Pyrénées bear release has support of shepherds

A change in attitude from shepherds and hunters alike as planned release receives widespread support

Bears have made the headlines several times for attacks on livestock, but in September two more were due to be released into the Béarn region of the Pyrénées - with the approval of some local shepherds.

Earlier release programmes had provoked demonstrations from some sheep farmers, hunters, and other residents, who say bears have always been a danger in the mountains.

Since then, a significant number of shepherds have spoken out in favour of the bears, and have formed a co-operative to sell their cheese using a bear footprint as a logo.

One, Élise Thébault, a shepherd who takes her 200 sheep into the high mountains near the Salistre circle of mountains, featured in a television documentary produced by France Info.

She said that in the region, where the sheep are kept for milk and gathered together every evening to be milked, there was much less chance of bears attacking sheep, than in other regions where the sheep are raised for meat, and left out at night.

To protect her flocks she uses dogs, including the giant Pyrénées sheep dogs called Patou, which are raised with sheep and spend their days in the middle of the flock.

In six years she has lost only two sheep to possible bear attacks, compared to 12 from various illnesses and 15 from dog attacks in winter quarters down the valley.

Supporters of the plans, meanwhile, have said the issue has become a test of President Macron’s commitment to biodiversity.

The plan to release the two bears, which have been transported to France from Slovenia, had the support of former Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, whose resignation in August, prompted by a row over the influence of the hunting lobby, shook the government.

The findings of a French government consultation have also been released. It showed that 88.9% of respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of the programme.

“We do hope that the plans will go ahead, even though Nicolas Hulot is no longer in the government,” said Jérome Ouilhon, the salaried organiser of the Fonds d’Intervention Éco-Pastoral, Groupe Ours Pyrénées.

“Everything we know about President Macron suggests that he is in favour of the biodiversity scheme but if the bear release is cancelled we will know that it has all been a sham.”

The question is particularly sensitive in the Béarn region as it was there, in 2004, that the last pure Pyrénées stock bear, a female called Cannelle, was killed by a hunter.

He was cleared by a court after claiming he had shot her to defend himself when his dogs had accidentally got between him, the bear and her cub.

Mr Ouilhon said there had been a change in mentality among most hunters in the region since then, and they now were in favour of the reintroduction. He said the hunters who took to the streets to demonstrate against bears were now in a minority.

There have also been stricter controls imposed on hunting with dogs.

Sections of the mountains where the two remaining bears in the Béarn region, both males, are known to be are closed for hunts with dogs during the autumn, when the bears are most likely to be out, fattening up for their winter hibernation.

The region is around 100km from where another bear has been killing horses and other livestock on the Catalan side of the border.

In the six départements of the Pyrénées the vote in favour was 71.6%, and just in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département 58.1%. In the communes of the Béarnaise region, classified as being in the high mountains, the vote in favour was 58.6%.

Mr Ouilhon said he was not surprised by the vote in favour.

“There is a recognition now that having the bears is good for the region, shepherds get state help and payments when livestock are killed, tourists are attracted to the region because of the bears and it is good for many things, like the cheese that uses a bear print as a logo,” he said.

“These are all important as well as the purely ecological arguments in favour of bio-diversity.”

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