While wolves are accused and hunted down for killing livestock, European hunters and farmers are missing the biggest issue facing them already: uncontrollable numbers of ungulates. Wild boar, red deer and moose (where present) are causing millions of euros damage in the agricultural and forestry sector. The news does not often report on that, in fact many governments do not publish these numbers.
When you search for the statistics on wildlife damage, it seems nearly impossible to find reliable numbers. Countries like Spain, Portugal, Romania, Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy and even Germany do not publish on the damages from ungulates. This way it becomes very difficult for the general public to put the wildlife damage into perspective, especially in relation to the wolf.
Germany just revealed that wolves caused approximately € 500.000 damage over the past 17 years. A study in 2016 showed that Spain, having 4-5 times more wolves than Germany, is coping annually with € 700.000 damage. Yet both countries provide no public data on damages caused by ungulates. Unpublished data shows that browsing of red and roe deer cause more than €90,- per hectare damage to forestry in Germany. Consider that Germany has roughly 11.4 million hectares of forest. The damage by deer alone could thus exceed € 100 million per year.
Ungulates’ damage in Europe
Other countries do publish some numbers, and they are shocking. Austria copes with an estimated forest damage from ungulates of €218 million every year. About 70% is caused by browsing of roe deer, red deer and chamois. In principle, the Austrian hunters have to pay the compensation, yet hunters pay only 20-30% to the forest owners.
Red deer, roe deer and wild boar damage 24% of the young forests and 13.200 hectares in Poland. In response, Poland used chemical and mechanical repellents and fencing to protect young forests, costing more than €15 million back in 2003.
England estimates the damage to agriculture at €6.56 million. In Sweden, the moose causes loss on pine wood quality of at least €50 million per year. The Czech Republic estimates forest damage at €1.5 million (unpublished data) every year. Hungary paid compensations of €4.5 million to cover agricultural damages in 2005, while it paid another €585.000 to compensate for forest damage by deer. And Croatia deals with €685.000 damage each year, where wild boar causes most damage to corn fields and pastures.
Problematic wild boar and traffic accidents
Estimates show that the damage of wild boars alone to European agriculture exceeds €80 million every year. In France, the wild boar is accountable for 87% of the paid compensations, while red deer causes 10% of the crop damage. French hunters paid more than €26.5 million compensation in 2004/2005. Add another €100 million costs due to ungulate-vehicle collisions in France, and you see that the wolf is not France’ biggest problem. However, in 2016 government officials killed the 100th wolf in France, since its return. And last month, the French authorities killed three more wolf cubs.
In Slovenia, the calculated costs of wild boar damage is €15 per km2, thus € 300.000 each year. The wild boar is accountable for about 60% of the damage claims in Slovenia, mainly on cereal crops and pastures. Adding up the ungulates’ damage in traffic accidents, numbers are exceeding € 10 million a year. Even in Germany, the statistics show €447 million damage due to the collisions with ungulates.
Forests still benefit from ungulates
All these numbers might put the ungulates in a very bad daylight. But ungulates are also very beneficial for forests! While debarking certain species, they can support increasing plant biodiversity. Even browsing on unwanted plant species (from a human perspective) can increase the economic value of a forest stand. Furthermore, ungulates act as seed dispersers, improving germination conditions. The problem is the excessive large numbers. In recent years, hunters often released ungulates to increase population sizes for hunting. The ungulates became very shy in a human dominated landscape, thus hunters were not able to kill enough deer to keep the numbers under control. Now that the wolf is returning, it would be much better to let the wolf restore nature’s balance in Europe again. More zoning and fencing with the goal to keep wild animals out of their forests and to try to control species using hunting techniques, will only worsen the situation. Carnivores controlled the herbivores in our forest for a long time very effectively, until we humans intervened.