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As the wolf once again wanders the French countryside conservationists, politicians and farmers search for workable options.
History of France’s Luparii – Will The Royal Wolf Catcher Now Need Retraining?
In the ninth century, when wolves roamed over nearly all of France, Charlemagne established a corps of elite wolf hunters –the Luparii — to control a growing problem decimating livestock. Ever since official wolf hunters have existed and the Luparii were later given the title of Wolf catcher Royal.
By 1800 there were only 5000 wolves left in the country and by 1900, with the arrival of strychnine; the number had fallen to just 500. By 1930 wolves no longer existed within French borders, though in a typically French approach, the office of Wolf Catcher Royal continued to exist but the role was somewhat changed.
This impressive sounding office is now one that administers general vermin control and liaises between farmers and national wildlife authorities. Technically at least, the Wolf Catcher is also meant still to be responsible for running a pack of at least four hounds. But administrative life in the office of the Wolf Catcher Royal might just be about to become a little less comfortable. In 1992 a pair of European wolves (Canis lupus) crossed into France from Italy.
There are now estimated to be between 250 and 300 wolves in France. There have been wolf sightings in 17 departments including the Aube just 200 kms from Paris. What environmentalists see as a wonderful example of the re-population of a once common native species, the large and powerful farming community regards very differently.
In 2012 there were over 6,000 wolf-attributed attacks on domestic animals. One third of these occurred in the south eastern Alpes-Maritime and farmers are calling, if not for total extermination, then at least for wolf numbers to be far more tightly controlled. Under EU law the wolf is a protected species but there is a clause which allows for culling in defence of livestock under exceptional circumstances.
Nicolas Dhuicq, a member of the Collectif parlementaire de la Droite populaire and UMP deputy for the Aube has stated that “wolves are fine in the Alps, in Siberia, in the Yellowstone but they are incompatible with human farming.” He is drafting a bill for the French National Assembly that would allow for the reintroduction of wolf hunting, an initiative, as it turns out, that clashes with one by Socialist deputy Geneviève Gaillard. For she has tabled a draft bill in parliament giving “rights” to wild animals – a move likely to see French hunters marching on Paris! “Whether they are domestic or wild animals they should be accorded the same rights”, she told BFMTV. She wants wild animals currently, classified in law as “furniture” to be recognised as “living beings with feelings” in the Civil Code.
Wolf hunting is no easy task as they are finding out in the US.
Idaho has a wolf population of 650 wolves and recently introduced a wolf control board to try and reduce the numbers to 150. Late in 2013 they held a wolf and coyote derby in which contestants were offered cash and trophies to hunt down the animals — an event which attracted 250 entries including children as young as twelve. The derby drew huge attention from environmental groups and tens of thousands signed petitions calling for the competition to be banned.
Attempts to get a legal injunction failed and the big event went ahead but not a single wolf was shot though hunters did manage to bag a few coyotes.
The wolf hunting issue in Idaho is very contentious and the mere mention of the word ‘wolf’ sets many a rancher’s blood boiling though, as Suzanne Stone, a wolf specialist for Defenders of Wildlife points out, there were 46 cattle and 413 sheep killed by wolves last year as opposed to 10,000 sheep killed by coyotes.
Few issues shine a spotlight on the divide between rural farmers and the generally more urban environmentalist lobby supporters, than this one.
Here in France two hunts this year overseen by wildlife officials have seen only two wolves killed but many are calling the hunts political. It is true the farming lobby is a large and powerful force but at the moment surveys show that 80% of the French population favours ongoing protection for the wolf. This is going to make it tough for the politicians who must ultimately decide on their fate.
On the one hand environmentalists insist that killing wolves splits established packs resulting in further livestock attacks. They support other deterrents such as better fencing, use of arc lights and more Pyrenean Mountain dogs, a special breed of fierce sheep protectors.
They also point out that farmers receive up to 300 euros for every sheep killed. The farmers on the other hand see environmentalists as protectors of a cunning predator that they don’t actually have to live with. Most wolf deterrents, they say, are either too expensive or impractical and even guarded by the famed mountain dogs, the wolves are still killing sheep.
A farmer may spend years doing careful selective breeding to fine tune the blood lines in his flock. Simply giving cash compensation is not going to adequately make amends for that. Ewes will miscarry if frightened by wolves and here the compensation is much smaller than the loss the farmer suffers.
In addition the constant threat to livestock and the risk to farmers’ families are, they claim, psychologically very detrimental.
Somewhere among these conflicting arguments the authorities are going to have to find a middle ground. To ignore the problem will result in increasing attacks and sooner or later, exasperated farmers will resume the use of strychnine poison.
France is a largely pastoral country and livestock now occupy much of the territory where wolves once would have roamed without causing such alarm. However, despite its fierce reputation and its disrespect for farmers’ property, there is something about having the wolf at large within French borders that occupies a powerful place in many Frenchmen’s psyche.
Perhaps because they are so representative of an environment where man was once not quite as dominant over nature. What gives me hope for the wolf is my belief that even most farmers do not want to see them totally eradicated in France again.
Story: Mike Alexander mike@