Jean-Marie Ouary is one of the founders of the Mille traces association based in the Vercors. He is one of the French specialists on the return of the wolf to France. He believes that the damage to flocks of sheep has been grossly overestimated and that it is technically avoidable. The apex predator is the scapegoat of a cattle industry that has been rocked by imports from New Zealand since 1985.
What is the situation of the wolf in France today?
Today, 20 years after their natural return from Italy, there are about 200 wolves in France. They are gaining ground to the West and to the North-East. And even if they found it difficult to cross the Rhine Valley, they are now firmly implanted in Ardèche. Pioneers have been identified in the Cévennes. But as wolves are social animals, packs have to be established in order for them to reproduce. However, packs are not thriving. Moreover, wolves feel most at ease at medium altitudes in less densely populated areas. There are 3 packs in the Vercors and one of those is made up of only 2 wolves.
What damages have been incurred by breeders?
If we add up the damage caused by all the apex predators throughout the country, that is to say 200 wolves, 150 lynx and 20 bears, it comes to between 4000 and 5000 sheep a year. That accounts for 0.5 % of all recorded losses!
In comparison, dog attacks can reach a minimum of 50 000 animals a year which is ten times more. What one has to realize is that in France, there are potentially 11 million stray dogs, that is to say dogs who escape their owners’ watchful gaze for longer or shorter periods of time. For example, in the Vercors where mushing activities (sporting activities with huskies) are widespread, there are 2000 huskies for every 20 wolves. These dogs (Huskies and others) are usually bigger than wolves. They bite sheep, attack them, make them run away and sometimes cause them to jump down precipices. (Sheep really are stupid, hence the expression “sheep being led off a cliff”!) Just to give you an idea, if a flock of sheep panics, it can jump headfirst into a precipice and 50 % of the animals can die in one fell swoop. Another example: when it rains, sheep huddle together. If a lightning bolt strikes, 100 % of the animals will be electrocuted!
So, wolves may damage herds but breeders “forget” to mention that damages were being incurred before wolves arrived and blame them for all the current problems. It’s easier that way!
How did you obtain these figures?
For a long time, we used figures given to us by insurance companies. But since wolves arrived, these figures are no longer available. And more importantly, we now know that these reports were distorted.
Indeed, if a sheep is killed by a wolf, the government compensates the breeder. On the other hand, if the sheep is killed by a dog, the breeder has to track down its owner and take them to court to get compensation. It is obviously much simpler to blame the losses on wolves. They are also ideal scapegoats for all the problems the profession is facing. That is why we now use the press to obtain attack figures –the region’s press is very aware of the issue – and check the facts on-site.
Are there ways of fighting the damage caused by wolves?
Of course. Shepherds have been living with wolves for centuries and they have developed effective strategies all over Europe. The main one involves the use of so-called Molosser dogs: they are twice as big as wolves. Several types of these dogs (Maremma Sheepdogs, mastiffs, kuvaszs and Anatolian Shepherds, for example) have been used for a long time in Turkey and the former Soviet Union. In the Vercors, we use a type of dog called the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, which is very effective. To give you an idea of just how effective these dogs are, Kenyan shepherds use Anatolian shepherds to protect their herds from lions, and it works!
Why aren’t these dogs used more?
The wolf arrived on a stricken sector and breeders no longer want to incur a single loss. They have stopped keeping their sheep, no longer employ shepherds and certainly don’t want to feed these dogs – that the government practically gives them for free. And all because of the Rainbow Warrior affair.
What has this got to do with the Rainbow Warrior?
When the French secret service sank the Greenpeace boat, killed a Portuguese photographer and the false Turenge couple was arrested, the government had to negotiate with New Zealand to settle the matter. As compensation, France allowed New Zealand to export as many living or dead sheep to France as it wanted. However, French sheep are three times more expensive than New Zealand sheep. The national sector immediately suffered. It is now only surviving thanks to grants, to the average tune of 60%. Northern miners and steelworkers would have appreciated such grants!
Does this explain the difference with the situation in Italy, where farms and wolves seem to exist side-by-side?
There are many differences with the situation in Italy. The first is that transalpine farms are mainly dairy farms: breeders therefore have to bring the animals in every night to milk them. Wolves find it very hard to get into farms. The second difference is cultural. In France, wolves have a very negative image because of stories like Little Red Riding Hood. However, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were fed by a she-wolf. Wolves are therefore better tolerated there – even if they aren’t always liked.
Moreover, the wolf’s reputation as an animal that kills man is completely inappropriate. No-one has ever been able to prove any wild (non-rabid) wolf attack on a human being. For a few years now in Canada, a reward has been offered for proof of a wolf attack on a human. It has still not been collected.
What is the situation in Larzac, and what do you think about José Bové’s statements encouraging breeders to shoot wolves?
We don’t yet have any precise figures on the wolf’s arrival: the animals that have been spotted are pioneers who have not yet settled and formed packs. They are probably still gauging the territory before settling there. And they have started causing damage, like in Ardèche, for example.
But Larzac is a very clear region– much more so than the Vercors – and can therefore be protected more easily with dogs. Moreover, most of the herds are made up of dairy cows that are brought in at night. There will therefore be even fewer losses than in the Alps.
And when it comes to the statements made by José Bové, with whom we share many common causes, we must remember one thing. In France, wolves are protected and it is illegal to kill them. And arming people is dangerous.
That being said, I think that José wants to garner sympathy from his friends in the region who are all breeders. But this statement shows no thought for the environment, no consideration for citizenship and we obviously expected more from him. Why use wolves as scapegoats? That is not where the problems surrounding livestock farming really lie!
Interview by Olivier Blond
The wolf, an indirect casualty of the attack on the Rainbow Warrior
Interview by Olivier Blond