Conservation groups furious as government allows limited hunting of protected grey wolf amid rise in attacks on farm animals
Henry Samuel and Lewis Whyld 22 Mar 2014
As day broke, around 50 French hunters, wolf lieutenants and local farmers stood motionless, rifles in hand, gazing silently into the forest of Caussols in the Alpine foothills of Provence.
A few miles upwind, dozens of beaters in fluorescent orange and yellow tops began their arduous march though deep snow over steep, wooded terrain, making strident calls and firing shots into the air as they went.
Sandwiched between the two lines, the hunters hoped, were anything up to three packs of wolves that local sheep farmers say are ruining their age-old pastoral existence with incessant attacks on their flocks. Camera traps caught images of them only 48 hours previously. The clamour of the beaters was designed to flush them of the woods and into the line of the hunters’ fire.
But the danger was not just for the wolves. “The trackers will be behind the animals. Be sure to shoot downwards,” Louis Bernard, regional head of the hunting and wildlife commission, ONCFS, told the party beforehand.
“We’ve already had one fatal accident in the area this year, so please be careful. Only shoot when you have identified the animal.”
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Situated in the pre-Alps just 25 miles inland from Nice and 15 miles from Grasse, France’s perfume capital, the wild, rugged landscape of Caussols could not be further removed from the glitz of the Riviera.
In January alone, farmers in these hills lost around 100 sheep to the grey wolf, which is making a lightning comeback in France and other parts of Europe; in Spain, packs are breeding a mere 40 miles from Madrid.
For Ludovic Bruno, 20, whose 350 sheep graze here in the winter months before he takes six days to walk them to higher summer pastures, respecting the age-old practice of “transhumance”, the hunt was personal.
“Over there just behind that hill on January 5, four wolves attacked my flock and there was nothing I could do about it. I had no gun on me,” said the young farmer who suffered eight attacks last year killing scores of animals and has lost 18 in the past month.
“I saw one running off with one of my lambs in its jaws. Two more sheep lay dead. I felt only rage. The wolf is a threat to my way of life and my future.”
Miraculously, he managed to save his black billy goat, which the wolves had pinned to a rock by its throat. The wound was still raw.
“Look,” he suddenly said, pointing to tracks in the thick snow ahead. “Paw prints. This is a wolf. He must be quite big. A male of around 30 kilogrammes. But these are several days old, made in fresh snow that has frozen over now.”
With official encouragement, herders and farmers hunted wolves to extinction in France in the 1930s but in 1992, an alpha mating pair crossed the border from Italy.
Since then, Canis lupus has spread throughout the French Alps, across the Rhône valley into the Massif Central and up the eastern border of France to the Jura and Vosges mountains.
It recently reached the sparsely populated plains of eastern France, and last month the corpse of an illegally shot wolf was found in Coole in the Marne, just 100 miles east of Paris.
Today, there are at least 300 individuals in up to 25 packs across the country. As their number and reach increase, so do attacks, resulting in the death of more than 6,000 sheep last year – double the number five years ago. More than a third occurred in the Alpes-Maritimes département where the hunt took place.
The wolf is a protected species under the Berne convention and European law. It can no longer be hunted or poisoned. Yet culls can exceptionally take place when all other attempts at protecting local livestock have failed. Under a government wolf plan, some 24 individuals can be “removed” – the official term – in this way per year.
Initially this was a job only for state marksmen, but given their lack of success – only seven were killed last year – the government widened the remit to “wolf lieutenants”. Now, wolves can be shot in ordinary hunts in areas where they pose problems.
Conservation groups are furious. “To return to wolf hunts as if we were in the Middle Ages is scandalous. That the local authorities are organising them is even worse,” said Jean-François Darmstaedter, president of Ferus, who threatened to challenge their legality in the European courts.
“We call them ‘political killings’ as their only aim is to allow farmers to let off steam but they will solve nothing. Blindly shooting wolves will have no effect other than to exacerbate the problem. If you kill the alpha male, you can split up a pack, which will cause far more damage.”
The only solution, he said, was to protect flocks properly by using fierce Pyrenean “patou” mountain dogs, penning sheep inside high electrified fences at night and firing warning shots if wolves approach. “These measures can reduce predation to almost nil,” he insisted.
