Photos and Words:
Francesco Rossi e Matteo Franchi
Maremma is a seemingly never-ending patchwork of fields, wooded areas, olive groves, pastures and vineyards, featuring an extraordinary variety of ecosystems. Big monocultures are rare here and the surviving small companies guarantee diversified produce, lending shape to a territory that is home to great biodiversity.
A crucial role in all this is traditionally played by free-range farming that, in addition to ensuring extremely high product quality, is often the last protection offered to the remotest rural areas, essential for preservation of the this land.
Thanks to a series of initiatives that aim to protect the wolf, this animal has returned as a permanent inhabitant of this and other zones in Italy where, until just a few years ago, it was only present sporadically.
The latest data published puts the estimated total population of wolves in Italy at between 1600 and 1900(1). Estimates in possession of the Region of Tuscany instead refer to 1300 to 1800 animals (throughout Italy), of which some 500 have been recorded in Tuscany alone(2).
The good news is that the wolf is the only natural predator of the large ungulates (roe and fallow deer, and wild boar) and it is fundamental to keep their numbers under control and limit the ecological imbalance and damage to agriculture that might occur if their numbers were to increase too much. Furthermore, being at the top of the food chain, the presence of the wolf suggests that its prey is abundant and that the environment is therefore healthy.
The bad news is that wolves are not averse to the odd sheep in their diet. In confirmation of this, from 2014 to 2017, the south of Tuscany saw 1238 attacks on local flocks, which, according to ASL Toscana Sud-Est data (the local health authorities), caused the loss of 2687 animals (3).
Small sheep farmers see wolf attacks as the final blow for a sector that is already deeply in crisis. All this is set against the background of a public debate that is dramatically polarised, whereby the institutions are incapable of adopting effective solutions, probably in order not to disgruntle the more agonistic farmers and/or diehard animalist extremists.
The root of the problem is therefore eminently cultural, and involving not just those in this sector, but also and above all the public debate as a whole, which orients and determines political choices.
We need in fact to leave aside the classic man-nature juxtaposition, and acknowledge that man and nature are two elements within the same system, equally determining factors for preservation of existing life.
Maremma, a popular tourist destination and agricultural district, is one of the best examples the delicate problem of co-existence between man and predator.
1) Mattioli, Forconi, Berzi and Perco (2014)
(2) Figures provided by Paolo Banti, head of the Tuscan Regional Gestione Faunistica e Venatoria (animal and hunting management body), at the conference on shepherding and predation entitled “Pastorizia e Predazione” held on 2 December 2016 at the university in Grosseto.
During his talk, Banti also pointed out that not all regions have put in place monitoring programmes comparable to those in Tuscany, so it is probable that the national wolf population is hugely underestimated.
(3) Figures collected and elaborated by Richard Harris for La Spia
THE MAN-NATURE CONFLICT
Seeing humans as destructive being, antagonists to the concept of nature is profoundly wrong.
Rural areas are a fundamental resource for society as a whole, and man, with his activity, can play a decisive role in their preservation.
Much like most of Italy, the Maremma landscape, is highly anthropized. Human activity has shaped it and made a considerable contribution to its maintenance.
In Maremma, and in many other areas in Italy, there is no sharp line separating man from nature when considering environment and territory, because even what appears wild and untamed is actually always the result of human action.
I AM THE VOICE OF THOSE WHO HAVE NO MORE VOICE AND OF THOSE WHO NEVER HAD A VOICE.
THE RURALITY OF MAREMMA IS THE BIGGEST THING ON THE FACE OF THIS EARTH.
THERE EXISTS NO OTHER TERRITORY QUITE LIKE THIS, WHERE MAN HAS FOUGHT AS HE HAS DONE HERE.
EVERYTHING YOU SEE HERE TODAY IS THE OUTCOME OF THE DESIRE THAT PEOPLE HAD TO LIVE ON THIS LAND.
I SPEAK FOR THE LAND, FOR THE GREATNESS OF THIS CULTURE. PERHAPS I WILL NEVER HAVE THE STRENGTH TO DEFEND IT, BUT I WILL NOT GIVE UP, I WILL STRIVE FOR AS LONG AS I HAVE BREATH IN MY BODY”
Daniela’s flock crosses Roccalbegna, a small town at the foot of Monte Amiata. Daniela’s is one of the few still surviving in this area. In the past, this was the only source of income, whereas now the sheep are disappearing and with them, the shepherds and their families.
