Feed the Birds

Farm­ers hate trum­peter swans. Now they’re re­spon­si­ble for sav­ing them

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Anita La­hey

John van­den dun­gen plants his boots on the edge of a har­vested corn­field. Ball cap perched on his head, he ex­plains to a bus­load of con­ser­va­tion­ists, bi­ol­o­gists, and bird­ers how he’s trained the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion of trum­peter swans to stay off the twenty acres of peren­nial rye grass be­hind him. Van­den Dun­gen is a dairy farmer. He’s been tend­ing this patch of Vancouver Is­land since 1977. And, yes, you heard right. He said “trained.”

The trum­peter swan, with its nearly eight-foot wing­span, is the largest wa­ter­fowl in the world. With its snow-white feath­ers and jet-black bill, legs, and feet, it’s ar­rest­ing. But for Van­den Dun­gen, hav­ing hun­dreds of swans swoop in is like host­ing a bush party gone awry. If left alone, they go straight for his rye field, which pro­vides cru­cial for­age for his 160 milk­ing cows. But the wild grass that pops up among his chopped­off corn stalks? That’s fair game. “We chase them off with quads,” Van­den Dun­gen says, re­fer­ring to all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles. “But we don’t bother them on the corn­fields. They seem to be get­ting the mes­sage.”

The au­di­ence chuck­les. But the ten­sion be­tween trum­peters and the is­land’s roughly forty-four dairy farm­ers is se­ri­ous busi­ness. The tour group that Van­den Dun­gen is ad­dress­ing is made up of at­ten­dees at the Trum­peter Swan So­ci­ety’s 2016 con­fer­ence. The so­ci­ety, which draws mem­bers from across North Amer­ica, un­der­stands that with­out the dairies, swans are sunk. The trum­peter was once a pop­u­lar food source. Its skin was used to make pow­der puffs, and its feath­ers were in de­mand for quill pens. By the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the bird had been hunted to near ex­tinc­tion: in 1933, there were seventy-seven known swans breed­ing in Canada, and fifty in the United States. Thanks to in­tense con­ser­va­tion mea­sures, the fed­eral sta­tus of trum­peters has changed from “spe­cial con­cern” to “not at risk” in fairly short or­der. There are now 63,000 of them, about 24,000 of which mi­grate along the Pa­cific coast. And one of the most sig­nif­i­cant win­ter­ing grounds for this pop­u­la­tion? Right here, on Vancouver Is­land.

In the world of species re­cov­ery, the trum­peter swan is a good news story, one of the best. But resur­gent wildlife of­ten ends up com­pet­ing with peo­ple for re­sources. Think elk in Banff, deer in Vic­to­ria, or rac­coons and coy­otes in ur­ban Toronto. We want strug­gling an­i­mals to thrive, but if we’ve de­vel­oped, oc­cu­pied, or dam­aged their orig­i­nal habi­tat, what then? In some ar­eas, up to 90 per­cent of the wet­lands and es­tu­ar­ies that once be­longed to trum­peters have been de­stroyed by hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Those that re­main have been de­pleted.

En­ter the pro­tein-rich grasses on dairy farms, served up on vast groomed fields. What trum­peter wouldn’t avail it­self of this bounty? It’s partly be­cause they’ve dis­cov­ered the ben­e­fits of dairies that swans have re­cov­ered: af­ter feast­ing, they re­turn to their Alaskan breed­ing grounds in peak con­di­tion. An es­ti­mated 85 per­cent now de­pend on agri­cul­ture for sus­te­nance.

Sev­eral con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions are work­ing to re­plen­ish wet­land habi­tats, es­pe­cially those ad­ja­cent to farms, in the hopes of di­vert­ing an­i­mals and birds from crops. But some wildlife bi­ol­o­gists ar­gue that it’s un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect species such as trum­peters to re­turn to es­tu­ar­ies: they long ago lost the “flock mem­ory” of their orig­i­nal stomp­ing grounds, and would have to work harder in es­tu­ar­ies for more mea­gre meals. Why change a rou­tine that’s serv­ing them so well? What’s needed, in­stead, is cre­ative think­ing: a reeval­u­a­tion of how we see the nat­u­ral world, and our place in it. We need to learn to share.

It’s a rad­i­cal idea. But be­fore such a change can catch on, farm­ers them­selves need con­vinc­ing — a lot of it. L ead­ing to­day’s tour is Graeme Fowler, a farmer who has been deal­ing with the im­pact of swans on farms for more than a quar­ter cen­tury. His opinion of the bird lies some­where be­tween “ma­jes­tic be­ings” and “field mag­gots.” Fowler un­der­stands first-hand why farm­ers talk num­bers — how many trum­peters they can be ex­pected to sup­port, how many so­ci­ety even needs. He spent years help­ing farm­ers pro­tect their crops by chas­ing swans off with trained dogs, scar­ing them

with flags or gun­fire. Nowa­days, the strat­egy he ad­vo­cates is quite dif­fer­ent.

