Everyone loves a puppy picture. But these cute Carpathian sheepdogs are more than just a shameless attempt to lure you in with some canine clickbait. They are central to the success of a Fauna & Flora International (FFI) project that has been shortlisted for a prestigious European award, which honours outstanding nature conservation achievements connected to the EU Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

Conserving large carnivores on a crowded continent is not easy, particularly in the 21st century. This was the conundrum facing FFI almost a decade ago, when we began working with local partner Asociaţia Zarand in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, which support around 40% of Europe’s brown bears and 21% of its wolves.

When FFI first intervened, these charismatic but frequently feared, maligned and persecuted predators were facing a quartet of threats: landscape fragmentation, inadequate conservation management, a worrying casualty count as a result of poaching and human-wildlife conflict, and culturally entrenched negative attitudes towards them.

Transforming traditional attitudes to grey wolves is key to their conservation. Credit: Uryadnikov Sergey/AdobeStock

Since 2013, we have been tackling these challenges with support from the LIFE programme – an EU funding mechanism for nature conservation and climate action – via a project entitled ‘Enhancing landscape connectivity for brown bear and wolf through a regional network of Natura 2000 sites in Romania.’ That’s a bit of a mouthful, but what has it meant in practice?

Corridors for carnivores

In a nutshell, it’s all about freedom of movement.

Large carnivores need room to roam for migration, foraging and breeding purposes. The Apuseni-Southern Carpathian Corridor in Romania comprises a network of 17 Natura 2000 sites, which were designated in part to ensure connectivity across the landscape. It spans well over 4,000 square kilometres, encompassing beech forests and gently cultivated, species-rich farmland. In the past, it has provided bears and wolves with everything they needed to thrive.

Typical mosaic of forest and farmland habitat favoured by large carnivores moving through the Carpathians. Credit: Lizzie Duthie/FFI

Over time, this culturally and biologically rich landscape has become fragmented as a result of new road and rail infrastructure, urban expansion and agricultural intensification. All of this poses a serious threat to the integrity of one of Europe’s last remaining large carnivore strongholds, hence the pressing need for conservation intervention to safeguard this crucial corridor.

Joining the dots

In order to secure small but strategically vital tracts of habitat, or micro-corridors, through which bears and wolves could safely move, FFI purchased 133 hectares of mostly abandoned agricultural land. Following the removal of impenetrable thickets of an invasive weed and restoration of forests and low-intensity agricultural land, these refuges now provide stepping stones across the wider landscape.

Rejoining the dots between the Western and Southern Carpathians was just the starting point, however. We also needed to find ways to reduce human-wildlife conflict, which is an almost inevitable consequence of people living in close proximity to large predators. Wild boar, wolves and bears were damaging crops and attacking livestock, which sometimes resulted in retaliatory killing, with snares and poisoning taking a potentially heavy toll on large carnivores and other wildlife.

Clearly, if we were to improve attitudes to wildlife among local communities who were affected, we needed to work with them to allay their fears and ease the burden of living alongside potentially dangerous and destructive animals.

Conflict reduction

One solution was to provide farmers with canine security guards in the shape of Carpathian sheepdogs. They may look like cuddly puppies in the photo, but these and other dogs have grown up to form a formidable defence force, and proved extremely effective at warding off would-be livestock predators.

A Carpathian sheepdog puppy learning its trade. Credit: LCC/FFI

We also distributed electric fences that, when deployed correctly, were shown to be successful in preventing damage, and helped establish a special conflict-resolution team, trained to deal with problem carnivores and offer much-needed support in obtaining compensation for any losses incurred. Two specialist mountain units within the Romanian gendarmerie were also created, trained and equipped to conduct anti-poaching patrols.

In order to ensure that the landscape is managed more sympathetically for wildlife, the project team organised myriad public events, workshops and training courses for foresters, hunters, officials from road, rail, water and other sectors, as well as other members of the community, in order to raise awareness and increase engagement in activities beneficial to, and compatible with, biodiversity conservation.

Big picture

This holistic approach to conservation is giving Romania’s large carnivores the best chance to live without persecution in a large-scale, connected landscape, and demonstrating the value of long-term, secure funding. Ultimately, however, conservation success is all about impact on the ground. So, what has this project achieved?

Thanks to a suite of coordinated conservation measures, we have succeeded in reducing livestock depredation and crop damage, cut down wildlife crime, safeguarded a crucial carnivore corridor, increased our knowledge of brown bear and wolf populations in the Carpathians, developed Regional Species Action Plans for these species, and shone the spotlight on a threatened and previously neglected landscape.

Brown bear skirting a Carpathian beech forest. Credit: Egyjanek/AdobeStock

And that’s by no means the end of the story. Hundreds of additional fences and dozens more Carpathian sheepdogs are being deployed across the Carpathian landscape. The conflict-resolution team continues to support farmers throughout the corridor. Anti-poaching patrols will be expanded more widely once additional units have been trained up. We continue to engage communities in habitat restoration and sustainable livelihood activities that benefit both people and wildlife.

If all that still hasn’t persuaded you to cast your vote for this fabulous multifaceted project, then surely the sheepdog puppies should do the trick?