Patagonia Argentina, Peninsula Valdes
Across most of Patagonia, the principal threats to native herbivores are habitat degradation due to overgrazing by livestock, competition for resources with livestock, and poaching. Guanacos are killed by poachers for meat and sport, and some landowners allow people from the cities to hunt guanacos at their properties in order to reduce numbers. Occasionally, guanacos are killed by herders for meat or to feed the shepherd dogs. Darwin’s rheas are killed by poachers and herders for meat, and their eggs are collected for consumption. Although not commonly identified by ranchers as a pest species, maras are poached for consumption as food. Adult maras are killed with guns or wire snares and pups are caught in nets when coming outside the dens.
The principal threat to carnivores is hunting, both retaliatory killing or to prevent predation or presumed predation on domestic animals, especially on lambs. The largest predators such as pumas and the culpeo fox are chased and killed when their presence is detected. Some rural workers kill the smaller cats, believing that they prey on lambs, although this has not been confirmed. Also, a common practice to kill predators is to spread poisoned meat which kills not only carnivores but also the birds of prey, armadillos and scavengers.
Península Valdés is a Natural Protected Area located in Argentine Patagonia. Over 50 years ago, local pioneers achieved protection of this spectacular coastline, where marine birds and mammals arrive every year to breed, from the provincial Government. In 1999, the 4,000 km2 Península Valdés was declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, including the land where around 60 properties are devoted to the extensive breeding of Merino sheep for wool production. As the coast harbors colonies of penguins, cormorants, terns, migratory birds, sea lions, elephant seals and the southern right whales, the unique terrestrial wildlife like guanacos, rheas, maras and predators such as puma, smaller felids and foxes still roam the shrub and grass steppes of Península Valdés.
The “Merino de Península Valdés” (MPV) concept is based on the coexistence between sheep ranching for wool production and healthy wildlife populations. We work to reach responsible standards, accounting for the sustainable use of the grasslands in coexistence with the native herbivores; and protecting our sheep by using non-lethal methods to control the native predators.
We work together to make possible the coexistence of healthy wildlife populations and wool production, implementing conservation and management actions based on scientific research and responsible attitudes. The ranchers and rural workers are committed to avoid killing wildlife, and to improve sheep and rangeland management according to our goals of coexistence and sustainability.
Grassland management and herbivores
In order to conserve the native vegetation, sheep numbers must be determined after careful assessment of the forage available, considering that only a proportion of the annual productivity can be consumed to make grazing sustainable. Furthermore, wild native herbivores must be included in this calculus to allow for the coexistence of sheep with the guanacos – historically chased and killed to reduce perceived competition over access to grazing and grasslands for the sheep – lesser rheas and maras.
With the technical assistance of the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA), we assess annual forage availability for sheep and the wild herbivores by conducting vegetation censuses across all paddocks in each ranch. At the same time, the abundance and distribution of wild herbivores is modeled after ground surveys were completed across all properties, but also the whole Península Valdés, as a way to refer the particular situation at each ranch relative to the overall guanaco, rhea and mara populations.
Predators and sheep
We are studying and monitoring the distribution of the wild predators, focused on the puma, the smaller Geoffry’s and pampas cats, and the culpeo fox, in order to identify particular sites where predation on livestock is more likely to take place. We are evaluating the feeding habits of wild carnivores by studying their diets, and assessing predation on sheep by examining the carcasses found in the field.
Our approach to reduce predation by wild carnivores on the sheep is based on the implementation of non lethal methods. It includes the use of guard dogs, movement of the sheep away from the most problematic sites, visual deterrents, etc. Currently we are in the assessment phase and the different methods will be implemented in the near future according to the specific needs. Meanwhile, the ranchers and rural workers of the group are committed to avoid killing or poisoning wildlife, helping with project implementation.
The Conservation Enterprise
Since the end of the 19th century when the first herders arrived from the pampas in the north, land management in Península Valdés has been based mostly on traditional sheep ranching. The ranches comprise large expanses of land totaling several thousand hectares, which are fenced into smaller paddocks where sheep graze on the native vegetation. The wool is harvested yearly during the shearing season, and sold raw directly to the mills and warehouses. Entire families have been economically sustained by wool production for over 80 years. At the same time, conflicts with wild herbivores like guanacos over grazing resources and with native carnivores due to livestock predation are increasing and still persist across Patagonia. In addition, most ranches today are not economically viable to support ranching families as they did decades ago. The fall in wool prices in the international markets, together with ecological changes such as land degradation due to overstocking, coupled with the severe droughts, have resulted in the loss of significant numbers of sheep.
In June 2014, a group of landowners met with scientists and conservationists at the Argentine Research Council (CONICET) the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (FVSA), seeking to develop a sustainable livestock strategy for the area. Together we believe that sheep ranching and healthy wildlife populations can coexist in Península Valdés by promoting the sustainable use of the range, improving habitat for wildlife, and in doing so, human livelihoods.
The group – “Merino de Península Valdés” (MPV) – is formed by six properties whose family owners – some of whom arrived at the end of the 19th century – believe in the coexistence of their traditional, productive activities with healthy populations of native, wild herbivores and predators. For decades, they managed their sheep responsibly, keeping low stocking rates. As a result, significant numbers of wild species have persisted at their ranches– for example guanacos, rheas, maras, and the presence of pumas, Geoffry’s and pampas cats. Now through a unique collaboration they pledge to find alternative ways to solve potential conflicts to avoid poaching or poisoning, both widespread activities associated with sheep ranching in Patagonia. These six ranches total 33,000 ha of land under a wildlife-friendly management scheme and produce around 50 tons of fine Merino wool. As the properties comprise over 70 km of coastline, the group stewards some of the most important sea lion and elephant seal colonies in the area, as well as marine and migratory birds and the presence of hundreds of southern right whales from May to December each year.
The ranchers of the Merino Peninsula Valdés group who are committed to managing their land to allow healthy populations of guanacos, rheas, and maras to co-exist with their sheep, and to use non-lethal methods to control predation by pumas, chilla foxes, and Geoffroy’s and pampas cats, obtained the Wildlife FriendlyTM Certification in 2016.
We produce fine Merino wool, either raw fleece, washed and combed, or spun yarn. Average thickness obtained in 2016 was 18,64 microns. Fully traceable Certified Wildlife Friendly™ wool is processed according to responsible standards and certified protocols.
Our wool is spun in a standard Count (Nm) of 2/30, but we can offer a range from the thickest types (3/8 or 4/8) to suitable threads for machines of circular spinning (Nm 1/40). The dyes have been selected to fulfill the most demanding technical and environmental parameters. Since our production is limited, we suggest contacting us directly to let us know your specifications for thread Count and color preferences in advance.