Ontario farmers are optimistic about new changes to the provincial program that compensates them for livestock lost to wildlife.
The Ontario Wildlife Damage Compensation Program provides money to farmers whose livestock, poultry or bee colonies have been killed or injured as a result of wildlife predation or damage.
The program is part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
While details are yet to be fully outlined, a news release from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) says that updates to the program will now allow farmers more ways to provide sufficient evidence to prove wildlife predation, a more transparent and independent appeal process, better training for municipal investigators, and compensation that better reflects market prices.
“With these changes, our government is addressing farmers’ concerns and helping them deal with losses beyond their control,” Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ernie Hardeman said in a written statement. “Reducing unnecessary red tape and providing farmers with the tools they need to stay in business is one of the ways we are supporting those who feed our province.”
Marc Carere is the chair for the Ontario Sheep Farmers (OSF) board of directors. He said that in 2017, changes to the Ontario Wildlife Damage Compensation Program left many livestock producers in the province feeling unable to properly access compensation for animals killed by wildlife predators.
Part of the issue was the transfer of some power away from municipally located evaluators — who are now called inspectors — so that they had less input after investigating a local farmer’s loss.
“Even though they were the ones that went on-site and were supposed to be the experts, their opinion wasn’t really taken into account with the previous program changes [in 2017],” Carere said in a phone interview on Monday. “With these new changes, the inspectors, their opinions will be taken into consideration.”
Carere also said that many legitimate claims were denied because they didn’t meet unrealistic requirements.
“The standard of proof became so high it was almost insurmountable,” Carere said. “Beyond that, everything went to a central desk to someone in an office somewhere and information was put in front of them to evaluate. If they felt there was not sufficient evidence, if you disputed it, it was very difficult to get through that process, really difficult to protest.”
Carere said the updated dispute resolution methods will hopefully improve that process.
He is pleased with the updates and said that they have come on the heels of a lot of consultation with those working in the industry and with organizations that represent Ontario farmers.
“They have listened,” he said. “They recognize that the changes made in 2017 made the program really ineffective. It got to the point where producers weren’t even bothering to claim, because they felt so frustrated with it. This was identified to [OSF] shortly after the summer of 2017, and we’ve been working closely with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Beef Farmers of Ontario since.”
In a written statement, Beef Farmers of Ontario president Joe Hill said his organization is happy with the improvements.
“In particular, we would like to thank Minister Hardeman for taking swift action to find solutions to many of the concerns raised by BFO, the Ontario Sheep Farmers, and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture,” Hill said. “We are confident that the province’s commitment to continuous improvement will enable the implementation of solutions for our outstanding issues with the program, and with all programs important to Ontario beef farmers.”
Predation on livestock farms in Ontario is a growing problem for many farmers across the region. Carere said that despite their best efforts to protect flocks, the extent of loss that some sheep farmers in Ontario are facing has caused them to leave the industry entirely.
“This is a significant enough issue that some people will leave the industry over it,” he said. “It can be devastating.”
The compensation program isn’t insurance against loss, but it is a bit of assurance that the narrow profit margins farmers work within might not be completely ravaged by predation.
Jacob Murray is co-owner of Topsy Farms on Amherst Island, which keeps a flock of approximately 650 sheep out on pasture year-round. The flock is protected by wildlife fencing and six guard dogs, but still suffers losses each year.
He said the compensation program is important.
“The profit margins on agricultural businesses are so small to begin with that even a single animal loss to a predator really cuts into a farm’s ability to stay in business,” Murray said. “As long as it’s a government priority to have non-factory farms, family farms, then maintaining a good and fair compensation network is crucial.”
Murray said that while coyotes are always a predator of concern, in recent years they are losing lambs to ravens, which attack the eyes, brains and soft tissues to kill and maim young lambs.
While they have continued to have successful claims for coyote predation during the last year and a half of program changes, losses to ravens have not been covered by the Ontario Wildlife Damage Compensation Program.
“They don’t accept raven kills,” Murray said. “They have a really hard time processing those claims, and that’s our biggest complaint about the program. It’s something we hope will be improved in the future.”
Murray said that in the end, they stopped trying to get compensation for lambs lost to ravens, and that’s a problem, Carere said.
“[The government] would say, ‘We’re not getting claims.’ Well, claim numbers were down because the program stopped working. And if you don’t report, then it doesn’t reflect the level of predation that is happening,” Carere said.
Carere said ravens are a problem for more than just Topsy Farms.
“We’re hearing that they are becoming a bigger and bigger issue, as well as something called the black vulture, which kill to eat. These should get [covered], because it is predation. And we need to hear about these cases so we can arm ourselves with evidence.”