Two years before the Second World War, the grey wolf became extinct in France. More than half a century later, an alpha pair crossed the border from Italy, and there are now more than 300 roaming the south-east. But the return of canis lupus has been as controversial as it is incredible.
Although they are protected under the 1979 Bern Convention and 1992 Habitats Directive, wolves may be culled if they threaten livestock, a juxtaposition which has both farmers and conservationists up in arms. If a wolf has caused significant casualties, electric fences and guard dogs have proven ineffective, and killing it will not harm the local wolf population, it may be shot by a “wolf lieutenant” with a special permit. However, after a 30% rise in attacks this year, and human safety fears after a teenager was surrounded by wolves and their cubs, many farmers argue that this is not enough. As a result, union FDSEA has taken increasingly drastic steps in protest, from displaying sheep carcasses and disrupting the Tour de France to kidnapping the president and director of the National Park of Vanoise in Savoie, demanding that wolves inside the parks be culled too and petitioning the French government to remove their “protected” status.
The government’s response has disappointed both sides.The yearly wolf quota has been raised from 24 to 36, and Environment Minister Ségolène Royal has commissioned a “wolf-hunting team” to make sure it is filled, after only 19 wolves were shot last year. At a local level, a handful of mayors signed decrees relaxing the culling regulations, although most were quickly withdrawn after the prefectures declared them illegal. Most disconcerting of all, after the park directors were kidnapped, the Savoie prefecture agreed that six more wolves could be shot, despite the fact that only seven wolves have been counted in the area and one has already been killed. So how have conservationists reacted?
Pro-wolf group FERUS contest that culling is the answer when Spain, with more than 2,000 wolves and more livestock, has suffered fewer casualties thanks to better security and smaller flocks. They also query the attack on the teenager, claiming that the pack he described was too big and that it would have been too early in the year for young. Forming the organisation “Cap Loup” with ASPA and One Voice, they have petitioned the European Commission and Council of State, accusing France of breaking the Bern Convention by increasing the wolf quota, and thanks to their efforts elsewhere, the administrative tribunal of Toulon – where an aforementioned decree was signed – recently ruled against a local increase in the wolf cull.
Outside of the courtroom, Alliance avec les Loups has called for Ségolène Royal’s resignation and a boycott of all sheep products unless they carry their own “wolf-friendly” label, stressing that collaboration with wolves is the answer. With tensions running high on both sides, is this possible?
Fortunately, conservationists are not alone in their view. For example, French technology company Natural Solutions is developing an ultrasound sheep collar to deter wolves, and the CanOvis project – of which the UKWCT is a donor – is researching the effectiveness of patou guard dogs.
Most importantly, a recent IFOP survey found that 82% of French people are against the eradication of the wolf, and 75% are against culling any protected species. With the aid of public opinion and more projects like these, there is hope that wolves can one day resume their place as a key species in France’s ecosystem.