Wild Cats, Traditional Farming & Camera Traps

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Report on Archnetwork Romania 2019

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Roo Campbell, Scottish Wildcat Action

October 2019

All images © Roo Campbell 2019

Introduction

I signed up for the Archnetwork trip to Romania because of its focus on traditional farming. As someone working on the conservation of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, aka (as the Latin implies) the ‘Forest cat’, this interest seems odd. But over the course of my work on the species, it has become more and more apparent to me that the agricultural landscape is important to the wildcat. Just before I set off for Romania, two things happened that helped me realise this trip was the right thing to do. First, I read mention in a book by Robin Noble about how historical accounts indicated our landscapes teemed with wildlife including plenty of small carnivores and, presumably, the prey base that could sustain them. Why is this not the case today? Secondly, I had a conversation with a colleague about the low number of cats living in the wild in Morvern. During our discussion, we hypothesised that the low numbers were because too little of the land was being tilled now; productivity had dropped, the prey base had declined and the cat numbers had plummeted. Over thousands of years of cultivating the land, our ancestors created Eden and wildlife flourished. This is an Eden we have since lost.

So my intention in visiting Romania was to see what this Eden might have looked like and learn how we might make farming more beneficial to wildlife such as the wildcat.

Biodiversity and agriculture

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Orchard hay meadow in Girbovita. Note the diverse meadow with many herbs and the earthen ant mounds. Note also in the background the more open common grazing which is the only place in the village we saw agricultural machinery.

Our first day was spent in the village of Garbovita, where we gathered hay. The hay meadow was underneath an apple orchard showed a remarkably high proportion of herbs including knapweed Centaurea spp. (an important nectar providing plant), chicory Chicorium spp., and yarrow Achillea millefolium. Hay is cut and gathered by hand, in part because mechanical harvesting would be difficult around the apple trees and perhaps for many because the purchase of machinery for gathering hay is prohibitive for subsistence farmers. A by-product of this is that the earthen mounds created by Myrmica ants are not damaged during hay making. At both Garbovita and the mountain village of Rimet we could see that a form of strip-farming is employed, with residents owning many small strips (usually under 0.5 acres) with a variety of crops dotted around the villages. This appears similar to the traditional rig farming in Scotland. Aside from the methods of multiple land-use within strips (for example orchard and hay meadow as mentioned above), this form of strip-farming results in a greater diversity of crops over a small area and provides plenty of interfaces between crops. For example we saw strips of maize interspersed between hay meadow. This structural diversity probably lends itself to greater biodiversity and such interface habitats are used by a number of rare species such as corncrake and wildcat (more on that below).

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Strip farming on the road to the wood pasture

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Myrmica ant mound in hay meadown. This one has been damaged by trampling, showing the internal structure, but most were intact.

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Impressively large and old black poplar trees at the wood pasture.

Day six of the trip saw us visit a wood pasture. This is where cattle are grazed under the shade of mature trees, in this case black poplar Populus nigra. These poplars were very big and possibly over 400 years old. The largest example was hollow (potentially suitable for roosting bats) and measured over 10m and possibly 15m in circumference. Incomplete pollarding is practiced on these trees, where branches are removed when wood is needed for creating poles to support haystacks or other specific purposes. This process creates boles on the trunk which, because the wood is repeatedly removed, have complex surface with lots of nooks and crannies for insects such as mites and arachnids as well as mosses and lichens in the otherwise relatively dry environment. Burrowing mammals live on the pasture too and we saw several mounds and burrows dotted around though we were unable to identify what species were responsible for these. Because the ground is grazed, natural regeneration is supressed. However, where blackthorn Prunus spinosa and hawthorn Crataegus spp. shrubs have established and not been removed, this provides natural protection for seedlings and we saw field maple Acer campestre growing under the protection of these thorns. The consequence of a lack of regeneration would be a loss of shade as old trees die off, but replacement of the trees can be supported either by allowing patches of thorn to establish or by protecting seedlings with man-made structures.

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Highly crinkled bole resulting from the regular cutting of timber from the lower parts of the poplar trees in the wood pasture.

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Field maple seedling, with a Cepaea snail, growing under the protection of a thorn bush.