Small farms used to be the mainstay of the rural economy; their forced closure would empty the countryside and towns, and, as has happened in other parts of Italy, small animal and crop farmers could be replaced by big companies, with a shift to forms of intensive exploitation of the territory. At this point, the articulated Maremma landscape, with its patchwork of woods, farmed fields, vineyards, pastures and olive groves, would be covered by hectares and hectares of monocultures, causing enormous damage to local biodiversity.
Fernando finds the remains of one of the sheep from his flock. The carcass is some months old, so it is impossible to work out how it died. Fernando has no doubts, however, as usual it was wolves that killed the animal.
The local economic fabric is mostly made up of small, family-run farms, so it is easy to understand how disastrous the consequences of these attacks are for local farmers.
Dylan and his colleague are part of a group of Australian sheep shearers who do the rounds of the Tuscan farms every year in the spring
The sheep must be shorn before the heat arrives and their fleece, once sold to make textile products, today is worth practically nothing on the market.
Shearing can cost three times what is earned from sales of the wool and it is just one of the many costs that farmers have to face.
THE MORE WE GET ENTRENCHED IN OPPOSING SIDES, THE MORE ANIMALS DIE.
IF IT WERE ENOUGH FOR FARMERS TO METE OUT JUSTICE THEMSELVES THERE SHOULD BE NO MORE ATTACKS BECAUSE IT IS DOCUMENTED THAT POACHING IS ENDEMIC TO ALL RURAL AREAS IN ITALY.
ON THE OTHER HAND, INDISCRIMINATE BOYCOTTING OF PRODUCTS DERIVING FROM SHEEP FARMING ONLY SERVES TO FURTHER EXASPERATE THESE FARMERS, NULLIFYING EVEN THE WORK DONE BY THOSE MAKING THE EFFORT TO ADOPT SUSTAINABLE, EFFECTIVE PREVENTIVE MEASURES.”
naturalist and technician at DifesAttiva
Luisa examines videos taken by a hunting camera, checking for wolves near a farm. Today she is the techy at DifesAttiva (a spin-off of the Life MedWolf project), an association of farmers who have adopted guardian dogs as a tool to prevent attacks. Her intent is to create a network that allows those farmers taking part to get their dogs free of charge from other farms, receive assistance during introduction to the flocks and share knowledge about their management, gained during everyday work situations.
When the flock is threatened, the sheep gather around the guardian dogs.
Guardian dogs are a way of reducing conflict between farmers and predators, but for them to be effective and not become a further problem for the farms, they must be managed correctly. In the face of a threat, a well-trained dog will not abandon its flock. This not only makes its action more effective but also reduces risks for those who have to cross the grazing land. The introduction of the dog into the new flock takes time and dedication and must happen while the dog is still a young puppy. During this stage, perseverance is used to correct any wrong behaviour.
The dog will not actually be able to protect the flock until it is two years old, so this is a long-term investment for farms.
Skeleton of a wolf killed by a poacher, preserved in the storeroom of the natural history museum in Grosseto.
Poaching of predators is a practice endemic to all rural areas in Italy, but it is by no means a solution to the problem. As controversy has grown bitterer, Maremma has seen the arrival also of strong demonstrative acts, such as the display of wolf carcasses in town squares.
A protest by the European Animalist Party during the session of the State-Regional Conference for approval of the National Plan for Wolf Management.
Point 22 of this plan is the most criticised by public opinion, because it envisages the possibility of selective culling.
Twenty-one other points are however contemplated, aspects relative to monitoring or adoption of preventive measures.
Nobody likes the plan. The farmers do not think it is a solution and neither do the animalists, who are against the culling measures and hope for the entire plan to be vetoed. It is therefore currently on hold.
Meanwhile animals, wolves and sheep, continue to die.
Controversies and exploitation have led to well-defined stances being taken, precluding any chance for dialogue.
Farmers need to realise that, as the situation stands today, problems cannot be tackled using methods from thirty years ago, because that kind of solution is neither effective nor compatible with the values of today’s society. We must, instead, go back to a less naïve concept of the relationship between man and nature.
STORIES OF MEN AND WOLVES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ENTWINED, OUR SOCIETY HAS EVOLVED WITH THE ELUSIVE, YET CONSTANT, PRESENCE OF THE WOLF. THE DOG WAS ONCE A WOLF AND IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST ANIMALS WE TAMED.
THE WOLF IS A FUNDAMENTAL PLAYER IN OUR CULTURE AND, FOR BETTER OR WORSE, IT IS PERHAPS ONE OF THE MORE EVOCATIVE ANIMALS THAT MAN HAS EVER COME INTO CONTACT WITH. THE WOLF HAS ALSO PLAYED AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN THE EVOLUTION OF THOUGHT. EXPLOITED IN THE METAPHORS OF PHILOSOPHERS AND POPULAR SAYINGS, IT LENDS ITS NAME TO PLACES AND POPULATES LEGENDS AND WORKS OF ART, IT CAN BE FOUND IN FAIRY TALES AND IN THE BIOGRAPHIES OF SAINTS.”
