Shock collaring wild wolves to solve livestock protection?

The depredation of livestock by wolves is increasingly becoming an issue, especially to the thousands of small sheep owners in the alpine regions. Many people see the solutions involving electrical fences, livestock guarding dogs and shepherds as too complicated and costly to implement. This is also the main reason why many agricultural representatives are calling for wolf-free zones.

There are currently many ideas being tested to use technology to reduce the livestock depredation risk. One of these ideas builds upon the fears wolves develop, when coming in contact with electrical fences.

Instead of fencing all sheep, another method involves the so-called shock collar. People used this method to train dogs back in the 1960s. Researchers tested shock collars on wild wolves as a non-lethal method to minimise livestock depredation already 10 years ago in Wisconsin (full study below). The technology used in 2004 was Innotek, the Invisible Fence Technologies.

Reinventing the shock collar

Dog trainers in the 1960s used the shock collar, also known as the e-collar. The electric pulse device in the collar responds to barking and a remote control. The 6 000 Volt electric shock trained the hunting dogs behaviour effectively. However, recently several countries, including England, banned the usage of shock collars for dogs in 2018, after campaigns of animal welfare organisations.

The studies from 2004 used GPS based ‘fences’ which triggered electric shocks in case the wolf crossed the line. With new technologies, such as Bluetooth 5.0 and Near Field Communication, other options become available. The potential for using those technologies is high.

Near-field communication technology

The Bluetooth 5.0 signal works effectively over a distance of 100 meters. A potential development could be to place an electronic chip in the collar of sheep, which triggers an electronic shock in the wolf collar. The chip triggers the shock at the moment that the wolf approaches a sheep closer than 30 meters, for example. The main shortcoming is the electrical power needed for the Bluetooth technology and the automatic pairing of the collars.

The NFC technology, used by modern smartphones, provides an alternative. Unlike Bluetooth, the NFC technology does not require a device for data transfer. NFC automatically connects and transfers data to other NFC devices within a specific range. The current technology restricts the working range still to approximately 10 cm. However, the NFC technology will develop to be effective over a distance of 20 meters and even further in the future. The chip, based on ‘passive tags’ will not require power or a battery. As a result, the collars are effective day in day out.

Revolutionary impact

The idea to use chip enabled shock collars as non-lethal methods to scare wolves away from livestock is potentially a big step forward. With the automated triggering, collared sheep and wolves could again be able to roam freely. The use of electric fences and livestock guarding dogs, as well as shepherds, will not be necessary any longer. In fact, this technology also offers the opportunity to apply the chip-triggered shock collars to stray dogs and house dogs. Every year, dogs are responsible for a big portion of depredated livestock as well, besides wolves.

In theory, this could work. Practically, there are some big dilemmas. Do we really want to move in the direction that people control everything? Are people going to catch and collar every of the 17 000 wolves, not to mention the 25 million sheep in Europe? Will we interfere with the natural behaviour of wild animals, to save a small percentage of livestock each year?

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Sign the Open Letter to the German Ministry

Join more than 70 forest experts demanding a radical change in the German forest management system.

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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