Laura Smith-Riva: Conscious farmers don’t need to kill wildlife

This commentary is by Laura Smith-Riva, a Vermont cattle farmer based in Montpellier.

Killing wildlife to protect livestock in Vermont is a myth perpetuated by those who seem to enjoy killing wildlife for sport or are unconcerned or ignorant of protecting their livestock. Often this is under the guise of “wildlife management”.

As a Vermonter who grew up on a farm in Vermont and currently raises livestock in Vermont, I have had many encounters with wildlife and believe that all farmers have a responsibility to take steps to ethically protect their livestock from predation and to do so without the needless killing or willful waste of wildlife . Coexistence with wildlife should be a first priority.

I will also add that on occasion, an individual wild animal can become a problem to the extent that the only option is to remove that animal from the landscape, and this may require lethal means. In my opinion, this should be a rare event and the exception rather than the rule.

A neighbor recently told me she knew someone nearby who had killed three foxes and a wolf because they “were chasing his chickens”. All of these animals have been seen on my property for the past three years hunting rodents, eating apples and generally adding to the overall beauty of the landscape. The fox had succeeded in stalking my chickens who were at large, and after losing a few, I put my chickens behind an electric fence and shut them down at night. I didn’t lose more chickens to the fox.

I saw a pair of wolves on my property inspecting my lambs last spring. One was a three-legged wolf who may have lost a leg in a trap holding a leg (another “wildlife management” tactic to be re-evaluated in Vermont landscapes). I was happy to see that the coyotes survived and I went down to check my fences and make sure they had the proper freight and were installed correctly.

Unfortunately, it was the three-legged wolf that was killed by the farmer next door and that was the reason I wrote this comment. In my opinion, this was a pointless killing of an animal that had already sacrificed so much at the altar of Vermont’s “athletes.”

Having raised sheep for many years in Vermont, I’ve come to believe that 99% of cattle loss from looting is due to breeding errors, lack of responsible care, and fencing issues. Unlike western countries, where ranchers keep animals on thousands of acres of unfenced land, Vermont farmers manage their livestock on enclosed tracts of land.

It is the farmers’ responsibility to review their management plans and to include in this plan a strategy to conserve their livestock in a way that limits losses from looting.

During my years farming in Vermont, every time I heard about sheep being lost to wolves, I would ask farmers questions. Almost 100% of the time, it was determined that losses were due to coyotes entering an improperly installed or improperly maintained fence. It’s not hard to keep wolves away from places you don’t want them to.

As a child, I walked several miles on the fence line to help my dad fix spacers, replace insulators, and pull fallen twigs from electric fences that held our beef. We also built our chicken coop to resist predators like raccoons and weasels. I never knew my dad kills a single wild animal and we’ve never lost a calf to looting.

Today’s fencing and predator techniques allow for more innovative approaches to livestock management.

If you are looking for fencing options that will repel wildlife from your garden, livestock, bees, manure, or other areas of your property, there are many options for affordable electrical grids with compact electric fence chargers, including solar power for more remote operations. (We have used solar energy successfully for years during the summer months when our sheep were in remote fields.) Premier 1 Supplies offers great electric fence starter kits. There are many options.

Other methods that may aid predation include the use of motion-sensing lights around vulnerable areas, and the use of “red-eye” systems that trick predators into believing that another predator is already at the site.

Look for products like NiteGuard Predator Control. Meshing over chicken cages can deter owls and other bird predators. Raising livestock indoors rather than on pastures will help reduce interest in wildlife.

Vermont Wildlife is a public trust that all Vermonters are entitled to enjoy. As humans live in a world where wildlife habitats continue to shrink and endangered and where more animals become extinct each year, we have a responsibility to take the necessary steps to coexist with wildlife. I’m pretty sure I miss the three-legged coyote.

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