Protection of crops and livestock

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Alexandru and his dog and goats

Romania hosts a number of mammalian carnivores and herbivores that are extinct or rare in Britain, most notably bear Ursus arctos, wolf Canis lupus, lynx Lynx lynx, and boar Sus scrofa. Like Britain, Romania has numerous smaller predators including fox Vulpes vulpes, badger Meles meles, pine marten Martes martes and of course wildcat, all of which can predate smaller livestock such as chickens. On our visit to Rimet, we were shown camera trap images, taken at one location, showing bear, fox, badger, wildcat and wild boar. Throughout the trip we saw examples of how Romanian farmers coexist with these animals. One morning outside our hotel we met Alexandru. He’s not a farmer but was formerly employed with the neighbouring winery. Like many rural Romanian, he does however keep livestock and he herds his goats every morning to allow them to forage around his house. At other times they are kept secure at his property. His dog, though not a pure bred livestock guarding dog, is very similar to the Bucovina shepherd dog, which is a breed of Romanian livestock guarding dog. As the name suggests, such dogs are used to protect livestock from predators and will display great courage when faced with potential predators, while being completely nonaggressive to the owner, family and their livestock. Some breeds have even lost the instinctive hunting behaviours typical of other dog breeds.

At Girbovita, many livestock are kept within the farmyards and locked-up at night to protect against predation. Indeed, our visit to the open air museum of Romanian architecture on day five revealed many traditional houses designed so that the farmyards are completely enclosed, protecting livestock, at least from the larger less agile predators. We also saw a sheep fold that was roofed, possibly to protect the sheep from both predators and weather. In Girbovita, some of the residents have one or two cows and these are kept in byres overnight but taken out to the common grazing during the day.

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Left, one example of the enclosed farmyard seen in many traditional houses (here at an open-air museum) and, right, chickens in the enclosed farm in Girbovita.

Protection is provided to crops, particularly if these are near forest where wild boar and roe deer Capreolus capreolus live. We found boar (or possibly bear) dung in the orchards at the edge of Garbovita. In the village itself, strong high metal fences had been erected around vulnerable land. Above the village we were shown a metal-free fence based on a traditional design of upright wooden poles of false acacia Robinia pseudoacacia with horizontal woven stems made from any available species. This was topped with a hay coping layer to protect the fence from rotting. Over several years the fence had not been breached by wild boar. Incidentally, the false acacia as an invasive species but is apparently encouraged by farmers because it is useful as a source of timber and of leafy forage for livestock.

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Left metal boar-proof fencing and, right, a traditional design woven fence from natural material.

Thoughts on wildcats and the Romania landscape

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Forest and farmland near Rimet. The wildcat detected on the hunter’s camera trap was found in forest in the back-ground of this scene near the bare hill.

Wildcats are thought to exist throughout much of Romania, though there is little information on the population status. Hybridisation is a major issue in Scotland, and possibly in Hungary to Romania’s north. The genetic data on this from Hungary may be confounded by historic natural hybridisation with the African wildcat Felis lybica, which is the ancestor of the domestic cat and once existed naturally up into Bulgaria to Romania’s south. i.e. hybridisation may be over-estimated in Hungary. Wildcats certainly exist in the area of Romania visited in this trip, as seen on the hunter’s camera trap mentioned earlier. That single individual showed no obvious signs of hybridisation. This wildcat was detected in a forest dominated by beech trees.

Our experience in Scotland and recent research with GPS-collared wildcats in Germany and France shows that wildcats also use farmland and the mixed forest and meadow environment visible in the image above is typical of the habitat wildcat inhabit elsewhere. Possibly the plentiful forest cover within this mixed landscape, which is much higher than that of Scotland, provides better habitat for wildcats. The species rich hay meadows further from the villages may also be an important habitat for hunting wildcats and these generally offer cover of either taller vegetation on a canopy of fruit trees.

On the road to Rimet we also saw extensive areas of juniper Juniperus communis scrub which we regards as good wildcat habitat in Scotland. We didn’t find evidence for a high density of prey for wildcats in the areas we visited (e.g. on the Littlewood small-mammal camera box, or obvious signs of small mammal activity) but we didn’t invest a lot of effort in searching for these. In agricultural land, the field structure was complex with many small fields and with some being managed following an agroforestry model, e.g. orchards with hay meadow beneath. Wildcats reply on a mix of cover and prey habitat which this type of landscape can provide in profusion. So this structurally diverse landscape could be very good for wildcats and other smaller carnivores and it would be interesting to investigate this further.