Fowler man­ages a BC Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture com­pen­sa­tion pro­gram that re­funds farm­ers 50 per­cent of the cost of seed­ing a har­vested field with win­ter wheat or wildlife-friendly grass — such as Ital­ian rye, oats, and bar­ley. Called cover crop­ping, it’s a more de­lib­er­ate ver­sion of Van­den Dun­gen’s scheme. It pro­vides food for wildlife while steer­ing it clear — to a point — of crops the farmer wants to pro­tect. It also re­duces ero­sion and adds nu­tri­ents to the soil, cut­ting fer­til­izer costs. The farmer is on the hook for about $75 an acre, but Fowler says that the ben­e­fits for the soil, and the re­duced dam­age else­where on the farm, make the idea worth­while. Twenty farm­ers have signed on this past year, col­lec­tively plant­ing 1,000 acres of lure crops. When th­ese farm­ers see a field fill with birds, they should — in the­ory — re­lax and let them be.

Is it pos­si­ble that this type of prac­tice will one day be rou­tine — that a farmer’s sense of duty will ex­tend beyond the potato haul or the litres of milk of­fered up by cows? Delta Farm­land and Wildlife Trust is bet­ting on it. Based due east across the Sal­ish Sea, on BC’S main­land, the trust is a non-profit made up of farm­ers and con­ser­va­tion­ists in equal mea­sure. It has spent nearly twenty-five years test­ing its the­ory that a shift in our ap­proach to agri­cul­ture is not only worth imag­in­ing, but also fea­si­ble — at least on a lo­cal scale.

The Delta Trust op­er­ates on the prin­ci­ple that with ad­e­quate in­vest­ment from gov­ern­ments, con­ser­va­tion groups, and farm­ers them­selves, agri­cul­tural lands can in­deed func­tion as wildlife habi­tat. For­mer pro­gram man­ager Chris­tine Terpsma — an agrol­o­gist and, un­til re­cently, a dairy farmer— gave Trum­peter Swan So­ci­ety con­fer­ence­go­ers the lowdown on the trust. Thirty to forty years ago, she said, Delta farm­ers also felt a high level of frus­tra­tion: farms were los­ing for­age crops to wildlife.

All that has changed. Be­gin­ning with pi­lot projects in the early 1990s, mea­sures have been taken to make agri­cul­tural land in Delta more wel­com­ing to na­tive fauna. With the help of lo­cal farms, the area is now one of the most sig­nif­i­cant habi­tats for wildlife in the western hemi­sphere. In Delta, the agri­cul­ture is di­verse — from cran­ber­ries to beans — as are the hun­gry crea­tures it at­tracts. In ad­di­tion to 3,000 acres of cost-shared cover crops, the trust also sup­ports more than 500 acres of grass­land set-asides and over twelve kilo­me­tres of hedgerows and grass mar­gins — all wildlife-friendly digs. “Our pro­grams are not static,” Terpsma stressed. “We con­tin­u­ally ask farm­ers, ‘What do you need to make farm­ing more vi­able’?”

Terpsma’s slide show in­cludes re­cent shots of a snow goose eat­ing a waste potato, mal­lards gob­bling up rye grass lure crops, and a bald ea­gle us­ing a hay bale as a hunt­ing perch. “That’s co-op­er­a­tion right there,” she an­nounced proudly.

Back in the Cowichan Val­ley, farm­ers are still ad­just­ing to their own shift. Oliver Balme, who runs a 200-acre dairy farm near Van­den Dun­gen’s, is part of the group that en­rolled in Fowler’s pi­lot project. A sin­gu­lar sight in shades, a wide-brimmed hat, and a large rain jacket, Balme has man­aged to seed a cover crop ex­actly twice. The scheme was great, he says, un­til the swans gob­bled up his of­fer­ing and shifted to the rest of his field. You can do your ut­most to tempt them, but you can’t con­trol what swans do once they alight. One farmer jokes that he posts di­rec­tional signs: Swans, This Way.

It’s true: cover crop­ping is a slog — ex­tra work post-har­vest, when stress is high and rains may come in heavy and fast, flood­ing a field be­fore it’s prepped for plant­ing. If you have the right equip­ment, how­ever, the in­con­ve­nience can be off­set by seed­ing ear­lier in the sea­son, be­fore the main har­vest. And, of course, swans do pro­vide some ser­vice, eat­ing leftover plants and waste veg­eta­bles. Cover crop­ping is still one of the bet­ter op­tions, Fowler con­tends. “The idea is to get them try­ing it be­fore the money runs out,” he says, re­fer­ring to the com­pen­sa­tion pro­vided by the BC Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture. “And if so­ci­ety de­cides to sup­port wildlife on farms, then the fund­ing may not dry up.”

Four early ar­riv­ing trum­peters soar over­head, prompt­ing oohs and aahs from the tour group. Fowler and Balme are not im­mune to the awe the mo­ment in­spires. But the birds in the air also re­mind them that hun­dreds more are on their way — and mi­grat­ing, un­der­stand­ably, can make a bird hun­gry.

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