Over the weekend, a brown bear is thought to have caused over 200 sheep to run over the edge of a cliff in a panicked frenzy. The horrifying incident is yet another episode in the ongoing strife between farmers and environmentalists.
The sheep belonged to a farmer who lives in Couflens, on the French side of the border. It is thought that the bear attacked one of the sheep, causing the rest of the flock to panic and plunge to their deaths as they fled over the edge of a 200-meter (650-foot) cliff. Around 169 of the sheep have been found at the bottom of the cliff in the Spanish village of Lladorre, while the rest landed in France.
Brown bears are native to the Pyrenees, with the last genetically pure individual having been shot by a hunter in 2004, despite the population having been listed as endangered. Due to their dwindling numbers, the French government has been trying to reintroduce the species since the 1990s with bears from Slovenia. It is now thought that around 30 brown bears pace the forests and alpine grasslands of the mountain range. But there has also been an unease between farmers in the region and conservationists.
This latest situation throws into sharp relief the conflict that can occur between the two groups. There has been a strong movement across much of Europe among environmentalists and conservationists to "rewild" large tracts of land. The idea is to return habitats across the continent to how they once were, in order to restore vital ecosystem functions that have been lost over the centuries as forests, grasslands, and wetlands have been converted for agriculture.
This often involves talk of reintroducing predators as an essential part to regulate ecosystems, and this is exactly what has happened in the Pyrenees over the last three decades. Understandably, the move to release one of the largest terrestrial predators into the mountains between France and Spain has not been popular among those who make a living farming sheep in the region.
According to official reports, the bears are thought to cause around 300 sheep deaths in the region each year, for which the farmers are compensated. While this may sound like a lot, and the impact this has on those farmers should not be underestimated, the figure should be put into context. There are around 500,000 sheep farmed in the French Pyrenees. Of these, around 15,000 are thought to die each year due to disease, falls, and exposure.
The event highlights the fine balance that needs to be worked if rewilding is going to occur. Projects such as these will not succeed if those who have to live with the results are not on board.