The battle to save wild animals

Aspas, the Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages, is marking its 30th anniversary

2 September 2010

WOLVES in the Alps are a protected species, gardeners are interested in organic pest control and we all have the right to ban hunting on our land – due in large part to decades of effort by French wildlife charity Aspas.

They got McDonald’s to change its McFlurry icecream pots (which trapped hedgehogs), warn car drivers not to squash frogs at certain times of the year and have advised Connexion readers on how to build shelters for beech martens.

This year Aspas, the Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages, is marking the 30th anniversary of its founding by helicopter pilot Alain Clément and swimming champion Mireille Gendrier.

Aspas is regularly in conflict with France’s hunting lobby as it fights to have animals, like badgers, protected and pushes to get the sport banned on Sundays.

Oliver Rowland speaks to the vice-president of Aspas Marc Giraud

How was Aspas created?

Our founders noticed pollution problems when they moved to the Drôme (where Aspas still has its HQ), and problems with hunters who would go into their garden following animals – a bullet went through their window – so they founded a little association with their neighbours. They also noticed the river was polluted from agriculture.

Nature was being harmed and they wanted to act but there was no national charity devoted to wild animals – there was the SPA Société Protectrice des Animaux for pets and the LPO League pour la Protection des Oiseaux for birds and international charities like the World Wildlife Fund.

It started to grow and they decided to focus on using the law. They brought several legal actions, of which the most important concerned the wolves of Fontan in the Alpes-Maritimes, in 1987.

A wolf had been killed by a hunter. At the time no one was talking about wolves. It was not a protected species but nor was it an official “huntable species” – it had no legal status. We took legal action so France would ratify the Convention de Berne that protects the wolf – France had signed it but not ratified it [so it was not enforceable in French law].

Wolves were not recognised as living in France – they had disappeared between the wars – but one had been visiting and had been killed.

We felt they were likely to start coming back to France and it was important to act [today they are established again in the French Alps].

Our founders had a lot of foresight and everything they did provided a strong base for our campaigns today. We are for the protection of predator species like the wolf, bear and lynx as well as other animals.

Are there a lot of protected species in France and different levels of protection?

Yes, we follow Cites [an international convention with three protection levels], so all birds of prey are protected in Appendix 1 [in danger of extinction] and amphibians are protected under several annexes.

Animals in France are either deemed protected, or huntable or harmful – the wolf was an exception.

If it is “huntable” there are regulated hunting periods and quotas. If it is considered harmful you still need a licence to hunt it, but you can hunt or trap it all year round.

Animals considered harmful nuisible include foxes and beech martens. The fox is our symbol and we fight on their behalf. When we started trying to protect them there was still rabies in France.

It was a very unloved animal and it was daring of us to take it as our symbol. We said it was better to vaccinate foxes than to hunt them. Hunting disperses them and rabies was spreading faster. Once vaccination started rabies disappeared in France.

What are some of your other big successes?

The Loi Verdeille, dating from the Pétain era, used to authorise hunts to go into people’s property without asking their opinion.

We fought for 11 years to get it abolished and we won at the European Court of Human Rights, in 1999 [proprietors can apply to have their land kept out of the huntable zone].

However, as in reality hunters make the law in our country it is very difficult to protect your land. It is still quite a fight to have your have rights respected and we have a guide for people who want to ban hunting on their land.

People who hunt waterfowl, like ducks, and other small game, are often the most aggressive – for example in the north, in the Médoc where turtle doves pass by, areas where migratory birds pass through. In the east, or Brittany, where people hunt bigger animals, they tend to have a less violent attitude and we can have discussions sometimes.

However, hunting issues are not all we do, fortunately.

For example, we were involved in breeding ladybirds – seven-spotted ones, which are the native kind.

We used to send out ladybird eggs to gardeners to help them fight aphids in an organic way. At the time no one knew ladybirds ate aphids and so they used chemicals.