At every farm we visited, we met several farm cats, none of which were neutered and there were plenty of kittens. These provide an important function as pest controllers on farms. We invest in farm cat neutering in Scotland to reduce the risk of further hybridisation with wildcat but it appears that there are circumstances where unneutered domestic cats and wildcats can coexist without hybridisation. This has also been found in other European countries. We suspect other factors play a role in encouraging interbreeding such as low numbers of wildcats, the amount of good habitat far enough away from settlements for wildcats and possibly the lack of other larger predators that would discourage domestic cats from wandering freely. The landscape of Romania, with its higher woodland cover, clumped settlement pattern and plentiful large predators may discourage hybridisation. In addition I noticed that many dogs roam more freely in the landscape than in Britain, which may also inhibit domestic cats from ranging far from the farmyards.

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Farm cats including kittens at the farm in Garbovita and, inset, a sleeping kitten at the farm.

Camera-traps

Above Garbovita, we set a Reconyx camera trap baited with valerian root (a lure for cats specifically) at the edge of a managed orchard next to abandoned scrub. The location was chosen because there were multiple animal trails and the layout of woodland and meadow provide a natural funnel for animals past the camera. The camera was placed at about 20cm height and set to take three images in succession whenever it was triggered, with no gap between successive triggers. We also set a Littlewood small mammal camera box baited with grain (bird seed mix) and meal worms. We used a Cuddeback camera and set it to take 10 sec of video with 30 sec between triggers. Both cameras were left for three nights.

Captured on the main camera trap were roe deer, badger, fox, a green woodpecker Picus viridus (a first on camera for me) foraging on the ground and a dawn ground-foraging blackbird Turdus merula. Overall this is a good result for just three days, especially where no food bait was used. Surprisingly, given three days is usually enough time to detect small mammals, no small mammals visited the Littlewood small mammal box. Possibly at this time of year there are plenty of seeds and grains on the ground for foraging mice and voles, but it could also that the trap was set too close to a busy animal trail. Overall, I would have liked to have had more time and cameras for both types of camera trapping as we normally set the usual baited camera traps for at least 2 weeks (usually 60 days or more) while we’d set many more (e.g. 20) of the Littlewood boxes at a variety of locations. These cameras are very useful tools for informing visitors and the wider public about the wildlife that exists in these areas. If we made more use of these cameras we could also learn a lot about how this traditionally farmed landscape is used by mammals and some birds.

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Left, fox and, right, badger on the camera trap. Recorded about two hours apart.

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Roe deer, jay and green woodpecker (not captured at same time)

Key lessons

The farms and surrounding landscape were rich in terms of structure and species. It is difficult to compare this directly with the Scottish landscape because the more southerly location within Europe lends itself to higher biodiversity (and vines – including 39 varieties at the Girbovita farm), but the traditionally farmed landscapes were highly diverse in terms of structure as well as species. This is something we can promote in Scotland through encouraging small-scale farming that improves landscape diversity, both in terms of species and structure. This could be is through agri-envronment schemes or other agricultural payment schemes. As others have mentioned in their reports, the current payment schemes focus on large-scale productivity is already changing farming in Romania and we risk losing this unique landscape. Traditional farming like this is harder work however, with lower food productivity per unit effort, so we should explore where this type of farming needs to be encouraged and what elements of these practices we want to retain.

In Scotland, we have lost many of the attitudes to livestock husbandry that allow coexistence with predators. The exception to this is with smaller livestock such as chickens, were the concept of protection is well understood. If we ever bring back any of the larger predators, we can learn from the practices employed in countries like Romania.

Finally, if we are going to be able to support a viable wildcat population in perpetuity in Scotland (i.e. without risk of hybridisation), we may need to look at the environment in Romania and see what we can take from it that helps both wildcats and biodiversity more generally. Can we reduce the risk of wildcats breeding with any unneutered domestic cats that will surely remain, despite our best efforts with neutering programmes? Do we need predators, or a change in the distribution of certain landscape features? Do we need more forest cover or better-connected forest patches?

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