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The wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Bringing back the native trees December 1st, 2019 by

As cities grow and more people leave the countryside, parks and gardens will be some of the few remaining places where people will come into contact with trees. City parks are highly managed, cultivated spaces and the choice of species says a lot about the people who create and manage the parks.

The little park in my neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Parque Virrey Toledo, is a case in point. It’s an unpretentious area with a children’s playground, a running path, courts for basketball and football (soccer), and a statue of a colonial bully, streaked with pigeon feces. There are always people in the park, playing, chatting and strolling. Virrey Toledo may be unexceptional, but it is full of trees, enough to make the park seem like a small forest.

Ana recently gave me a little tour of the park and its trees. I was surprised to learn that almost all of them are exotic. There are stately Italian cypresses, flame trees from Madagascar with fleshy, red flowers. North America contributed the big poplar trees (alamos) with rugged bark and large, flat leaves. A rubber fig from India is named for its thick leaves. A set of Australian “pine” trees tower over the football field. Chinaberries, originally from the foothills of the Himalayas, are losing their leaves and bark as they slowly die from a phytoplasma disease.

Ana explained that 50 to 60 years ago, when these trees were being planted, the fashion was to model city parks after Victorian botanical gardens, which were also full of exotic trees, gleaned from around the world by British plant hunters, eager to show off the showy species from around the new empire.

“Aren’t there any native trees at all in the park?” I wondered. Ana pointed out two trees of jarka, with their delicate, golden flowers, which were once one of the dominant trees in the valley. “But these jarkas probably weren’t planted,” Ana explained. One of them was too close to one of the concrete paths that cross the park. “It probably seeded itself,” Ana said.

None of the trees in our little park are labelled. For most people, these are just shade trees. Most of the neighbors have little idea that the park is full of exotic trees, with hardly any from Bolivia or neighboring countries.

But things are changing. Ana has been working with a volunteer group and the municipality to plant native trees in the park. In 2017 she selected some 20 tree seedlings from the municipal nursery, and hired a helper to dig the holes. Volunteers came to plant the trees and to make a little fence around each tree, to protect them from dogs, careless lawnmowers and playful youngsters.

At two-years-old, these native trees are doing quite well. They include locals like the tajibo with its canopy of flowers, the tall Cochabamba ceibo, and the tipa, from watershed of the RĂ­o de la Plata.

Culture is reflected not just in art and architecture, but in urban parks and green spaces. Early to mid-twentieth century Bolivia had little appreciation for native languages, native crops and foods, and ignored native trees for planting in towns and in the countryside. In all fairness, less was then known about how to plant native trees. But as interest in native trees have grown, Bolivian foresters have been learning how to plant them. People in the Andes are starting to appreciate their own heritage a bit more, and native trees are back in favor. When the children now playing on the swings are adults, native trees will welcome them to this park.

Scientific names

Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens

Flame tree, Delonix regia

Poplar, Populus sp.

Rubber fig, Ficus elastica

Australian pine tree, Casuarina equisetifolia

Chinaberry, Melia azedarach

Jarka, Acacia visco

Tajibo, Handroanthus impetiginosus

Cochabamba ceibo, Erythrina falcata

Tipa, Tipuana tipa

The old cat and mouse game November 24th, 2019 by

Did ancient farmers domesticate cats to catch mice? If so, this would have been a classic example of biological pest control, but so far the evidence is largely circumstantial.

Evidence for domestication of a crop or animal is generally based on two lines of study, genetic and archaeological. When both types of research are well and thoroughly done, they tend to support each other. In the case of cats, we still have a ways to go for archaeology to match the genetics.

Oxford zoologist Carlos Driscoll and colleagues explain that there are five living sub-species of wildcats, from Europe to Africa to Asia. Modern domesticated cats are genetically quite close to the Near Eastern wild cat; they even share the same mitochondrial DNA. Based on genetic evidence Driscoll suggests that cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (modern Turkey and Iraq) about the same time that grain farming and livestock tending started there.

Cat domestication at the dawn of agriculture would suggest that early farmers appreciated the wildcats as mousers. With early farming came stores of grain, attracting mice.  

Yet cats are a poor candidate for domestication, because they are obligate carnivores and solitary. Driscoll agrees with archaeologists that ancient farmers did actively domesticate herd animals (sheep, goats and cattle), i.e. penning them, culling undesired individuals, selecting for smaller, tamer, food animals. But Driscoll says that cats were different: cats domesticated themselves—much like dogs, pigs and even swallows, rats and mice. Cats were attracted to the food scraps, the fat mice, and the warm nest sites to be found on small farms. Cats moved in with the farmers, who tolerated them.

This is of course just a hypothesis, consistent with (but not demonstrated by) the genetic evidence and there is little archaeology to back it up.

