Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What Kills Sheep?

The debate on fox hunting is about to start up again in the U.K. I am all for hunting, and for a simple and easily documentable reason: it is less cruel fox than what Mother Nature had in mind.

Let's start with the simple: fox are at biological maximum and so too are badger. Ask the Mammal Society.

Second, fox die in droves every year and HAVE to, because they whelp large numbers every year. Mange, distemper, round worms, cold, den collapse, and starvation account for massive mortality and none of that is fun or quick or painless or not cruel. Neither are the deaths from infected wounds gotten from barbed wire and fights, or vehicle impacts.

The quickest and best death for a fox is that offered by a hunter. Death by a bullet to the brain is how most suicides kill themselves, and no one I know would rather die without pain medication from an infection or starvation, or with broken bones in a water ditch. But killed by a pack of tigers? That would be pretty quick and, in the very rare occasion that a slow or sick fox is chopped by hounds above ground, that's the comparable scenario.

So fox hunting is LESS cruel than Mother Nature, death is inevitable, fox hunting is a huge economic driver, and as far as cruelty and animal welfare go, there is no argument against fox hunting.

Fox limitation can have other local benefits. For example, in small areas such as bird shoots or in areas where there are wild ground nesting birds needing protection, fox (and feral cat) extirpation is a positive good. Ditto in those rare instances where true free-range (not in tractor-cage) chickens are about.

And what about sheep? Fox have almost no impact on sheep.

One of the more interesting bits of almost-nonsense in the world of working terriers is the notion that red fox kill a lot of sheep. 

Can a fox which weighs 15 pounds, on average, kill a sheep that weighs 120 pounds or more?  No. 

Can it kill a lamb?  Not easily, especially as ewes tend to be quite protective.  I have been knocked on my ass by a sheep or two, and I can tell you that sheep are tougher than they look.

So what are we seeing when we see red fox with sheep parts?  Mostly, we are seeing fox with bit of already-dead scavenged lamb.  A fox eating an already dead lamb is doing no harm, no matter the emotional shock of seeing a dead lamb and the urge to blame the nearby fox for the situation.

What most folks miss is that sheep mortality is always jaw-dropping, in part due to the fact that lambs tend to be born wet, at the cusp of marginal weather, and lambs have coats with poor insulation value. Add in the fact that most sheep pastures offer no protection from wind or rain, that feed is often poor due to over-grazing, and that many breeds of sheep are genetically selected to have twins and triplets, and you have a great deal of sadness occurring on the hill, even when no predators at all exist, as has been demonstrated on coastal islands without predators.

As I noted back in 2008, in a post entitled Fox From a Shepherd's Point of View, fox have almost no impact on sheep and goat populations, while feral and loose dogs of all kind are major stock destroyers (as are coyote, wolf, and bears in certain parts of the U.S.)

Back in 2005, citing the research of fox biologist David MacDonald, I noted that foxes do almost no damage to sheep populations.

After spending countless hours observing fox in sheep country, often at night and through infra-red goggles, MacDonald concludes that fox are not very fond of mutton and that they do very little predation on live lambs. Given almost any kind of alternative food source -- rabbits, bird seed, worms, baby birds, fruit or roadkill -- a fox will give sheep a pass. When fox do eat sheep, they tend to focus on already-dead detritus -- sheep testicles that drop off into the field after castrating bands are applied (MacDonald notes that he often finds fox feces containing these same undigested rubber bands), after birth, and even sheep dung from young lambs -- the latter loaded with still-undigested milk products. MacDonald does not deny that fox may kill a few very young (and perhaps already fatally weak) sheep, but such attacks are so rare they have never been filmed and are statistically negligible. MacDonald notes that in the fell and upland regions, where fear of fox predation is highest, sheep mortality is often 25% with many lambs born starving due to over-grazing abetted by a government policy that subsidizes overly-dense sheep production. With ewes in poor feed, and lambs borne wet on cold and windy slopes without shelter, lamb mortality is very high without any fox participation at all. The fact that fox, on occasion, scavenge the already-dead does little harm to the living.

In a world where less than 1% of sheep are killed by fox, and 15-25% of all lambs in some areas are dying from exposure to weather, perhaps the solution is not to shoot more fox to preserve sheep, but to construct more turn out pens, sheds and hedges where lambs can tuck in to get out of the weather? 

The terrier and hound hunting world does not make this point, because to do so would be to admit that fox are not really the fierce lamb killers that they are made out to be. 

The animal rights world does not make this point because to do so would be to admit that ending fox hunting is actually a pretty small cause compared to ending sheep mortality from bad weather.

Vegans can organize protests and send cash-generating direct mail to oppose fox hunting but it's not nearly as lucrative or as fun to start a Kickstarter program to build 100,000 turn out sheds on private property.

And so the pantomime goes on, in which hounds men claim that fox are killing loads of sheep, and animal rights lunatics claim hounds are killing loads of fox.  Never mind that neither statement is actually true!


mugwump said...

However, foxes are extremely tough on our (Colorado Springs)suburban cat population. Can I go on record saying, Go foxes?
We have an extremely expensive trap, spay and re-release program for feral cats here. I can't help but think a few well placed foxes might be a more realistic solution.

SecondThoughtsOptional said...

There is no 'never kill a fox' movement. The UK public is entirely fine with fox-killing -- if it's a nuisance, just shoot the thing. But the idea that killing a fox needs a pack of hounds and people on horseback and foot... that just doesn't fly. The manner in which fox-hunters conflate the joy of hunting with the necessity of pest control and exaggerate the killing prowess of a cat-sized mammal does them no favours. You can't lie your way to a good outcome.

I'm no fan of the RSPCA, but I'm annoyed that this is coming back to suck up precious political oxygen.

PBurns said...

If fun, joy, lying, or exaggeration were crimes, everyone would be in jail.

This is a strange UK debate, grounded in old class wars, entirely devoid of science, observation, or logic, and fanned by the fact the country has NO large predators left (having killed them all out). Political debates will be about something; they never go away. Imagine a country that has no other problems to sort out other than contrived ones!

Noel said...

Not that I care about sheep, but I wonder if the foxes are as innocent as the sources indicate. I heard and believed for a long time that foxes were largely unable/unwilling to kill whitetail fawns, but my own experiences and the sharp rise in video game-cam evidence is indicating otherwise. My limited experience with sheep indicates they aren't very protective of ANYTHING, at least not relative to deer.
Presence of fawn bones/hooves at fox dens is well-known, but video of them carrying struggling fawns is harder to dismiss.

Anonymous said...

Fox hunt cats? Not here. We have SO many cats. Their only foe are cars... But I fear a bigger proportion of fox than cats die on the road. Currently for the last seven days straight at least (!) one dead fox/fox on my 20 miles commute to work. Same route every day. Not as many cats.

PipedreamFarm said...

We have many foxes around our sheep farm and they have been no threat to healthy lambs. Sheep and even ewes with young lambs are not worried about foxes; foxes can walk right through or near grazing or lounging sheep with lambs and the flock will pay the fox no attention. This is not so for dogs or coyotes.