearly measurable, whereas there must be a clear and verifiable connection between the damage and the armed forces' activities,” said 2d Lt. Simmo Saar from the Defense Forces' press division.
Rüütel emphasized that she is not demanding anything and simply wants to know whether the army can compensate her for the damage. After all, €9,000 is a pittance for the armed forces, while it is a veritable fortune for a small business. “It is very difficult for us to make ends meet,” Rüütel said. “Agriculture is living tough times as it is, and this kind of sales revenue shortfall is a matter of life and death for our young company.”