But Pierre and Deborah Courron, who own 900 sheep and goats near Caussols, have tried all this and despite their best efforts – including sleeping beside flocks in the summer months – lost 60 animals last year and have suffered eight attacks in 2014.
Mrs Courron scoffed at the suggestion they were not doing enough to protect their sheep.
“We already have four patous. If I had 15 of them, we would doubtless have no wolf attacks, but a pack that big would pose a threat to humans as they are semi-wild. They would make mincemeat of hikers.”
As for electrified enclosures, they help, but the wolves are deft at spooking the sheep so much they knock down fences in panic. The wolves are now so bold they sometimes attack yards from the farm. Techniques such as linking a sheep’s heart rate to an alarm have proved ineffective.
While farmers are compensated for the loss of animals they can prove were eaten by wolves and receive a “stress bonus” to cover potential miscarriages, the psychological strain is permanent.
“In 2013, we lost almost 2,500 sheep in 719 attacks,” said Jean-Philippe Frère, vice president of the chamber of agriculture for the Alpes-Maritimes.
“You can imagine the distress this causes farmers. To live 24 hours a day with the strain of thinking the wolf is going to eat my sheep is unbearable.”
Jean-Marc Moriceau, a historian who has studied the relationship between man and wolf over the ages, said that it was a “lie to simply say if you add more means, there will be no more problem”.
“As a historian I can tell you there has never been perfect cohabitation between man and wolf. It has always been imposed and under constraint,” he said.
In April, Mr Moriceau is launching a website documenting the 8,000 humans killed by wolves between the 17th and 20th centuries, many of them children between six and 15 sent to guard flocks.
“There is a kind of law of silence about this because it is seen as not politically correct to describe what is a historical reality. It was a tiny minority, but it is the reason for our ancestral fear of the wolf.”
Today public opinion is very much on the wolf’s side. A recent poll, commissioned by a pro-wolf group, found that 80 per cent of French people wanted wolves to be protected from farmers, rather than sheep from wolves. But Mr Moriceau said that could change as the wolf approaches built-up areas.
“The wolf is an indicator of all humanity’s weaknesses throughout the ages, including today. It will exploit any drop in the strength and domination of man on his environment,” he said. “The closer the wolf physically gets to people, the less they are in favour of its presence.”
With little to stop the wolf spreading all round France, some are calling for certain areas to be declared “wolf-free zones”.
“The wolf is gaining ground. If we left nature run its course, then certainly we will see them soon in the forests around Paris,” said Jean-Pierre Poly, national head of France’s wildlife and hunting commission, whose delicate mission is to protect the wolf, compensate farmers and organise culls.
“Some think that we should hem the wolf in to certain areas and organise a sort of defence zone to make sure it doesn’t get too close to built up areas. The jury is out,” he said.
Wolves undoubtedly prowl these woods, but they are remarkably elusive and can smell a man more than a mile off. At one stage, Mr Courron paused to point out fresh tracks in a clearing.
“Look at the pads, all in a line. When they follow each other, they step in each other’s paw prints. It looks like one, but could be several,” he said, pushing another cartridge into his rifle and firing into the blue sky.
“These are probably from yesterday.”
Despite what are, for the hunters, these encouraging signs, after an exhausting three-hour march the packs local farmers say are causing them such trouble were still nowhere in sight.
And help was at hand for the wolves: just as the trackers entered the final furlong, at last approaching the stationary marksmen’s line of fire, the hunt was abruptly cut short by furious ramblers demanding to know why their Sunday stroll had suddenly taken them into a war zone.
As tempers flared and the guns fell silent, the farmers railed against “tourists” whose right to roam had foiled their hunt. “All these people mobilised against the wolf, yet we get stopped by a bunch of walkers. It beggars belief,” said Mr Courron.
In truth, however, this is the third such hunt in the area in which the wolf has evaded his ancient foe. Last time, a marksman even missed one that dashed for cover right past his sights.
“Today is Sunday. If we had done the hunt on Friday we would probably have come across wolves,” said Mr Bernard. “But as they roam over a large territory of around 30,000 hectares (110 square miles) per pack, they constantly move around and today were not on the Caussols plain.”
Gripping his gun and clenching his jaw, Mr Courron stared dejectedly into the middle distance. “Better luck next time,” he murmured. “Even if we just get one or two, we will be a little less troubled.”
• Wolf hunt returns to France: 360 degree view