Should France's 300 wolves be left to thrive?
Aree wolves a threat to livestock and even people or are rural communities’ complaints just fear-mongering? Oliver Rowland looks at recent events, while Crispin Andrews considers the arguments
THE STATUS of wolves – either dangerous predators or a vital part of French natural heritage – is causing tension between naturalists, farmers and the government.
Several animal charities are taking court action against France, alleging it is kowtowing to farmers and not respecting European rules protecting wolves, which are meant to place strict controls on any culls. They further allege that the government has been holding talks with EU officials, asking that the protected status of the wolf be removed.
Meanwhile, farmers in Savoie ‘bossnapped’ park chiefs, holding them against their will overnight in a salle des fêtes. They said there were 130 wolf attacks against livestock in their area since June as opposed to 105 in June to October last year. “We can’t go on being stressed out every night,” one told journalists.
The regional prefect then allowed six wolves to be culled and promised to consider allowing culling in the Vanoise national park itself, which is currently banned.
Hunted to extinction by 1939, wolves came back over the Alps from Italy in the 1990s. Their population tripled over ten years to 301 last year with most being in the Alpine regions of the south-east (this compares to 2-3,000 in Spain). However their numbers are thought to have dropped slightly to 282 this year.
Controversy rages about exact numbers of wolf depredations to flocks as it is hard to deduce what animal has killed a sheep.
Compensation is available for wolf kills, as opposed to ones by feral dogs of which there may be a million in France, the charity Aspas says.
When a wolf attack is reported, an expert visits to study the dead animal and the surroundings. However they admit that without witnesses it is often impossible to be sure. If a wolf cannot be ruled out then compensation is awarded.
Aspas says wolves do not kill for fun, are not extraordinarily strong or aggressive and are afraid of humans. One pack of five to 12 (plus young from the alpha couple) roams a 200km2 territory resulting in low overall density. They are an important part of the food chain and help maintain biodiversity, the charity says.
It therefore watched with concern as France increased to 36 the number authorised to be killed this year, from 24. It is suing the government in the Conseil d’Etat as well as lodging a complaint with the European Commission. “The violence of a handful of farmers, even towards our last protected natural spaces, is listened to more than the wishes of most French people,” it say, claiming France has forgotten the aim of ‘cohabitation’ between livestock farming and wildlife and treats wolves as vermin.
“Protection measures for livestock are not encouraged and hunters can kill wolves without checks,” a spokesperson said. Rather than using public money to subsidise livestock protection, it is used to pay hunters – referring to an Ecology Ministry decision to fund 10 hunters to help protect flocks in the south-east.
Two other charities, LPO and FNE, have also lodged complaints with the Conseil d’Etat.
YES - LET WOLVES ROAM FREE
CONSERVATIONISTS say wolves pose no threat to humans or livestock with the right measures in place. There are only thought to be around 300 wolves in France, in 25 packs. and it is almost 100 years since a wolf last killed anyone here.
“Of course, wolves are potentially dangerous and able to attack and kill humans,” says Richard Morley from UK-based wolf conservation group, The Wolves and Humans Foundation, “however, the fact is, they haven’t - not in Europe, not recently. Dogs kill more people, as do bees and wasps.”
Wild animal protection organisation Aspas says wolves accounts for less than 2% of sheep deaths and feral and stray dogs kill more sheep - its studies suggest about 100,000 in France each year.
Mr Morley says livestock can be protected by electric fences as long as the wiring is low enough to stop wolves digging under and high enough to stop them jumping it. Fladry - a traditional solution consisting of red flags attached to a rope at regular intervals and strung around the a field containing livestock - can also deter them. “Brightly-coloured flags keep the wolves away,” Mr Morley says.
So too do large guard dogs. In the French Alps the authorities encourage shepherds to use the patou breed, though others are favoured in other parts of Europe, such as the Slovensky cuvacs, in Slovenia. “They live with flock, and will put themselves between flock and predator,” Mr Morey says.
He adds that one of these dogs will fight a wolf and, although it might not come out on top, will bark and alert shepherds. “Faced with a dog this size, wolves might decide that there are easier meals elsewhere. If the dogs are chained up, though, wolves will work out how long the chain is and move round it.”
Conservationist John Linnell, from the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, says large predators and humans can co-exist.
“One of Europe’s biggest wolf populations lives in central Spain; an arid landscape. Large predators can live in semi-agricultural areas. You don’t need huge wildernesses to support them. There are leopards in India and jaguars in Brazil.”
People in France are simply less tolerant of wolves than elsewhere in Europe, he believes. “In South and Eastern Europe, rural people tolerate wolves as part of the landscape, something they have to deal with, like the cold or rain. In parts of Europe where large predators have been absent for years, there is more fuss about the threat they cause.”
The European Commission has launched a forum where interested parties can talk about the place of large carnivores in Europe. “We need to promote a better understanding of the issues,” Mr Linnell says.
NO - LEAVING WOLVES ALONE IS DANGEROUS
WOLVES are not harmless to people. Caen University historian Jean-Marc Moriceau has identified in archives 4,930 people killed in predatory attacks in France between 1362 and the last attack in 1918 (and another 2,100 who died due to being bitten by rabid wolves), plus about another 4,000 injured by wolves. Another 20-50% of the full total may not have been identified, he says.
Of course in those days there were far more wolves - about 12-20,000 until 1800, about 6-7,000 around 1850 and 500 around 1900.
While there have been no human killings in France in almost a century, there have been fatal attacks in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia in recent years and fears persist that as wolves spread around France, they will come closer to built-up areas.
In June, Romain Ferrand, 16, reported being terrified after he was surrounded by a pack of nine adults and four cubs at the family farm in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Romain, who had gone to investigate after hearing the farm dogs barking, shot in the air to scare them away. His father said they had seen wolves near their home for months, and had seen them rummaging in bins in the hamlet. They had got used to people and were no longer scared, he said.
Dr Valerius Geist from the University of Alberta in Canada, agrees that wolves may become a threat to humans if they lose their fear of them.
“Growling is their way of throwing down the gauntlet to humans,” he says. However he says they only approach human settlements if there is a lack of available prey in the wild or they are close to rubbish dumps.
People, mainly in rural parts of the south-east, see a more immediate threat to their livelihood.
Environment Minister Ségolène Royal says wolves killed 8,500 sheep between July 2014 and July 2015, twice as many as five years ago. What is more, 27 departments are now concerned - tripled over five years. Attacks have been reported in 27 departments, as far north as Meuse.
Farmers say wolves will slaughter many animals in one attack, far more than they can eat; also that wolves evade shepherds and guard dogs and scare sheep into running into and knocking down electric fences put there to protect them. Many resent extra costs of protecting their livelihood against an animal they think should not be there.
This summer, the government announced that it would employ hunters to protect flocks, however for anti-wolf lobbyists like Aube MP Nicolas Dhuicq this is not enough. “Wolves are fine in the Alps, in Siberia, in Yellowstone but they are incompatible with human farming,” he says.