Someone has to pay farmers for feeding wildlife

The Winter That Will Never End is not just a human experience, although surprisingly little has been written or broadcast about the harsh and chronically long winter's impact on wildlife.

Animals that don't hibernate somehow have to eat when the snow is shoulder deep for what seems like months on end. In southern Ontario, and the populated parts of the north, many of the meals for wildlife are courtesy of Ontario farmers. Now, they'd like some help picking up the tab.

As part of their prebudget submission to the province, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture asked that farmers get better compensation for their role in keeping wildlife alive. But when the budget was announced last week, compensation wasn't mentioned

Farmers have traditionally been helped by the province under the Ontario Livestock, Poultry, and Honey Bee Protection Act. It kicks in when farmers' crops are damaged, when their animals are killed by wildlife, or when their buildings and fences are harmed.

It happens a lot. More than half of Ontario's farmers have reported wildlife-related losses.

But the compensation schedule hasn't kept up with inflation, let alone this year's weather.

In fact, the compensation schedule for farmers hasn't changed in a quarter-century.

And it certainly hasn't kept up with our ceaseless encroachment on farm land, and wildlife. It's to the point where in Ontario, we've finally mapped out an area where development pressure will intensify, then drew lines around it and called it the Greenbelt.

In urban Ontario, the Greenbelt is destined to become synonymous with farming.

Most people's experience with farming will be what they see in the Greenbelt, because those will be the farms on their doorstep.

The Greenbelt is also an area where wild animal pressure is bound to intensify. As land gets developed around the Greenbelt, animals will head for quieter, sheltered areas. If they're living on the perimeters of bushlots, they're quite likely to dine on nearby fields.

That means the Greenbelt. There, deer, raccoons and geese will gather in unprecedented ways. It's unlikely that hunting laws designed to help control certain species are going to become more liberal in the Greenbelt, especially if it becomes the go-to locale for wildlife conservation.

Urbanites out for a weekend drive won't understand or tolerate the sight of hunters or farmers — even on their own land –killing wildlife, regardless of how responsible the hunters are, or how important the harvest is to a species' population management, let alone farming.

It's not much different in the north. There, the federation is urging the province to reconvene a spring bear hunt. It would also like to see an elk hunt considered, too. There are simply too many animals.

Private companies are emerging that offer what's becoming known as agricultural trap crops, planted strategically to lure wildlife away from commercial crops. That's a great example of coexistence. But farmers are the ones on the hook for the service. And that shouldn't be.

If society needs a farm reserve to stop its citizens from destroying any semblance of food security we might have, then it must also be prepared to support those who farm there and shoulder the weight of wildlife conservation.

The federation believes farmers have to be recognized and compensated for the ecological goods and services they provide for society — everything from scenic countryside to source water protection.

Why do we just expect it will get done? As the federation says, society loves its wildlife and wants its government to do everything possible to preserve and protect not only the wildlife, but the habitat.

Farmers need and deserve our help if we want to formalize their role as wildlife stewards.

Some people will say wildlife was there first, so we don't owe farmers anything. But that attitude simply isn't going to keep wildlife fed or promote stability in the chain.

Times have changed.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.