I welcome today’s conference, which confirms the increasing interest of the Parliament on issues around the conservation and management of the wolf in Europe (and large carnivores in general).
The return of the wolf to many parts of the EU is a testimony to the success of our collective efforts to protect the environment and preserve Europe's shared natural heritage.
At the same time, it has introduced a new factor that can be disruptive for some – including the sheep farming sector. This is undeniable, and it is why achieving coexistence with large carnivores in the EU is a strategic priority of our Nature policy.
I often hear criticism that "Brussels" knows nothing about the problems sheep and goat farmers face and that we prioritise the protection of species over human interest. That we aren't listening, or that we only listen to NGOs.
I can assure you that this is not the case. The Commission is very conscious of the challenge that the return of the wolf poses, adding to other challenges facing the sector. Very recently my colleague Commissioner Phil Hogan was here in the Parliament for the debate on the recent report on the current situation and future prospects for the sheep and goat sector in the EU. I am aware that the Parliament's report contains a long list of challenges, from competition from imports, low bargaining power, declining consumption, to difficulties in finding qualified labour.
This is why I can fully understand the reaction by sheep farmers when they are confronted with the predation risks linked to the return of the wolf.
But we cannot, from here in Brussels, simply wave a magic wand and make it happen. Nor can we come up with quick fixes. There are laws to be respected – laws that were decided by Member States and recently reconfirmed as being fit for purpose. It is also a fact that the debate about the wolf is far from black and white: there is strong public support for their return from the brink of extinction and for a very strict approach to wolf protection.
In this context, the Commission sees its role not only as guardian of the Treaty, responsible for overseeing the correct application of EU law, but also of mediating between different interests and helping to identify local solutions that respect the rules and are acceptable to all – even if they are perhaps not ideal for any one party.
In doing so, we are committed to working in close cooperation with the Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, Member States and the different stakeholders.
This is not an easy task but if we are willing to work constructively together, I am convinced it can be achieved.
Coming back to the Parliament's report on the sheep and goat sectors in the EU and the challenges identified, the current Common Agricultural Policy is providing several different types of support to help Member States and the sector address these problems. These include direct payments, voluntary coupled support, payments for Areas with Natural Constraints and other rural development measures.
From the environment perspective, I fully concur with the points made in the report about the important contribution the sector makes to preserving habitats and biodiversity and agree that extensive sheep and goat farming should be rewarded for the significant public goods they provide. The future CAP could and should do more in this respect.
Coming back to the wolf, more needs to be done to reduce the predation risk for livestock. It is clear that this problem is especially present in those regions where wolves are recovering after an absence of several decades or longer, and where traditional practices to manage and protect livestock have been lost.
This can be done by re-integrating traditional practices and local solutions, that existed for thousands of years, adjusting and possibly integrating them with modern solutions (e.g. electric fences, visual and acoustic deterrents) to adapt them to existing livestock husbandry practices.
I recognise that this requires resources and time, but technical solutions can be found with the active involvement of the livestock farmers. The Commission will continue to support such actions and the adoption of relevant preventive measures, both under the Rural Development Programmes (as it is the case in France) and under our LIFE programme. Since 1992, LIFE has funded 85 projects in 12 Member States to improve coexistence with large carnivores, of which 42 projects specifically concerning the wolf.
Experience with these projects clearly shows that when prevention measures are:
well designed, in accordance to the specific/local conditions,
well implemented, with proper training or technical assistance for the beneficiaries and their active collaboration,
well monitored and followed up (and adjusted when needed),
they are effective in protecting livestock and minimising predation risks. They should be considered an integral component of sustainable livestock farming in areas with large carnivores.
Some examples of best practices have been demonstrated at the recent final conference of the LIFE WOLFALPS project, (in Italy-Trento on 18-20 March 2018). Following initial analysis of the grazing systems in different areas and of their vulnerability to predation, a differentiated strategy has been carried out, with specific and targeted interventions (ad-hoc mountain pasture plans). The support has included not only the provision of suitable protection systems (livestock guarding dogs, electric fences, acoustic devices), but also technical and veterinary assistance, training for the farmers, food for the dogs, water supply points for livestock and prefabricated huts for shepherds. Among many other things, specific information exchanges have been arranged between livestock breeders of the newly recolonised areas of the Central Alps and those from the western Alps (Piedmont) who have now a longer experience since the return of the wolf.
