After centuries of persecution and hunting, wildlife across Europe has seen a remarkable comeback. But as the number of bison, beavers and wild boar are steadily climbing, so too are the number of predators. Wolves have been dispersing from Eastern Europe to the West in increasing numbers to the delight of conservation organizations, but to the dismay of farmers. In response to losses of livestock in the Alps, France has finally bowed to the pressure of the shepherds and deployed a team of wolf hunters.
Formed earlier this year, the “anti-wolf brigade” has finally been let loose, with a license to cull up to 36 of the animals by the end of the year. Even though the grey wolf is protected from hunting by European law, it does allow the killing of the animal if it is part of a limited, targeted cull. Following a volatile few months in which French farmers have gone so far as to take their sheep to the streets of Paris and even hold hostage the manager of a national park, the French government has relaxed its hunting rules.
This all comes after a reported increase in the number of attacks on livestock in recent years, especially in the Alps region, as wolves have been increasing in numbers and spreading from the border with Italy. With 300 of the animals thought to be now living in France, two have even been spotted as far North as the outskirts of Paris. According to farmers, the predators were responsible for close to 8,500 livestock deaths in 2014 alone. In one weekend, a single wolf reportedly caused the death of 72 sheep, killing 10 of the animals and driving a further 62 over a cliff edge.
The French government has been trying to smooth relations between the shepherds and the protected predator by paying compensation for any sheep killed, shelling out roughly €15 million ($19 million) in 2012. But that hasn’t been enough. One shepherd reckons that roughly 10% of his flock has been taken by wolves so far this year, and that currently employed methods to protect them – from keeping Pyrenean mountain dogs as guards to erecting electric fences – simply aren’t working.
But France is not the first country to break EU law and hunt the returning wolves. Sweden resumed wolf hunting in 2010 and 2011 and plan on starting again in 2015, but earlier this year the European Union said it is now planning to take legal action against the hunt due to its breach of the European Union directive. The European Commission is concerned about Sweden hunting the wolves when the population is already in such a fragile state in the country. Only time will tell if the French initiative is successful in cutting livestock deaths or whether it will face its own legal challenges.