Return of wolves puts French flocks in danger
The once-vanished gray wolf, reintroduced to France in 1992, is now thriving. But herders and farmers in the southern Alps say it’s because the carnivores are killing and eating vast numbers of sheep and goats, and threatening the existence of shepherding in the region.
The New York Times
VIGNOLS, France — High in the thick grass meadows of the southern French Alps, a modern parable of man and nature, sheep and wolf, is being written in a great quantity of blood.
With official encouragement, herders and farmers had hunted the gray wolf to extinction in France by the 1930s.
Within a half-century, though, the animal had been made a protected species throughout Europe; the first wolves re-entered French territory from Italy in 1992, a small and delicate population at the outset. Much to the thrill of conservationists and European officials, they have thrived.
But to the exasperation of this region’s shepherds, who for generations have scaled these hills with the seasons, the species’ success has been due in no small part to the ample, easy pickings. Wolves have been slaughtering vast numbers of sheep here — at least 20,000 in just the past five years, according to an official count. The government has spent tens of millions of euros in efforts to stanch the attacks, but to little avail, and shepherds increasingly call the wolf an existential threat.
“They’re killing shepherding as I know it,” said Bernard Bruno, 47, who has lost at least 1,000 sheep in recent years. The wolf’s return may symbolize environmental progress to some, said Bruno, a stout, blue-eyed man who has spent 25 summers alone here with his flock and a walking stick. But it has also imperiled “one of the last natural, ecological kinds of livestock farming,” he said.
One environmental ideal has undermined another, shepherds say. Were they to write the moral of their story, it might go like this: wolf and sheep may happily coexist in the airy hypotheticals of ecological theory, but they don’t mix so well in the pasture.
Bruno’s lonely, pastoral approach — one still practiced by 60,000 French herders, though their numbers have fallen drastically in recent decades — is indeed supported by environmentalists, the government and the European Union as a model of sustainable agriculture.
It is just the sort of communion of tradition and progressivism that appeals to European notions of modernity, and it is heavily subsidized as a result.
Nonetheless, the average shepherd finishes the year with earnings that approximate the minimum wage, according to government figures. It is a hard living made harder by the wolf.
“If you ask me, when they talk about ‘environmentalism’ today, it’s meant for city people,” Bruno said. “You go talk about the bear, the wolf, about nature that’s a bit wild, and you send them all off dreaming.
“Come ask us, the shepherds, about putting sharks in the Mediterranean,” he added wryly. “You’ll get 99 percent in favor. I don’t go swimming, I don’t give a damn!”
France’s wolf population is hardly Europe’s largest, at about 250, but it is likely to be the most contentious. There is little uninhabited wilderness to speak of here, and many of the country’s most rugged expanses — habitats suited to the wolf — are occupied by farmers and their animals.
“We’re not in a big country,” said Serge Préveraud, the president of the National Ovine Federation. France’s 6 million sheep, Préveraud said, cannot reasonably be expected to “cohabitate” with wolves.
The European Union considers the wolf’s return to Northern and Western Europe to be a “success story of the last 40 or 50 years,” said Joe Hennon, the spokesman for the European Commissioner for the Environment.
Still, Hennon said, the wolf’s impact on livestock “is becoming an obvious issue.”
French authorities spend millions each year to reimburse herders for lost animals and to subsidize the hulking Great Pyrenees guard dogs that now pad alongside many flocks.
Despite the protestations of conservation groups, the government has also organized the shootings — “samplings,” in official parlance — of a handful of wolves. Nothing seems to have worked, though; sheep and goat losses doubled in the past five years to nearly 6,000 in 2012.
The government’s national wolf plan calls for more shootings, but this notion, too, has proved more effective in theory than practice. Except in rare cases, the animals can be legally killed only with case-by-case approval from the authorities; by the time a decree has been pronounced and a hunting party raised, the wolves have generally vanished into the hills. Just eight have been killed since 2008.
Up to 24 shootings will be authorized this year under an updated wolf plan, but only one wolf has been killed thus far. The population is believed to be growing by about 20 percent each year.
Shepherds have done what they can. Most have accepted the unpredictable guard dogs, despite concerns about attacks on hikers; some shepherds sleep beside their animals in the fields. Many slaughter and sell fewer of their ewes, knowing that some of the animals they keep will not survive to give birth to the next year’s flock.
Denis and Éliane Rogeri, who set their sheep to pasture on the ravine slopes above La Bollène-Vésubie, have reduced their flock from 1,000 to a more easily guardable 750, hired additional herders and taken on five guard dogs.
In winter, they now lock their sheep in a ragtag farm building beside their home. They have nonetheless lost perhaps 1,500 head to wolf attacks since 1994, they said, though they have ceased keeping precise count.
“Otherwise, we’d wonder what we’re still doing here,” said Éliane Rogeri, 51.
The state reimbursed the Rogeris for about 30 sheep last year: 90 euros, or $120, per lamb, 160 euros, or $210, per ewe, and “stress bonuses” of several hundred for the first few attacks of the season. But the $6,600 the couple paid this year to truck their sheep to a safer summer pasture will not be covered; nor will the food for their dogs, or the losses for the 50 ewes that miscarried last winter or for the traumatized lambs that will perhaps fail to fatten.
Financial strain aside, the wolf has transformed the quiet rituals of herding in ways that are exhausting, shepherds say.
“We have to be there guarding them constantly; that’s what’s become infernal — we’re there day and night,” said Bruno, whose 11 guard dogs could not save the 180 sheep he lost last year.