These super shy immigrants deserve to be made welcome
Of all the unjustly negative stories about Eastern European immigrants arriving in other EU countries, few compare to those about a group of burly Slovenians now living in France.
Both male and female, they have been accused of terrifying local communities with anti-social behaviour, including acts of extreme violence.
The situation has become so bad that emergency meetings began in May to work out the future of these brown bears mainly living in the Pyrénées.
French and Spanish conservation activists are liaising with local authorities following escalating reports that they are massacring sheep, and even frightening human visitors to the mountains.
Discussions have got so heated that members of wildlife associations supporting the bears have reported death threats to the police. In turn, gun-toting farmers have taken matters into their own hands by “accidentally” wounding animals they view as particularly dangerous pests.
When a bear was fatally hurt in a road accident close to the Catholic shrine of Lourdes a few years ago, a spokesman for a sheep-rearing lobby said: “We are immensely satisfied that this bear was killed.”
There was also cheering when a bear died after falling off a cliff in a freak accident.
The truth, of course, is that bears are magnificent creatures, and nobody should be glorying in their slaughter.
The way they are portrayed by their persecutors ignores the fact that they are, for the most part, very shy and easily frightened.
They are predominantly vegetarians too, getting by on roots, plants, fruit, and nuts.
Yes, they go for honey in hives, but these can be protected by electric fences, surveillance and simply placing bee nests high up and out of reach.
Sheep are perceived to be the main cause of complaint. Mammals sometimes kill each other for food, and bears who can grow up to around 8ft high make easy meat of mountain flocks.
While the bears in the Pyrénées currently number less than 50, there are around 500,000 sheep.
Of these, an estimated 20,000 die every year for a variety of reasons, including quite horrible ones, such as falls or disease. Sadly, this is what happens in nature, and the bears should be just as much a part of the great outdoors as sheep.
Owners of any of the 300-odd sheep that do get killed by bears currently get compensation too – around €150 to cover the market price of a sheep many times over, plus a disturbance premium, which can double the total sum.
Unsurprisingly, farmers seldom complain that dogs are attacking their sheep anymore – it is always the bears.
Despite hyperbole to the contrary, records of humans being hurt by bears anywhere in Western Europe are negligible.
Silly myths about skiers being threatened, for example, are contradicted by the fact that bears actually act in a very lethargic way, or hibernate completely, during snowy winters, just as they have done for centuries.
The main reason the Slovenians were airlifted in numbers to France soon after their country of birth became a member of the EU in 2004 (a handful first arrived in the 1990s) was to restore tradition.
There was a time when bears roamed all over a heavily wooded Europe, yet – as usual – it was human communities which hastened their demise. They were extinct in Britain by the time the Normans landed in 1066, for instance.
In 2019, a huge number of technical devices are available to monitor both the bears and their prey, from GPS tracking devices to drones.
Another highly effective measure would be the reintroduction of the old shepherd habit of staying with flocks at all times – including during the night.
The furry Slovenians are a much appreciated addition to French life, and everything should be done to keep them here.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion