The government’s Wolf Plan outlines efforts to ensure the survival of the species, which returned after being wiped out in the 1930s, while also considering its impact on livestock.
France is currently home to an estimated 360 wolves, with Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot’s scheme planning for 500 by 2023. The proposal will allow controlled culling to keep numbers at 500 and includes financial aid to help farmers protect livestock via deterrents such as herding dogs, electric fencing and 3m-high fences.
However, satisfying both wildlife groups and the farming community, who have seen attacks on livestock soar in recent years, has been difficult.
Sheep farmers’ Fédération Nationale Ovine has long called for the government to ensure the safety of their animals from wolves, and criticised the plan, saying it “once again ignores the voice of the rural community”.
Last year alone, it said, some 12,000 livestock were killed in 3,000 separate wolf attacks with problems particularly acute in the Alps and Pyrénées regions.
Meanwhile, damages paid out to farmers rose to €3.5million in 2016, the latest year with accurate figures, a rise of 60% over three years.
That is a worry for Matthew Bentley, a British expat who has been farming sheep in Burgundy’s Morvan for 12 years. “The day we get wolf attacks in Morvan is the day we’ll be forced to stop sheep farming. It’s as simple as that.
“I like the thought of having wolves in France – they are beautiful animals – but we don’t have enough space for livestock and wolves to co-exist.”
He also called out the government’s “hypocrisy” in committing to safeguard wolf numbers: “As farmers we are constantly told by authorities to improve standards of animal welfare, so to hear the government is effectively championing a brutal livestock killer is pretty galling.”
Wildlife groups have decried a proposed cull of 10% to 12% of the wolf population each year to keep it within the 500-animal target. Hunters in France would be allowed to shoot 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. The plan also gives farmers the right to kill wolves in defence of livestock.
Madline Reynaud, of wildlife group Aspas, said: “We’re not happy at all, both about the number of wolves that will be culled, and the circumstances in which they can be killed. We will fight both proposals.”
She added the government’s 500-animal target fell short of guaranteeing “the viability of the species in the long term”.
The government’s 2018-2023 strategy is the latest in a long line of measures since 1996 to to balance conservation efforts with agricultural concerns.
France’s first official wolf hunters formed in 9th century
Wolves disappeared in France in the 1930s, some 900 years after the royal office of the Luparii -wolf-catchers- was created in France.
Active hunting and improved technology such as rifles in the 19th century, plus the use of poisons, caused France’s wolf population to collapse until they were officially declared extinct in the country in the inter-war years. But, in the 1990s, the animals began to reappear, crossing the Alps from Italy. The first confirmed sightings were in the Mercantour Park, in the Alpes-Maritimes, in 1992.
In the decades that have followed, wolves have spread deep into France, with unconfirmed sightings as far northwest as Côtes d’Armor in Brittany in 2017.
Such reports – even if the nearest confirmed sightings to Brittany are in the Loiret and Indre departments – delight environmentalists, who see the predators’ presence as a sign of wider ecological health. However farmers - especially in the Alps, Jura, the Vosges, the Massif Central (home to France’s biggest sheep breeders) and the Pyrénées - regard the animals as a threat.
Wolves are classed as a protected species under the Berne Convention, which France signed up to in 1989.
Their population in France is around 360, compared to 2,000 in Spain, but the plan to let numbers increase to about 500 (see above) will mean they will be roughly back to the same numbers as in 1900.