Predators cause record damage

PHOTO: Toomas Huik

Stock farmers and beekeepers will be compensated for damages stretching into a quarter of a million euros caused by Estonia’s largest predators – wolves and bears – this year.

While the previous year’s damages caused by large predators are usually calculated and paid out in the first three months of the year, that is not the case this year. There were so many applications from sheep farmers and beekeepers that the Environmental Board took until May to tally up the costs.

Most farmers who suffered damages have been compensated by today. A record-breaking €250,000 was paid out to injured parties. The largest single compensation sum was €10,000 while most were around a few hundred euros.

Wolves caused the most trouble last year, killing 1,121 sheep which is almost twice the figure for 2013. Hungry wolves also killed 27 goats, 10 bovine animals, two dogs, and a pony. A third of all sheep killed were from just three herds in Rapla County and Saaremaa.

Brown bears ransacked a total of 323 beehives in 2017 in addition to killing a few cows and sheep and destroying over 500 rolls of silage. Damages caused by Estonia’s relatively few lynxes were much more modest.

These are the figures at the board’s disposal as farmers might not report some damages.

Wolves as frequent visitors

Sheep farmer Tarmo Lohv from the Rae rural municipality in Harju County has lost over 70 sheep to wolves in the past eight years. The farmer lost 19 sheep last year and was paid a few thousand euros in damages. Hunters shot the wolf that was attacking Lohv’s herds in the winter and things have been quiet in the village of Salu since then.

Tiit Kaivo, who lives a 30-minute drive away from Lohv in the village of Harmi in Kose rural municipality, is also having trouble with the animals. The master of Sireli Farm is initially reluctant to even talk about the damage wolves have caused. “It is not exactly fun thinking back to those times. Rather it is something you’d want to forget,” he said.

Kaivo eventually said that there have been days where he lost a few dozen animals in the last few years. In 2016, wolves slaughtered all the main herd’s rams just 50 meters from home. Last year was better as wolves only killed four sheep.

“How it works is that I can usually see crows and ravens circling above the herd when I go check on them in the morning. Then I know someone has been slaughtered,” the farmer said. He added that he has seen wolves in the area on four occasions.

Kaivo has even seen a wolf kill one of his sheep. The animal had herded the sheep into a close group and was running circles around them. It then picked out the animal it wanted, snatched the lamb, and ran a short way to where its fellows were waiting.

“It is said that the wolf is the corpsman of the woods. But why in the hell should it eat mangy and sickly animals when it can feast on healthy ones? They have been slaughtering healthy and well-fed animals,” said the man who has been a sheep farmer for over 30 years.

Because wolves make the lives of sheep farmers very difficult, Kaivo is not convinced the predator makes the best national animal for Estonia. “Could you imagine our national occupation be that of a bank robber?” he asked.

Compensation for a guard dog

The Environmental Board pays farmers compensation to have them tolerate wolves and bears. Harju County farmers Kaivo and Lohv said the compensation is a great help.

Predators are poached and poisoned in some European countries that do not have compensation. There is a lot of illegal hunting in Italy and Spain for example.

Nature conservation specialist with the board Tõnu Talvi, who tallied up the cost of the damages caused by large predators, said that wild animals attempt to hunt with minimal effort. This means that going after people’s property needs to be made as difficult as possible for them.

The agency also compensates farmers for some expenses tied to preventing damages caused by predators. The board compensated half of prevention expenses to 59 farmers and beekeepers for a total of €69,649 euros. Compensation also covers part of costs to buy guard dogs.

If prevention is not enough to keep predators away, damages caused by wolves, brown bears, and lynxes will be compensated. Damages caused by large predators will be compensated in full, with the injured party expected to cover €46-128 of annual damages.