Of course, in some situations it will not be possible to fully prevent damage from occurring, even in spite of the implementation of the relevant protection measures by livestock farmers. In these cases it is important to ensure that an efficient and fair compensation system is in place with timely payments to the concerned beneficiaries. This is fully allowed by the Agricultural State Aid rules (both under the “de minimis” Regulation and under the current State Aid Guidelines).
Another important element to reduce conflicts and improve coexistence is appropriate investment in communication and information, as well as in dialogue and involvement of all the concerned stakeholders. Often the conflicts are among different stakeholders with conflicting views and interests on land use. The Commission can support, and is already supporting, such communication actions as well.
Finally, Member States may authorise the limited lethal control of wolf specimens to prevent serious damage to livestock. Under the Habitats Directive it is possible to grant a derogation in the absence of other alternatives and as long as it does not undermine the favourable conservation status of the species. In fact, both experience and scientific evidence show that prevention measures can be more effective in reducing livestock damages than lethal control. Therefore, a limited and targeted use of lethal control may be part of, but certainly cannot replace, a comprehensive and adequate system for prevention and coexistence that I have just referred to.
Following the Fitness Check evaluation of the Habitats and Birds Directives, an Action Plan “for nature, people and the economy” was adopted on 27 April 2017 (to be implemented until 2019).
Several measures envisaged by this Action Plan are relevant for managing large carnivores.
The 10% increase in the LIFE budget dedicated to nature and biodiversity projects under the current MFF will reinforce the role of LIFE in this area, including with regard to large carnivores.The proposed considerable increase of the LIFE-budget as part of the next MFF will provide further opportunities.
Moreover, the Commission plans to update its guidance document on species protection rules under the Habitats Directive. This will provide clarifications of the existing legal framework, including in relation to the flexibility for use of derogations to remove specimens of strictly protected species under certain conditions. Member States authorities and all the relevant stakeholders will be consulted and involved in this exercise.
The Commission will also continue to assist and bring together public authorities and stakeholders from different Member States at biogeographical region level to address common challenges. This can also be relevant for large carnivores, whose populations are often transboundary.
Furthermore, the Commission is holding a series of bilateral meetings with the Member States to discuss their implementation of the Nature Directives. These ‘nature dialogues’ involve national and regional authorities as well as the private sector, NGOs and other stakeholders, and identify key actions and local solutions to improve the implementation on the ground, including in relation to large carnivores.
Finally, the Commission will provide more support for stakeholders' platforms to promote dialogue and good practices aimed at reducing conflicts associated to large carnivores' conservation. At the beginning of 2018 we started a new contract to continue support for the existing EU Stakeholders Platform on Large Carnivores. Furthermore, in order to implement a pilot project funded by the European Parliament, another contract has also started to support the establishment of three new regional stakeholders' Platforms in Romania, Italy and Spain.
The Commission is also financing the implementation of the new LIFE project called EUROLARGECARNIVORES(2017-2022) which started at the beginning of this year, with the aim to improve coexistence with large carnivores in Europe through communication, transboundary cooperation and knowledge exchange. Several Member States and regions will be concerned by the project activities: Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia.
Finally, I would like to invite you to consider the opportunities for rural communities to use the wolf as an additional source of income. Several positive examples exist.
In Spain, the region northwest of Zamora (especially " Sierra de la Culebra ") has become an important area for wolf-watching tourism, which now represents a major economic asset, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
A different type of opportunity has been developed in Italy in Piedmont (under the LIFE WOLFALPS project). A local label (“Terre di lupi”= “Land of wolves”) has been created to improve the marketing of cheese and other products from the farmers concerned by the presence of wolf. The message behind the label tries to express the pride in making quality products in a context of increased difficulties due to wolf presence and predation risk. 35 excursions have been organised to increase tourists’ knowledge and awareness about the wolf and the implications of its return to these areas and to let them approach directly the shepherds involved in the project (who could explain the implementation of prevention measures and promote their products).
In conclusion, I recognise we have an ongoing challenge to ensure coexistence between people and large carnivores. The Commission is committed to working with the Parliament on this matter. As I hope to have shown you, we are translating this commitment into practical actions in the framework of the EU Nature Action Plan, the delivery of which is an important priority of my mandate.
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