By Addison Nugent
On the evening of June 5, 2015, Romain Ferrand, then 16, was on his family’s cattle farm in the Maritime Alps in the south of France. Sitting outside, the young man suddenly heard a commotion erupt from the ordinarily tranquil mountain darkness: Cows mooed loudly in the distance, and the dogs began to bark and growl ferociously. Romain called his brother, Benjamin, and the two set out into the night armed with flashlights and their father’s hunting knife and rifle.
As soon as they arrived at the cattle pen, they saw eyes shining beyond the electric fence. They were the eyes of a predator recently returned to France — the Eurasian wolf. Benjamin went back to the farmhouse for reinforcements, leaving Romain alone with the knife and rifle. Perhaps sensing the teen’s vulnerability, nine wolves leaped from the darkness and surrounded him, snarling and snapping until the terrified young man fired a warning shot, and the pack dispersed into the night.
Romain Ferrand’s ordeal is symptomatic of France’s intensifying wolf problem. The adaptable animals began drifting from Italy into France around 1992 and have been slowly increasing their numbers ever since. Though these relatively shy apex predators usually avoid humans, attacks on livestock have increased dramatically over the past decade, spelling trouble for traditional French free-range grass grazing and costing 21.4 million euros annually in public spending to compensate farmers for losses due to wolf predation and for protective measures. French farmers and animal conservationists are now at odds, with farmers campaigning for the right to kill the once-endangered species. “It’s impossible for us farmers to cohabitate with the wolf,” says Jean-Luc Ferrand, Romain’s father.
And it’s not just France. Europe is now home to 12,000 wolves, which is twice the wolf population of the U.S. in an area that’s half the size and more densely populated. This uptick also has incited outrage among pastoral farmers in Italy, where the mutilated bodies of illegally hunted wolves occasionally are displayed outside small towns.
Wildlife specialists estimate that there are about 360 wolves in France, which roam primarily in the Maritime Alps in packs of six to 15 individuals. Although that population may not sound like a lot, these master hunters are extremely efficient. A study published by the French Ministry of Ecology and Development of Sustainable Energy found that wolves killed 9,788 livestock (mostly sheep) in 2016, an increase of 853 over 2015, and a whopping 5,559 more kills than in 2010. Last year, 25 of France’s 96 departments reported wolf attacks.
By far the most affected region is the Maritime Alps, where 847 attacks took place between 2015 and 2016. “It is extremely difficult to see these animals killed and one’s hard work of several years destroyed by wolves,” says Phillippa Danaus, a local farmer. Though the French government allows 36 wolves to be killed each year, farmers argue that this number is too low and are calling for less government oversight in the face of soaring livestock deaths.
But animal rights groups are unsympathetic, claiming that farmers simply aren’t taking the necessary precautions to prevent attacks. “The wolf is a legally protected species … and there is no need to revisit that status,” says Sylvie Cardona, vice president of the Nièvre branch of the Association for the Protection of Endangered Species (AVES). “Breeders have difficulties because of an unfavorable economic context and not because of the wolf.” Cardona is referring to depressed prices in dairy, beef, pork and other animal products since 2014. “Their demands are totally out of place and outrageous.”
Europe has had a long and complex history with the Eurasian wolf. Ancient Vikings, Romans, Celts and Greeks all feared and respected the animal, writing it into their religious mythologies. The she-wolf, or Lupa Romana, the symbol of ancient Rome, was so revered that Romans only killed wolves when absolutely necessary.
All that changed in the Middle Ages. In France, wolf extermination was institutionalized by Charlemagne between 800 and 813 with the establishment of a special hunting corps called the louveterie, who were so efficient that the wolf had disappeared from France entirely by the 1940s. Other European state-sponsored programs, some of which lasted well into the 19th century, were equally efficient.
The French louveterie still exists, but as a wildlife and forestry service whose mission is preservation and population control. “The wolf is a beautiful animal,” says Joël Druyer, president of the Yvelines chapter of the louveterie. Taking a more evenhanded stance than his predecessors, Druyer admits that, as AVES claims, some farmers have gotten too used to a wolf-free France and do not take the necessary precautions, such as hiring a shepherd or buying guard dogs. Still, many farmers simply can’t keep up with the rapidly growing wolf population. “Some people take every precautionary measure and their herds still get attacked,” Druyer says.
One such farmer is Vidal Frédéric, a sheep farmer in the Maritime Alps, who lost three of his flock to wolves two days prior to speaking with OZY. Frédéric has an electric fence and eight guard dogs, and at times he sleeps in a house trailer next to the sheep enclosure; nevertheless, he still loses about 25 animals per year. “They’re adapting,” says Frédéric, noting that certain wolf packs have started attacking in the daytime when farmers think they are safe from the typically nocturnal hunters.
Whether you’re pro-wolf or pro-farmer, one thing is for sure: Wolves are repopulating the French landscape. “We will see wolves in the north of France in the years ahead,” says Druyer. “They’re coming.”