Alpine shepherdess in the canton of Grisons: “You do everything, and yet there are always killings. This goes to the psyche.”

Regulation of the wolf population by the affected mountain cantons – Yes to the hunting law

Interview with Christian and Evelina Venzin, farmers in Curaglia, Val Medel, canton of Grisons

mf. Christian Venzin runs a farm together with his wife. They are involved in an alpine corporation, whose territory reaches from 1,600 meters to 2,500 meters above sea level on the right side of the Val Medel valley towards the Lukmanier pass. It is 795 hectares of steep, partly very steep, stony terrain. Nearby is also the recently discovered wolf pack, called the “Stagia pack”.

Current Concerns: The wolf is again native to Switzerland since 1995. In the last years it has spread more and more. How long has the presence of the wolf been a problem for you?
Evelina and Christian Venzin: There was a first killing on the alp on 9 August 2019, and a second killing shortly afterwards. However in the following time, wolves were observed in the area the whole time. It started on 10 May 2020: On a pasture down in the valley at Rein da Medel two goatlings and two lambs were killed and one goatling was missing. Two lambs were torn from our herd. One was dead, the other was still alive, but it was wounded so badly that it had to be released. I was in shock through this experience. It was exactly the day we went up to the alp with the sheep and knew that this problem would be much bigger up there. There a safe fence as protection against the wolf is not possible everywhere.

What was the reaction of the farmers in the valley to these events they were suddenly confronted with?
We are not to blame for the wolf being there. But maybe we simply pushed the whole thing a bit to the back of our mind. One actually knew about the presence of the wolf, but hoped to be spared from this danger. Maybe it is a way of dealing with a problem that you know is not really solvable. With the current density of wolf presence, this is even more so. This threat to our animals, to our existence, goes to our psyche and we sleep restlessly. What additionally comes up to us is an enormous additional effort to protect our herd sufficiently from the wolves.

How does the fact of wolf presence change your work, animal husbandry, alpine and pasture farming in general?
We have about 1,300 sheep on the alp, the alp was and is always herded. It was common for the animals to move freely on the alp. Only dangerous places or passages where the animals should not go are secured with fences. But since the wolf came, it is no longer possible to let them graze unfenced. As soon as one pasture is eaten off, one must “resettle” them, that is, fence in a new area and drive the sheep there. This is not always successful with the whole flock. Just today I received a voice message from the shepherdess that she hopes that all the animals will come with her. She was very worried. The shepherds can no longer manage alone the constant fencing, which means that we farmers have to assist increasingly. The fence material needed for this is flown to the alp. For the Ganaretsch Alp Corporation, the additional costs amount to 30,000 Swiss francs as of today just because of the wolves, and the summer is not over yet.
   We also have two lifestock guardian dogs on the alp, but for about 1,300 sheep we actually need more dogs. I have now applied to Agridea for lifestock guardian dogs for our farm. The waiting time for these dogs is very long.
   The hikers worry us because we have some pastures where hiking trails lead through the middle of the meadow. Here the problems with the guarding dogs already start. Then we still have pastures, which are located at roads, which are heavily used. Because of the high volume of traffic, there is an extreme pressure for the guardian dogs.
   The alp does not know where to get the money from. In the end we have to pay for it ourselves, because until today we have not received any assurance of support. The alp has now contacted various organisations and requested support. We will receive a maximum of 2,500 Swiss francs from the Swiss government if they accept our measures. The Surselva Farmers’ Association approved a loan yesterday evening in Obersaxen to hire a lawyer to clarify with the federal government who will pay for these additional costs.
   My wife and I are thinking about giving up sheep farming and buying ten additional suckler cows – we already have twenty. The floors are indeed suitable for sheep, but the strain and the amount of work are simply becoming too much.
   It has not been a good summer for us and nor for the shepherds. The fact that they stay up there is admirable. It is very difficult for them to come to terms with all these terrible images. At the moment they even camp with the animals on the pasture. Every night a certain restlessness is perceived in the herd. The director of the Plantahof made the following comment in an interview: “The challenge is not to be mastered without the instrument of an effective, targeted and rapid regulation.” A farmer wrote: “We are lied to and deceived in the media.” In the tabloid newspaper “Blick” an article was published with the example of an alp, where reportedly it should work with lifestock guardian dogs. The shepherdess is from Pro Natura. For 600 sheep four shepherds are in action. Pro Natura has financed the shepherds’ salaries with donations. David Gerke, president of the Wolf Switzerland group, is also involved in this alp. Do you think this is possible on a normal alp? We have twice as many sheep, we would have to employ eight shepherds. Nobody can finance that. We had a good shepherd from Germany who had been employed on our alp for seven years. He also gave us a promise for 2020.
   In the fall of 2019, Mr Boner, the person in charge at the Plantahof for herd protection, met with the shepherd and the farmers to work out a concept. Shortly before the start of the alp, the shepherd cancelled. He said that he could no longer sleep because he probably knew what was in store for him. Now we have a German shepherdess on the alp, who has been herding sheep and cows in our area for years. The second shepherd is from Brig, he worked in Norway in a company that offers husky tours for tourists. Because of corona he lost his job and came back to Switzerland.
   The shepherdess has a lot of trouble with the images. She always said: “You do everything, and yet there are always killings.” That goes to the psyche. Since a few weeks the wolves are permanently present. A week ago two sheep were outside the fence, they were found boned the next morning. The wolves are hungry. They don’t go away from here so fast anymore, with this supply of sheep. Usually they only eat little of an animal, but now they need food for the puppies.
   Mr Boner’s plan was to drove the sheep only into a night pen. This worked in spring in the area around Sogn Gions in the bottom of the valley up to the rocks. As soon as they were grazing further up in Munplaun, Muschaneras, it was no longer possible, because the shepherds did not bring the sheep into these night pens. The reasons for this are the partly steep, unclear and extensive terrain.