Paola and Marco, two biologists involved in the Life MedWolf project, prepare equipment for wolf howling. Wolf Howling is the emission of a series of recorded howls. With a little luck, if there are any wolves nearby, they will reply to these calls. In this way the presence of packs or lone animals in the area can be detected. The aim of the Life MedWolf project, active in both Italy and in Portugal, is to protect wolves through support from the farmers. It in fact aims to detect and promote prevention techniques that may reduce the damage caused by predation. In addition to this, it also intends to estimate the local wolf population.
Arriving at a total estimate for the whole of Italy is complicated because the monitoring projects cover specific areas and wolves respect neither administrative borders nor the zones of competence of the various bodies. What’s more, as this is an activity delegated to the individual regions, to date monitoring has not been uniform throughout Italy
Daniela, Francesca, Sinibaldo, Leonardo and Lorenzo.
Everybody on the Murceti farm around the table for lunch. Farms in Maremma are mainly small, family-run affairs.
For farms of this size one of the few chances for survival is shorten the supply chain to zero.
Everything is done by the family members on the Murceti farm: not only do they produce the milk, but over the years they have also learnt to make cheese and now have a small in-house cheese factory.
Sales are also managed directly. In this way, contact with the client means they can raise awareness of their business culture to outsiders, a form of added value for their produce.
Farms that only sell their milk to cheese factories find it more difficult to make ends meet.
FREE-RANGE FARMING FOR RECUPERATION OF THE LAND
The story of the Murceti farm tells of a return to the land.
The farm was set up because Sinibaldo wanted to restore the scenery and a lifestyle that abandoning the land had cancelled. The area where this farm now stands was originally cultivated by the inhabitants of Castell’Azzara.
This used to be a garden”
Says Sinibaldo, describing the vegetable plots, pastures and fields that from the slopes of Monte Penna reach down into the valley bottom.
Then, with the opening of the mines, people abandoned the land, lured by the safety of a fixed job and emancipation from subsistence agriculture. And, when the mines closed, they did not go back to farming, but left the area. And so the brambles swallowed up the land and its traditions.
I’m not having it! I’m not prepared to lose everything, to lose the possibility of understanding the efforts and sacrifices made by man to create this landscape”
When Sinibaldo started up his project, he owned nothing there, but his timing was perfect as nobody wanted that land, neither the old folk who had abandoned it, nor the youngsters who had no intention of returning. So, piece by piece, he started to negotiate deals with the old owners.
To set up the first nucleus, the farm had to sign 31 different contracts. All the property was fragmented, with each single plot having up to thirty owners even, because over the years no handovers had been registered. Smiling, he says that the legal costs far outran the value of the land. As far as the farm was concerned, the natural choice, in line with this area’s history and activity, was to start up free-range sheep farming.
Since the Murceti farm introduced the dogs and the habit of bringing the sheep in for the night, there have been no more attacks.
For Francesca, Sinibaldo and Lorenzo, the only practicable way forward is coexistence with the wolves. This is their territory and no farmer would be happy about that, but the solution is not culling. On the contrary, farmers must be taught which measures they should adopt to defend against attacks. However, given that these solutions bring with them increased costs for the farms, something must also be done to ensure that the end consumer of the cheese, who does not do this job, realises what living literally with wolves at the door means for the producers.
BUYING FROM LARGE SCALE RETAIL DOES NOT HELP THE WOLF. THE ONLY WAY TO HELP IS TO BUY PRODUCTS FROM THE SHEPHERDS WHO, DESPITE EVERYTHING, DECIDE TO STAY HERE IN THIS AREA AND PROTECT IT”
Lorenzo, Murceti farm
Rita is twenty-three years old and a dog handler from Conservation Canines, a non-profit association involved by Grupo Lobo in the Portuguese branch of the Life MedWolf project.
Zeus on the other hand is seven years old and a sniffer dog trained to track wolf scat.
He comes from a dogs’ home, like all the Conservation Canines dogs and can track up to 35 different species.
The aim of scat tracking is to genetically analyse the level of hybridisation in the local wolf population.
Daniela in her shelter in the pastures of Monte Labbro.
In the summer, when the temperature permits, she often sleeps here, alone, without electricity or running water, to guard her flock.
Daniela’s flock in their night-time pen on Monte Labbro.