Sunday, April 24, 2016

Progress in farming kills more animals

That's not a headline for a Sunday, is it? It is not a headline you'd want to read any day of the week, so the blogster decided to go for it.

There are occasional reports on the death toll of fauna during the main hay making season from May to June. But compared to the sheer numbers of animals killed each year in Germany alone, estimated at half a million deer, rabbits, and ground nesting birds, the amount of coverage is negligible.

There are multiple reasons for this lack of interest. One is the relentless PR of farmer associations portraying the folks who grow your grains, raise your beef roast and get milk to super markets for cheap as stewards of the countryside, as businessmen with a side job as conservationists.

A second major reason for the low profile of these events is that they are not concentrated in one small area at one narrow point in time. They occur over several weeks all over Germany.

If the mowing of meadows was as localized as the killing of dolphins at "the cove" in Japan or as easily captured as the slaughter of a herd of elephants, it would not happen.

A third reason is that farmers don't like to talk about it. But if and when they do, the first thing you find is that they hate killing baby animals, and the second thing you find is that the existing German laws and regulations to minimize these deaths are not worth the paper they are written on.

Yes, environmental law mandates a German farmer to inform the local hunting lease holder of the day and time of mowing. This is to allow the hunter to run his dogs through the meadows and pastures the day prior to the cutting in order to scare off deer moms and calves as well as rabbits and, to a lesser extent, birds.

Enforcement of the law is spotty at best. Some hunting lease holders are absentees going about a big and important life in a big city and do not have a local representative. Others don't care even if informed. Many try their best, but running dogs through hundreds of acres before a busy grass mowing weekend is beyond their resources. On the part of the farmers, the majority tries to comply, but some just go out and do the job, hoping not to shred Bambi this year.

And there are itinerant mowers, contractors, who work their way up the country. Decades ago, contractors were mostly performing grain harvest work because combines had grown into half million dollar machines individual farmers could not afford.

In Germany, with farms still generally much smaller than in the US and other countries, cutting grass for hay and silage has become another field for contractors, as has the lumber industry.

Contractors are more interested in acreage than in finding one or two baby deer or a handful of rabbits. Then there is the weather. Your best plan may still be thwarted by a bit of rain, with ripple effects to the other customers.

Size matters in another way, too. The huge machines are much louder than the old chuck-chuck tractors with a beam cutter. They are also much wider and faster. A modern grass cutter assembly is 30 ft wide or more, as opposed to the old beam of 6ft. Where an old tractor might mow at a leisurely pace of 5 mph, a modern one doing 15 is considered slow. The much higher noise levels cause the critters to stay put, as opposed to lower noise levels that would scare off many.

All of these factors increase the death toll among wild life.

Also, farmers used to run their kids through the meadows a good distance ahead of the tractor. That was great exercise and wildlife protection at the same time.

To be fair, efforts are under way in the industry to reduce the carnage. Some equipment makers are putting thermal imaging devices on the cutters and transmit images to a split screen in the cabin. In theory, this allows the driver to stop and try to scare baby deer out of the way. The problem with this approach is speed and physics. Detection at fairly close range can work if the driver is very focused at all times, but slamming the brakes won't stop nine or ten tons of equipment fast enough.

The latest, and probably most promising way to evacuate wildlife uses drones. They can be flown separately, ahead of time or during the mowing. Flown ahead of time, their relatively low operating noise can scare off animals - it doesn't freeze them in place.

And for the kids, they might again be of some use as drone operators.

Though Germans in general don't have many kids these days. But that's another subject.

[Update 4/25/2016] Harvesting of grains and rape seed is much less dangerous to wildlife but can be hazardous to farmers. Rape seed is a favorite food of wild boars and falls into the hunting season for these animals. One farmer the blogster knows no longer informs the hunters. He explained: The back of my combine is peppered with bullet holes, I'm not suicidal.

[Update 4/25/2016] Fixed typos.

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