There is a solitary grain of comfort available to an Australian farmer dealing with killed and maimed stock after a wild dog attack: at least they are not a French shepherd.
In France, the country’s sheep farmers and shepherds are dealing with mounting losses from wolves - and unlike an Australian farmer, they can’t protect themselves with a gun or poison. To kill a wolf in France, even one in the middle of mauling sheep, is to earn a jail sentence.
Last year, France’s 300-odd wolves killed or terminally mauled 10,000-odd sheep. Up to 70 sheep have been lost from a flock in a night. In France, the average sheep farmer has about 400 sheep.
Wolves were hunted to extinction in France in 1927, but in 1992, they reappeared over the Alps from Italy. Their arrival has been welcomed by conservationists as part of the “re-wilding” of Europe, and the wolf’s protected status vigorously enforced.
The re-wilding theory argues, with some evidence and commonsense behind it, that re-establishing top-level predators helps to balance the populations of animals further down the food chain, and cull those who are sick or unfit.
But France’s new wolves don’t stay in the wild to conform to an ecological theory. They sensibly find easier prey among France’s sheep – and occasionally goats and cattle – that are on pasture.
And wolves don’t stay in the mountains, either. They are killing sheep in fields a few dozen yards from village houses, and bus drivers have taken pictures of wolf packs with their smartphones as they take children to school.
The problem, in the view of Michel Meuret, ecologist and research director at INRA (the French National Institute of Agricultural Research), is that France’s new wolves have not been taught to understand the boundary between wild an domestic.
“The shepherds are not allowed to protect their flocks, so the wolves have no signals to tell them not to kill sheep,” said Dr Meuret, in Dubbo this week for the BEHAVE conference on animal behaviour and its role in more efficient animal agriculture.
“It needs to be made clear to wolves that domestic livestock belong to humans, and humans present a danger to them. That might require something like the regulations of ‘problem wolves’ that have been put in place in the United States.”
“We are starting late, but maybe not too late”.
He feels the pain of the profession: he has been researching shepherds, and working with them, for 30 years.
He describes how shepherds sleep fitfully in their huts at night, alert to the sound of their dogs barking. If the dogs sound the alarm the shepherd runs out to scare off an attack by firing a gun in the air. They check their flock for deaths and bites, and then return to their cabin and attempt sleep before a hard day in the mountains - or the next attack.
After three months of tension-filled nights (and days: wolves are starting to attack by day), shepherds are exhausted.
In France, shepherding is itself regarded as ecologically desirable, and essential to maintaining the health of mountain vegetation and native birds and animals.
But that ecological benefit runs head-on into the presumed ecological good offered by wolves. What is certain is that wolves come at a huge economic, social and emotional cost.
Meuret said that between compensation payments to sheep farmers for their lost sheep, subsidising of extra human guards, guard dogs and electrified night pens, and the bureaucracy needed to administer and refund wolf-damage to farmers, each adult wolf has been estimated to cost the French 50,000 Euros a year.
With 34 other French scientists, Prof. Meuret has signed an open letter to authorities calling for more effective regulation around wolves, or a re-think of the entire re-wilding enterprise.
“While farmers and herders have modified their practices, so too have the wolves, and the wolves seem to be winning,” the scientists wrote.
“Wolves have learned that they can make their attacks without risk, even near roads and houses. These are behavioral changes that could have been predicted. They have been known for many years in the Western United States, where Wildlife Agencies struggle sometimes daily with the perverse effects of the total protection of wild animal species.”
“Farmers and shepherds of France do not deserve to be disqualified and dispossessed. Committed, passionate, inspired by their respect for the living world, these men and women are engaged in demanding work for modest returns.”
The original letter (in French) is available here.