When looking at the reports of killings from the Office for Hunting and Fishing of the canton of Grisons, it is noticeable that there are suddenly many more reports of killings in 2020 than there still were in 2019. Does this have to do with a new recording system for livestock killings?
No, it is not a new registration system. It is a fact that livestock killings have increased by leaps and bounds in 2020, while very little happened in 2019. This means that the wolf presence is very high.

Also, reports from the Office for Hunting and Fishing of the canton of Grisons show that killed sheep have repeatedly stayed outside the fence. What is this all about?
If it is an area as large as our alp and the fences cannot be placed everywhere in a stable way because of the characteristics of the terrain, they escape. Therefore the reports that the killed animals have been outside the fence. The longer the fence, the more difficult it is to maintain the voltage. Every blade of grass that contact it drains power. It cannot be handled reliably. The fact that animals stay outside the run happens again and again, also on the pastures down in the valley. Sometimes they jump over it.
   If the fence is folded outwards, the sheep have broken out. If the fence is folded into the enclosure, then someone has got in from outside. It also happens that wolves herd game into the fence, which then falls down inwards, and the wolf no longer has any obstacle separating him from the sheep. Incidentally, it is only a matter of time before the wolves jump over the fence, the shepherds say.

What are the effects of adapted animal husbandry on animal health?
Due to the narrower and more extensive fencing, they are closer together, and this can lead to more parasite infestations, lung and stomach worms, and tapeworms, because the grass becomes more polluted. There are also increased claw infections.

Does the federal government‘s financial compensation work for the killings?
We are compensated by the cantonal Office for Hunting and Fishing. This is working quickly. We had two killings in spring. These have been paid fairly. There were two lambs. That’s just not possible! Because if the wolf kills sheep and you cannot find them, or those who simply don’t come back from the alp in autumn, none of this is compensated. A farmer we know, who let about 80 goats graze on alpine pastures as part of a project in Surses Radons to reduce the forest cover, 13 of his highly pregnant goats were killed. Days later, they were found and some were still alive. He said that of course he didn’t have the milk payment he would have had over the winter from these goats, and no one will reimburse him. The animals which ran away and the missing animals, no one will replace them either.
   Last year, they had heavy losses on an alp in the canton of Grisons with 400 sheep. In the end, about 60 sheep were missing. But only the cases confirmed by the gamekeeper will be reimbursed. That’s all right. Even in normal years, there are always losses, even in the barn. But when you hear the claims of the opponents, how many animals fall because nobody is looking at them, this does not reflect reality. We have had two shepherds for many years; our alp has never been unherded.

How do you see the future if the hunting law is adopted, as if it were rejected?
This question you should ask Mr Arquint, head of the Office for Hunting and Fishing of the canton of Grisons. There are many who say that little will change. It is difficult to say what will change after the vote. What if we win, what if we don’t?
   One thing is certain: these wolves are here with us, they smelled blood, and they will stay. It is a pack that remains; a single wolf keeps on wandering. For example, the one who killed on our alp in 2019 was shot down in the canton of Thurgau in January 2020. He was sick and had mange. However, he was a loner. Then we see how the wolves will kill game in winter, they need meat. What happens in autumn, when there are no more animals up there, do they come down to our sheep in the valley?
    With the wolves that are here now, I look into a dark and uncertain future. Suddenly they jump over the fences, and then it is over anyway.
   It worked great for us before. We have good pastures, we would have enough space, and suddenly the wolves come and turn everything upside down. Personally, I say: I will not go through a second summer like this. We have our work here, then you always have in mind: “When do we have to go up again for fencing?“ We have very good shepherds now; maybe they will stay until the end. Is there anyone else who would like to do this afterwards? We have also supported them very well. Without the help of us farmers, this would never have been possible, even though the two of them are tough. On an alp in Vals a shepherdess could no longer cope with this pressure and left the alp prematurely.
   Another problem is that if the alp is no longer cultivated in the future, there will be more avalanches when the grass is high and “terracing” due to the sheep will disappear; nobody talks about this, nobody thinks about it.
   Because of this year’s summer, when more Swiss people came to the mountains, we also had the opportunity to talk to some of them and found that people have no idea what is happening here. They quickly read through some information, but because of that they don’t know more. It is also not so easy to explain to someone what is going on. You cannot say in two words: “The wolf destroys everything.” The opponents are very active. Pro Natura, WWF and now the Mountain Forest Project. The Mountain Forest Project is no longer supported by a few communities because of its position on the wolf issue.
   We do not hear any comments from our local authorities. On the list of Grisons tourism communities that now support the law, our community is also not listed, which is extremely unfortunate.

Thank you very much for the interview.  •

(Interview by Monika Fry)

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