Nieuws - 7 juni 2012

Skimping on sheep

Shepherds in the Netherlands fall between two stools. They are neither seen as nature managers nor as farmers, which makes funding hard to come by. Whereas in fact they are both nature managers and farmers. Current budget cuts only make matters worse. But there is hope. 'Thousands of hectares of former farmland is crying out for extensive grazing.'

Roelof Kuipers and his Schoonenbeek sheep setting off on their protest march near Epe.
When shepherd Roelof Kuipers (44) whistles, Oscar shoots off to drive the flock back to the boss. At the command, 'stand', Oscar comes to a halt, trembling with anticipation of the moment he can set to work again. On top of the Netherlands' own 'Table Mountain', the Tafelberg with views over the patchwork landscape around Winterswijk, man and dog share the responsibility for 300 ewes, more than 100 half-grown lambs and one goat. The flock is stationed here temporarily in order to prevent this former waste tip, now a recreation area, from becoming completely overgrown.
'I became a fulltime shepherd in 2006', says Kuipers. 'I have two flocks. I wander around with them in the east of the Achterhoek [eastern central Netherlands]; starting from the town parks of Lichtenvoorde or Groenlo, for example, and following streams and verges, as well as in the nature reserve along the German border at Zwilbroek. My sheep increase the variety of the vegetation and they distribute seeds. In places where we come every year, orchids are appearing, the verges are bursting into flower and sundew has come back around the ponds. This is not only good for the vegetation, but also for a number of birds and frogs.'
This sounds both romantic and useful, but to Kuipers it is primarily a matter of 'keeping production going', and all for a pittance. 'I work with sheep that have to survive on tough territory with little nutritious food to offer. They don't get nearly as fat as, for example, a Texel sheep does on farmland, and they produce mediocre, stringy wool. I can't make ends meet like that.'

To draw attention to the uncertain position of the Netherlands' 12 independent shepherds - there are also about 20 flocks belonging to nature conservation organizations or managed by foundations - Kuipers and two Gelderland colleagues set off last week with a flock of 450 Schoonebeek sheep to cross the moors and woods of the Veluwe from Epe to Arnhem. Their final destination was a symposium about the future of the independent shepherd, called 'Sheep adrift' and held at the provincial headquarters in Arnhem. The symposium was organized by a network of practitioners called 'That's why we eat mutton'. The network's founding principle is the idea that slow food mutton could be the salvation of the shepherds. It has now grown into an interest group that has been granted 400 thousand euros for four years by the ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. Shepherds are dependent on government subsidies available for such activities as maintaining rare domestic breeds. But these sources of income are rapidly shrinking, says instigator Martin Woestenburg. 'And that goes for the main source of income too: the nature management work done by the shepherds and their flocks, at the behest of nature organizations, water boards or municipal councils, for example. Thanks to the cuts, they sometimes skip a year now. And that is a disaster for the shepherd.'
To add to the difficulties, the national compensation scheme for nature management using sheep ended last year. From now it is the provincial administrations that have to cough up the funding for this, but they have failed to reach an agreement with the ministry on the amount needed.
'The shepherds fall between two stools', says Woestenburg. 'They are not taken seriously: either as nature managers or as farmers.' The EU does not yet see the grazing of nature areas as a form of agriculture that qualifies for subsidies.

Tourist bus
Raymond Schrijver, agricultural economics researcher at Alterra, sees light at the end of the tunnel. The greening of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy that is to be in force from 2014 could come to the rescue, says Schrijver, who spoke at the symposium in Arnhem last Friday.
'Grazing is a form of extensive agriculture that brings many social benefits, including, landscape management and the conservation of both biodiversity and cultural heritage', notes Schrijver. 'There is talk of exploring the possibilities for classifying areas that are grazed as farmland, and of the shepherds who graze this land having the right to subsidies. If that goes through, it will take the pressure off, I think. Then the shepherds will be able to earn a decent income again.  Hier komt nog een zin over de huidige inkomenspositie. Hier komt nog een zin over de huidige inkomenspositie. Hier komt nog een zin over de huidige inkomenspositie. Otherwise I am not very optimistic.'
The question is whether the shepherds can wait that long. 'I can't just take the batteries out of the sheep until the prospects get brighter', says Roelof Kuipers. 'I would rather not be an attraction, standing around waiting for the next busload of tourists. I just want to get on with my job without having to worry about how to pay for winter fodder. I hate the word subsidy, actually. I have 600 animals; I should be able to make a living from them shouldn't I?'

More than enough work
There is certainly more than enough work for the coming decades, Herbert Diemont reckons. He represents Alterra as project leader in 'That's why we eat mutton.' 'Due to the intensification in the agricultural sector, less and less farmland is needed in Europe, and that includes the Netherlands', explains Diemont. 'The setting up of the ecological main structure means that 10,000 hectares of land that used to be used for intensive agriculture are now crying out for extensive management. If we don't do anything, all that fallow land will end up as forest. In most cases that is not desirable. Either because you want to preserve the landscape or because, as in Spain and Portugal, there is a fear of forest fires if the biomass becomes too dense.'
The solution, thinks Diemont, could well be grazing, preferably by private parties - they are the most cost-effective. 'That makes it possible to connect ecology with economics. Nature management is then combined with meat production: something we are going to promote internationally.' Diemont sees new opportunities here for Wageningen. 'Now we can show that intensive agriculture is not the only thing we know a bit about. We also know how to manage land by extensive methods.'

Catching ticks
Sip van Wieren of Alterra's Resource Ecology Group calls it a 'trial': using sheep to catch ticks. 'Last year we started a research project on the ecology of the tick, together with the RIVM and Entomology at Wageningen. One aspect of the research is how to reduce the number of ticks. When I saw the flock of sheep that grazes on the campus I wondered whether it would help to graze the sheep intensively in a nature area for a couple of days. Would that lead to a significant reduction in tick numbers? Shepherd Henry Hoiting is enthusiastic about the idea. We are going to try it out at a couple of places this summer.'