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Wolf numbers on rise in France despite farmer anger

The wolf population in France is “exploding rapidly”, amid an ongoing plan to boost numbers to 500 by 2023 - despite angry opposition from sheep farmers.

A recent census by wildlife agency l’Office National de la Chasse et la Faune Sauvage (ONCFS) counted 430 wolves across the country, with a number of areas showing permanent growth in population.

Wolf and lynx numbers are counted using over 750 reference points, including paw prints, observations, automatic photographs, hair shedding and animal remains.

The new figure represents an increase of almost 20% compared to end of last winter, when numbers were estimated at just 360.

Yet, the agency is seeking to continue its “Wolf Plan (Plan Loup)” to grow the numbers to 500 by 2020, “as part of a demographic progression nationally and globally”.

A statement from the ONCFS said: “All the indicators are showing that the species is in a period of rapid growth across the nation [but] numbers have not yet reached the viability threshold of 500 wolves, envisaged by the Wolf Plan.”

The Wolf Plan, which began in January this year (2018), includes setting a cap on the permitted annual culling rates to ensure continued growth of the species. Scientific recommendations suggest that no more than 10-12% of the population should be slaughtered per year.

In 2018, dubbed “a year of transition”, the initial cap on slaughter rates was set at a fixed 40, but this number is reportedly set to be updated once the new figures are taken into account.

From 2019, the plan expects to set the official percentage permitted to 10%, with the possibility of raising this to 12% should it become necessary.

The new plans continue despite growing anger from sheep farmers, who have disputed the State’s desire to allow “coexistence” between farming and wild species.

Last year, minister for ecological transition, and environmental activist Nicolas Hulot, said: “We must work together to take on the challenge of preserving this protected species, which helps to structure our ecosystem; as well as ensure farming conditions.”

Yet, many farmers blame wolves for violence towards their sheep flocks, and say that the animals often manage to get through despite high fences and other precautions.

In summer last year, Hugues Fanouillère, a sheep farmer from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée in the Alpes-Maritimes (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) complained to news source 20 Minutes that it was a common occurence to find his ewes “shredded and torn apart” by wolves overnight.

At the time, Côte d'Azur welfare group Green echoed the government, saying that the wild wolf population should be encouraged, and that farmers simply needed to invest in “real protection”, including “electrified fences” over 1.4m high.

But Mr Fanouillère disputed the practicalities of this.

He said: “Farming is not like running a wildlife park; we cannot keep our animals caged up like you might in a house or a zoo."

Wolves in France were deemed to have almost disappeared thanks to hunting and slaughtering at the beginning of the 20th century, with records showing that numbers did not begin to pick up again until 1992.

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