Hunting adviser: hunt no good to stop spread of fever

Kadri Hansalu
, majandusajakirjanik
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Photo: Eero Vabamägi

Environment ministry hunting adviser Tõnu Traks says it was no way African swine fever could have been slowed down by hunting wild swine once the hazard surfaced. To the contrary: Estonia opted, by banning driven hunt, to keep the beast in place where they were and thus granted farmers time to take needed measures in farms. Now, it is only the diligence of farmers that can keep fever off domestic swine. 

-For quite a while, there has been the talk about the abundance of wild swine. How big is the problem, and to what degree is it being dealt with?

The wild swine population has been rather large all the time as also underlined by the Environmental Agency (KAUR) which counts the animals and develops the hunting guidelines yearly. These are forwarded to local hunting councils where heated debates ensue. The hunters wish there were more of the swine, landowners want less of them. There is no third party to say whether there are too many or too few. At some level, they finally find agreement.

-At the moment, many doubt if the spring count of 40,000 – 50,000 is true. They think they are much more.

Counting the game always comes with slight error. It’s not like in a shed. This is the job for the environmental agency, and as they compare the numbers year to year and they know the dead toll and the increase in good years and bad, then at some point the errors are found out. It cannot be that at one moment there are 100,000 pigs instead of 50,000. In nature this isn’t possible.

-Shouldn’t something have been done to cut the population when fever hazard hit?

The fever created an emergency situation in the land. All understand that the larger the population, the faster the fever spreads. However, in the instant that the fever entered the land, the swine population could not be promptly cut. All means of hunting that could have been used will get the swine on the move. Chase them a little, and the swine are able to run a very long distance. As was evidenced by the experience in Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. In these ands, hunt was on immediately, but their populations are still larger than ours.

We suggested that the population ought to have been diminished, but certain types of hunting like driven hunt and dog hunt should be avoided in fever areas. This advice was made mandatory by Veterinary and Food Board. We were under no illusions we could save the wild pigs from the fever. Had the population been five or ten times smaller, the disease would surely have spread slower but would still have made it to the northern shore. The aim was to develop measures whereby we could hold the fever back for a little while so the pig farmers have time to apply their measures. Like building fences – which takes time. The other hope was that they would come from some lab and say we have a vaccine now.

-In hindsight, what do you say? Were these the right decisions?

It was an absolutely correct decision that the population should be thinned but by such methods of hunting as would not out the swine on the move – as also admitted by EU anti-epidemic committee. They scolded Latvia and Lithuanian for hunting, and praised as we were the only ones where the fever was at least halted for a moment.  

We guessed we’d be able to hold the plague back till spring, as the fever bacterium is preserved in frozen meat and it melts up in the spring and infects. There is no way all swine perished in the woods can be found. Luckily, it only erupted in July. One never knows, of course, perhaps it had a lulling effect and some thought it was stopped. I don’t really know how the farms managed to get prepared. Beholding the infections now, the questions are more than the answers. Domestic swine get infected even where there are no wild swine.

-Veterinary and Food Board head Ago Pärtel said the wild swine population ought to have been thinned while the plague was still behind the borders.

There are no methods how to destroy 25,000 or 50,000 swine in the spring. All that we do takes time. The main thing that helps is stopping additional feeding, but to results take four-five years of waiting. Cold winters help. In half a year, nothing could have been done. Some swine farmers wanted to take no measures and said just destroy all wild swine. Meanwhile, others said that hunt needed to be banned altogether. There were all kinds of experts, like today.

-How did the cross-border communication work? How could Latvia start hunting while it was known that the swine would then come to us?

Usually, there are political decisions behind such things. Somebody wants to do something. We got the same kind of jerking going on, ministers are demanded to step down – what does that have to do with it, I’d ask. This is an epidemic, the worst of the worst. There’s no vaccine against it, we know next to nothing about it.

Belarus, for instance, sent the army into the forests and afterwards declared that the problem was solved. Except that, after that, outbreaks popped up all around Belarus. Some hunters I know have been to Belarus now and though they tell foreigners that all swine have been destroyed, when asked why the roadside is grubbed up they say well some few are left. In reality, they cannot be destroyed like that.

The more so that the wild swine is our natural species we are also proud of. Such calls for destruction are wrong. As soon as something happens, they say destroy the wolf as it eats the sheep, destroy the bear as it loots the beehives, as the fever spreads they say destroy the swine. And then should hoof disease break out, the elks, the deer and the roes should be destroyed. Our nature is our riches. Pig farming is riches as well, but we will need to find a solution acceptable to all. Otherwise, why not say let’s destroy swine farming to curb the spread. Such ultimatums are a joke.

People might realise that whether we’ve got 5,000 or 50,000 wild swine, the fever will reach the North coast just the same. The only thing we can do is protect the farms. Increasing the hunt now is rather to solve other problems, it will no longer help to alleviate the epidemic. This can’t be done. Can’t beat Nature. The islands will surely not be untouched. The swine swims very well. The fever makes it to thirst, it gets into the sea and the rivers, the waters will carry the corpse along.

-But what will it lead to? Will the fever’s spread spell end to all swine? In Spain and Portugal, it took 10–15 years till they got rid of the fever...

Even 20, as before the European Commission issues the epidemic-free notation, there need to be some years in between – only then all measures can be lifted. Actually, there’s no way really. They say in South-Estonia some herds remain. Would to God it be true. Perhaps it is, but I’m afraid that for the most part they will all die.

-How soon may that be?

It’ll be fast now, summer being a warm season and the animals move a lot. People and machinery are in the forests. Estonia is so intersected, and all roads pass large forests and cross with paths that the animals travel. We can’t go nuts commanding all to sit at home doing nothing. Can’t be done.

-So will we be wild swine free forever?

No, the population is sure to be restored. This isn’t the first time that Estonia is wild swine free. For 17th to 19th centuries, wild swine moved away from Estonia, to someplace in Poland. The first known Estonian wild piglet litter was born in spring 1932. The extraordinarily cold winters of 1940 and 1941 spelled the end of young wild swine population and they only got established in 1945.  

Hunting wild swine

Hunters say 20,600 remained in Estonia at end of this hunting season, in the spring*

Over the past decade, the population has been stable and grown slightly

In the hunting year 2015/2016, about 29,600 wild swine need to be hunted 

Starting October 1st to April 30th, additional feeding of wild swine id prohibited

Throughout the year, driven hunt of wild swine is allowed as well

* wild swine ranks double in summer