What is social effectiveness of livestock protection?

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When conducting research about the effectiveness of livestock protection measures, two dimensions have to be considered: social and ecological elements. However, most studies so far only focused on ecological elements. Consequently, the assumption that proven scientific effectiveness guides farmers to implement measures often proves wrong in practice. Now, a study published in August 2021 sheds new light on why this might be the case by defining the term social effectiveness. 

What makes livestock protection successful?

As large carnivore populations are recovering, livestock owners require new strategies or knew knowledge about old strategies to protect their animals. Due to this, there has been a push for applied research on livestock protection tools. Much of this research, however, misses the socio-ecological nature of the problem by only focusing on whether or not the tool works under controlled settings. In reality, decisions of livestock owners are usually not informed by academic research. Scientific evidence is often even contested or dismissed when social conflict is intense.

To design a more holistic study, Volski et al. (2021) focused their research on two parts: social acceptability through qualitative interviews and ecological effectiveness through a controlled study setting. Like this the term social effectiveness was born, with the aim to investigate how not only ecological facts but also social constructs influence the effectiveness of livestock protection implementation.

Study setting

The study was conducted in Northern California, US. There, they studied the effectiveness of so-called Foxlights to reduce the activity of coyotes. Additionally, they conducted qualitative interviews with the livestock owners both before and after sharing the scientific results of the tool’s ecological effectiveness.

Like this, they aimed to understand how science is integrated into an owner’s decision-making process and what other socio-ecological factors serve as opportunities and barriers to tool adoption. They also examined whether the iterative integration of stakeholder knowledge improved receptivity to empirical findings and improved the trustworthiness of both the research and researchers.

Study results

The research demonstrated that an integrated assessment of social effectiveness that combines ecological effectiveness and social acceptability adds critical new dimensions to the understanding of why (or why not) livestock protection tools are implemented.

The empirical results of the ecological effectiveness study provided weak evidence that Foxlights affect coyote activity, but most interviewed livestock owners still believed that Foxlights had the potential to be effective. In other words, the empirical analysis did not give them reason to dismiss Foxlights as ineffective, but rather it gave them reason to lean into finding ways to make it more effective. Thus, empirical examples of effectiveness may not be what drives attitudes toward tools like Foxlights. The owners also emphasized the importance of incorporating environmental variability, coyote ecology, and other management strategies into empirical evaluations of tools.

What also stood out was the general lack of trust in research. According to both rounds of interviews, interviewees relied on multiple outlets and factors to make management decisions. Word-of-mouth served as the most prominent information source. This means tool adoption mostly, as one interviewee described it, “depends on who recommends that tool.” Hereby various kinds of relationships count: other livestock owners, neighbors, landowners, suppliers, friends, and researchers. When owners did get information from researchers, the researchers often either worked for their land management agency or had worked with a someone they personally knew. Overall, the interviewees did not commonly rely on academic research papers to make decisions.

The future of livestock protection research

Livestock owners make decisions through holistic considerations of production dynamics by relying on both technical and cultural knowledge transfer. For example, a young producer may learn about techniques from older generations, their own experience of their land, and from scientific sources. Thereby, scientific demonstrations of a tool’s ecological effectiveness is just one fact amongst many. When communicating science, researchers need to be aware of this.

Thus, researchers should continue to test tools, but also work closely with stakeholders to solicit feedback. For example partnering with livestock owners to collect data will allow researchers to learn from their knowledge and insight, build trust, provide exposure to tools, and lower the barriers that enable access to knowledge. Eventually, such approaches can guide tool adoption and promote sound practices.

LIFEstockProtect was already developed focusing on the social and practical aspects of livestock protection, both in terms of establishing close contact with stakeholders and field-testing livestock protection materials. The experience so far has shown that it is a very complex topic, as situations vary between countries, terrains, social and ecological contexts and that only close collaborations between all stakeholder groups, starting within the LIFEstockProtect project consortium, can lead to success.

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