We were pioneers in organic ideas, and today the idea has become mainstream and everyone talks about ecology. You can buy eggs in garden centres – though they are Chinese ladybirds, which cause problems. Ours were native ones.

Today, one of our campaigns is to have hunting on Sundays stopped [to avoid accidental injury to walkers], which attracts a lot of criticism, but the idea is gaining ground – we were received by the Ecology Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo. Usually Aspas is never invited to ministries.

It made the hunters angry – but the idea is slowly catching on that hunting is a dangerous activity and out of respect for walkers, cyclists, horse riders etc we could stop hunting from time to time in France.

It is quite a new idea and it will not happen overnight.

You also campaign on behalf of animals that you think are wrongly classified as “harmful”

Yes – for example the weasel, the beech and pine marten, magpies and crows. There is a national list of animals that can be classified as harmful, but then it is done by department, however the committees that decide have many hunters. They say all the animals are harmful – but we take action and we win.

The problem is the process to contest a decision is long and by that time the hunting season is over.

This year we tried to act faster and we calculated we had saved 50,000 animals.

Say that they decide the pine marten is harmful – we demand proof. As “harmful” is supposed to mean they are dangerous to humans and to the economy they have to prove how a weasel weighing 100g poses a danger to a human. One of our slogans is: “At Aspas we are extremists – we ask for the law to be respected.”

How can people help protect wild animals?

They can join Aspas, and they get our magazine Goupil [an old word for fox] four times a year – there’s a lot of information. I am a journalist specialising in animals and we give information you will not find anywhere else.

We do not really organise outings much though, as we are mainly a campaigning group and we are small – we only have 10 full time staff.

If you want nature visits the LPO is a better bet. On the other hand we do a lot of exhibitions for schools and little brochures about how to recognise animals or protect owls or frogs [Aspas ran a spring campaign to protect frogs from being crushed by cars as they crossed roads to get to breeding grounds]. They are interesting for anyone living in France.

Do you have any tips for people with gardens – can they do anything to attract wildlife?

I like Britain very much and have a subscription to BBC Wildlife magazine and I think the British are ahead of the French in this.

It is always good to leave a little corner of a garden you do not touch – just leave it alone. Secondly, do not pollute, do not use pesticides. Put in hedges, make a pond.

As for things specific to France, those in the south should put in stone walls for lizards and snakes; we also make walls for bumble bees and insects, we make bee boxes.We have a brochure on red squirrels, and we make squirrel feeders that birds cannot get into because you need a hand to open the lid. You see them wherever there are trees.

Competition from grey squirrels has hit the red squirrel in Britain – does that problem not exist in France?

It is starting to, with a little squirrel called the tamia strié [eastern chipmunk], which is a little Asian squirrel with a striped back – we are starting to see them everywhere.
Hopefully we do not have grey squirrels in France.

- Details of joining Aspas are at www.aspas-nature.org. It costs from €15 and can be done online using Paypal. To receive a PDF on building a home for a beech marten email contact@connexionfrance.com

... did you know?

All amphibians are protected species in France: It is against the law to harm them or disturb or destroy their habitats. This includes frogs, toads, salamanders and newts.

It is permitted to hunt badgers: This includes practices like digging them out of their burrows, Aspas say. The charity campaigns for them to be protected, as they are in the UK.

There are bears in the French Pyrenees: Bears steadily declined for centuries and almost died out, partly due to intensive hunting before a ban in 1962. Remaining populations – only found in the Pyrenees – have been boosted by the introduction of some Slovenian bears.

Hollow telegraph poles are a danger to birds: Aspas say birds get trapped inside the hollow tubes France Telecom now often uses instead of traditional poles (sometimes dozens in one tube). The firm has responded to campaigns by using stoppers but Aspas say the problem is far from solved everywhere.

Aspas can help you ban hunting on your land: They can help with procedures if you agree to designate it an Aspas wildlife refuge and put up signs.

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