Week in forest – How to protect sheep from wolves?

The story in journal Loodusesõber September issue about wolves and livestock farmers advocates truce, stating  that it is possible to protect a herd if you take in account the behaviour and powers of wolves. A man who keeps his sheep in the middle of bogs and forests, with wolves roving outside his fence without getting close to a single ewe tells us about this.

An instruction for building a proper wolf fence can also be studied in the issue that is available to the end of October.

Text Ulvar Käärt
Photos Mats Kangur
Translation: Liis
A 140 centimetre fence should be sufficient, Priit Tormis means. Brightly-coloured ribbons modelled on the flag line of wolf hunts help as well to keep wolves away.
The strained relations of wolves and sheep farmers are well known. In recent years it has become a subject which each summer fills the news pages of newspapers. When wolves have been attacking a herd somebody again explodes in fury.
The sufferers are angry at the wolf. Some sheep farmers even proclaim angrily that there should be no place for wolves near them. Examining the official statistics the anger that flames up among sheep farmers can be understandable. Namely, in 2011, in its way a record year, the Keskkonnaamet (Environmental Inspectorate) registered altogether 1040 sheep killed by wolves in Estonia, last year they were 784.
We have to do with quite large numbers that entail considerable economic  losses
But, looking behind those numbers, it turns out that anger is often directed towards wolves without proper reason, because the wolf has been taking his toll from herds where the owner has not even built a proper fence to protect them.
Some say that it is not even possible to protect one’s sheep from wolves however well built the fence might be. However, there are sheep farmers who have – as unbelievable as this might seem – been keeping sheep in the heart of a wild wolf paradise without a wolf having touched a single sheep.
Sheep in the midst of bogs and forests
That the statement is true Priit Termis confirms. Priit Termis works with farming, including sheep-raising, in Läänemaa, in Ridala parish. Priit Tormis has managed to build a sheep fold of his own design that has until now successfully protected his herd of a hundred animals of the native Kihnu sheep breed.
„Why go there to feed wolves”, Priit Tormis says that others thought when they heard that he planned to tend a seminatural biotope area with sheep, in a fifty kilometres distant Noarootsi parish, among bogs and forests. ” Some simply stared wide-eyed at me, without saying anything.”
But despite all he managed to build a fenced-in area for the sheep in a solitary outlying forest meadow selected for restoration in 2009, where wolves have not to date touched a single sheep. How did he accomplish this?
He did not do anything extraordinary or complicated. The nearly 1,4 m high fence is actually as simply constructed as many others but some tricks have still been applied that are not quite elementary to hit on.
Special protection – welded grid fence
Although Priit Tormis also studied the special guidelines before building the fence, he approached the enterprise somewhat differently, relying on his farmer’s common sense. Considering the potential wolf threat he aimed at building not a fence through which sheep would not be able escape, but a fence through which others would not get in.
So for instance the mesh is not attached to the inside but to the outside of the fence posts. It should be noted that one advantage of a welded mesh fence is that its grids cannot be enlarged by an intruder.
Another fundamental thing in making the fence as wolf-secure as possible is that below the fence a half-metre wide net strip is set out on the ground. The fence net is attached to it so that 25 cm of it is inside and as much outside. This finesse should exclude the possibility that someone who cannot jump over the fence might crawl into the enclosure under the fence. ”I thought that if a dog always tries to crawl into a yard that way then why would not a wolf that obviously is much cleverer than a dog do the same thing,”, Priit Tormis explains about how he got the idea to create such a spot secure from crawling in.
In other respects however Tormis’s sheep fence is as fences always are. Its lower part consists of a metre-wide welded mesh on which bright orange flags are tied at eye height for wolves, using the flag line used at wolf hunts as model. In case of thicker snow, when the eyes of wolves should be higher up, a line of flags is also tied to the upper part of the fence.
On the outside of the fence posts that are driven into the ground at every 3 metres, a barbed wire is stretched along the top of the welded mesh, above which two more barbed wires are drawn at about 15 cm distance from each other. Thus the total height of the fence will be 1,3 to 1,4 m, or a little more than what the Environmental Inspectorate at present recommends as height for a fence built for protecting sheep.