Some of the earliest cat bones from an archaeological site are much later and far from the Fertile Crescent, in China, from a 6000-year-old site where Yaowu Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues found cat bones tossed into the refuse pits of Quanhucun village. One cat bone was from an old individual, suggesting that the individual had been cared for by farmers.

Ancient farmers quite possibly gave kittens to their neighbors, spreading cats of Near Eastern extraction from Ireland to China to South Africa. Cats then reached the Americas with the Spanish Conquest.

Cats are not universally appreciated as mice killers. Pest control advice books encourage homeowners to get traps to control mice, writing that cats bring in fleas and disease, kill songbirds, and that their effectiveness as biological control agents of mice is not scientifically documented.

My own experience suggests that if you bring a kitten into a mice-infested household, you will have no rodents left in the house or garden by the time the cat is half grown.

Modern smallholders I have met from Portugal to Honduras to Bolivia do keep cats expressly to control mice, and the cats are often treated with a respectful distance, not petted, not given medical attention and not fed (although they may be allowed to eat scraps). Even today, in the large, informal market of Cochabamba, La Cancha, kittens are sold in little wire cages, along with chickens, guinea pigs and other small farm animals.

To get back to the dawn of agriculture, if ancient farmers perceived cats as mice-killers, that may have been enough to earn cats a space to live on farms, where they could domesticate themselves.

Further reading

Driscoll, Carlos A., Marilyn Menotti-Raymond, Alfred L. Roca, Karsten Hupe, Warren E. Johnson, Eli Geffen, Eric H. Harley, Miguel Delibes, Dominique Pontier, Andrew C. Kitchener, Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Stephen J. O’Brien, and David W. Macdonald. 2007 “The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication.” Science 317(5837): 519-523.

Driscoll, Carlos A., David W. Macdonald, and Stephen J. O’Brien. 2009 “From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106. Supplement 1: 9971-9978.

Hu, Yaowu, Songmei Hu, Weilin Wang, Xiaohong Wu, Fiona B. Marshall, Xianglong Chen, Liangliang Hou, and Changsui Wang. 2014 “Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(1): 116-120.

The problem with water hyacinth November 17th, 2019 by

The Pantanal wetland, shared by Bolivia and Brazil, is the size of a small sea. In the Pantanal it rains for six months, followed by a half year drought. During the rainy season the rivers overflow their banks, creating a seemingly endless sheet of shallow water reaching to the horizon. In the dry season the water retreats to the river courses. There are few trees in the Pantanal, but there are dense stands of a delicate-looking purple flower, the water hyacinth.

In the twentieth century, gardeners innocently spread the water hyacinth to Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Water hyacinth has striking blue flowers and was used to adorn ornamental fountains. But it escaped and was soon clogging lakes, ponds and municipal water supplies.

Water hyacinth is such a survivor that you can drain ponds, let the plants dry out and burn them – then watch them grow again when the pond is refilled. It’s not surprising that control options are limited, particularly in open water, such as lakes and rivers.

The plants can be hand removed, by people willing to do heavy labor in the mud, cutting and dragging water hyacinth to the shore. Even this drudgery only works if you repeat it every year.

When the water hyacinth is removed, people tend to leave it in heaps at the edge of the water, where it is unsightly and gets in the way.

I recently saw another solution for water hyacinth in Benin, in West Africa. At Songhai, a training center in Porto Novo, they harvest water hyacinth, chop it, mix it with manure and use it to make methane (biogas) for cooking. Songhai also keeps a large tank of methane to run an electrical generator when the power is out.

Making biogas isn’t for everyone, as we saw in a previous blog. The Moreno family in Peru has trained people for years to make biogas from guinea pig manure, but few if any of the trainees later made biogas at home. For this to happen you need to buy equipment, provide labor, and pay close attention to managing the microorganisms that ferment the organic matter and give off the gas.

I liked the Songhai method because they don’t just remove the water hyacinth. They treat it like raw material and they make something with it.  But I wondered if using it to make biogas was profitable. A more detailed study is needed to gauge its potential to make money. The Songhai solution has one key advantage: the water hyacinth does not need to be dried, a plus because the big heaps of flesh plants hold retain a lot of water.

Water hyacinth is a water thief in some of the thirstier parts of the world. Finding uses for it may help to defray the costs of weeding it out.

Related blog story

The guinea pig solution

The juice mobile

Harsh and healthy

Floating vegetable gardens

Videos

Learn how to use water hyacinth to make a floating garden

Floating vegetable gardens

Learn how to make biogas

Zero-grazing and biogas

Scientific name

Water hyacinth is Eichhornia crassipes.

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego CarlĂłn, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred LeĂłn Plasencia of IDMA.

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