Weekly checks maintain fence
But a very important aspect that Priit Tormis monitors in order to maintain the wolf security of the fence is its status. ”At least once a week I make a tour of the fence to check that no tree has fallen on it somewhere or that for instance wild boars have not been messing about with it,” Priit Tormis says.
To fence in the 10 hectares of forest meadow Priit Tormis had to build a total of two kilometres of fence. He admits that building a proper fence did not come cheap: adding up costs of working hours and materials a metre cost on average almost 3 euros, or nearly 6000 euros for the whole fence . Here the Environmental Inspectorate supported building of the first kilometre with nearly 1000 euros. ”It is expensive and only working with sheep it is impossible to earn your money back ,” Priit Tormis said. He earns his daily bread by various other agricultural work besides sheep-raising.
Regarding the wolf-proof fence it might be asked or thought whether his herd of sheep has escaped wolves because there are none near the forest meadow pasture. Tormis confirmed the presence of wolves with his own eyes when he saw wolf tracks crossing an open space immediately by the sheep enclosure in winter a few years ago. One wolf – evidently a cross between wolf and dog – has also been caught in a track camera view at the road leading to the forest meadow.
The wolf and dog cross that was caught by track camera near Priit Tormis’s sheep fold: an animal that already in 2009 gathered notoriety in news media
Sceptics do not believe in wolf-proof fence
Ell Sellis, from Eesti Lambakasvatajate Selts, the Estonian Sheep Farmers Association, first remarks when beginning to discuss wolf damage and sheep, that, being a biologist by education, she feels the same respect for the wolves that have survived in Estonia, side by side with humans, as she does for earthquakes, volcano outbreaks and avalanches. Her opinion is that if wolves do not come to take their toll from a herd then they are simply not there.
”If you ask sheep farmers which kind of fence protects against wolves then those who live in areas jointly with wolves will say that only zoos have wolf-proof fences”, Ell Sellis says. By this she refers to the fact that for sheep-breeders it is a usual thing that when they have not been checking on their ewes they live with the worry – has the wolf been at the herd or not. ”I think there is no area where a wolf might not attack a herd,” she says. ”In areas where sheep are not attacked there are simply no wolves.”
Sellis emphasizes that building a proper fence to protect sheep in a natural landscape against attacks from possible predators, with no spot where the wolf might crawl through it is a very complicated and expensive enterprise. In addition it is by no means guaranteed that the fence will justify itself. ”If the wolf cannot get through the fence it digs under it or jumps across it,” she says sharing the experiences of sheep farmers in areas with wolf attacks. ”The wolf is very quick to learn and an intelligent animal. ”
The Environmental Inspectorate’s recommendations
Tõnis Talve, nature protection biologist at the Environmental Inspectorate and working with losses caused by wolves says that regrettably until now our sheep-breeders have inmplemented preventive measures rather modestly. Proper cattle fences against attacks have had support from the Inspectorate only in slightly more than thirty cases. ”Concerning these fences that reduce predator attacks we know of only two cases when wolves have been killing inside the fence,” Talve says. In one case the fence was too low, in the second case the predators gained entry through a gap created by fallen trees. In the last case the owner admitted the fault and after repair of the fence wolves have not been harassing the sheep.
The Environmental Inspectorate recommends on the basis of best experiences from Estonia as well as our neighbour countries a 5-wire and at least 4500 V voltage electrical fence. Its lowest wire must be up to 20 centimetres from the ground and the top wire or band must be at a height of at least 1,2 metres.
Similarly the Inspectorate regards as predator protection fence a mesh fence with a separate upper electrical wire or band where the lower edge of the fence is wholly on the ground. The height of such a fence should be at least a metre. Outside the fence an electrical wire should be located 20 centimetres above the ground. Similarly an electrical wire should be installed 1,2 meters above the ground on the fence.
If these recommended fences are properly made they should reduce the risk of predator damages occurring considerably according to the Inspectorate’s estimate. It might be argued whether a 1,2 m high fence really helps against wolves. But Talvi notes that the outcome is always determined by the weakest link and correct operation and maintenance of the fence. ”If the wolf has a choice of going to hunt in a pasture surrounded by a proper electrical fence or two barbed wires or an electrical cattle wire, it as a rule chooses a simpler solution,” he says.
First error – unkept fence
Most frequently sheep-raisers make mistakes in building fences by not building them properly along the whole perimeter. For keeping predators away there is no help from a fence that on the farm side, near the entrance road, is very proper but some hunderd meters away facing the paddock is only a too high, 30-40 cm from the ground electricla wire”, Talvi says. We have several cases where a very properly built 1,3 m high fence with 7 electrical wires varies along the boundary of the same pasture with a 2-wire electrical fence or a fence is missing altogether – there is no point in constructing a show fence for inspections and officials.”
Since a wolf moves tens of kilometres in 24 hours it has no problem with taking a tour of a kilometre-long fence and finding the weak spot there. Wolves and also bears often try to crawl in between the ground and the lowest wire.
Second error – first attack is overlooked
A second big mistake that sheep farmers often commit is not to react on the first attack. ”When there has been a killing in the pasture the predator will most likely come back to the same spot the next night to continue its eating, dragging the prey away or to kill a new prey. If circumstances are left as before and so they often are according to our experiences, sometimes even for weeks and months on end, then no wonder that wolves learn the location of safe and easily caught prey – sheep away from permanent human  dwellings and in  a poorly protected pasture – and go there to eat themselves, to get food for their young and in autumn to teach their cubs too,” Talvi tells us.
Worries with killed animals
Ell Sellis notes that among sheep farmers there are plenty of reasonable prople but also those who are very angry at wolves. ”When a wolf has been killing in a herd, it a great source of stress for the breeder. To begin with, the view is horrible, but despite this you have to start handling a great number of things at once – the injured animals have to be emergency slaughtered, contact has to be made with the Environmental Inspectorate as well as the Food and Veterinary Office people, care has to be taken of the lambs left alone, all killed animals have to be found and their removal to the Väike-Maarja animal residue processing plant must be arranged. At the same time the possibility that the wolf or bear will return must be kept in mind,” Ell Sellis describes all that often has to be done in a state of shock. All feeds the aggressivity against wolves.
As a way of mitigating the wolf hate the Government offers compensation for slain animals. According to the animal losses act signed by the Minister of the Environment losses caused by large predators, among them wolves, are compensated up to 100%. According to the act the losses of one victim during one calendar year are added up and from this total the owner’s own responsibility in the range of 64-128 euros is subtrracted.
Excess claim stipulations sharpened
In principle the efficiency of the measures taken to prevent damages to animals or property should be taken in account when determining the excess claim orown responsibility part. At the same time the Environmental Inspectorate subtracts regardless of the size of the damage and the use of preventive measures only the minimum excess claim or 64 euros.
Now a fundamental change of the animal damage laws has been taken up and on the agenda are changes in the own risk proportion as well as to make its dependence on the applied preventive measures significantly more rewarding than at present. ”The general trend is towards making preventive measures profitable and encouraging  prevention”, Talvi assures
Besides the compensation for predator losses sheep farmers can apply for support for fences as measures for preventing losses. In a three-year period support of up to 7500 euros can be obtained from the inspectorate in addition to the excess claim part. This support however has a sting in the tail from the sheep farmers’ point of view. Namely, if during the three years all the support money for building fences has been used up, and a predator still causes losses, regardless of preventive measures being applied, the losses will not be compensated.
The fact that in order to get the so-called fence support the area where the fence is to be built must be an acknowledged predator risk area must also be taken in account.
Ell Sellis points out that changes in rules regulating the predator damages compensation and also for obtaining the fence support should help to mitigate the wolf hate.
”Compensation for predator damages should arrive faster because this would make it possible to re-establish a herd faster. Compensation money comes to victims only in March the following year. If you have no money to buy new animals, this is clearly too late for buying a replacement herd or a ram,” Ell Sellis says. ”We have proposed that every damage case review should take place quickly, and within a month of closing the incident review the sufferer should have the money in hand.”
Ell Sellis also adds that in the opinion of sheep farmers the compensation for predator losses and the grants for preventive measures should be separated. This should eliminate the possibility that when the support money for fences from the Environmental Inspectorate has been fully used, and the wolf still takes his toll , sheep breeders should not be left without predator compensation money.




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