Calls for scrapping of protected status as rise in predator numbers sparks fear
Wolves are “at the gates of Paris”, it has been claimed, in the latest spectacular sign of the predator’s comeback in Europe. Buoyed by conservation efforts, massive rural depopulation and the spread of scrub and forest around the continent, wolves are fanning out to new territories, with one spotted in the Belgium-Luxembourg border in November for the first time in 118 years.
The rise in numbers, which experts put at around 12,000 in Europe, have led to calls for the wolf to lose its “strictly protected” status.
With more than 9,000 sheep killed this year in France alone, farmers are taking increasingly radical action to protest against the rise of an animal they claim is killing off their way of life.
European grey wolves were hunted to extinction in France in the 1930s but in 1992, an alpha mating pair crossed the border from Italy. Since then, Canis lupus has spread throughout the Alps, across the Rhône valley into the Massif Central and up the eastern border of France to the Jura and Vosges mountains.
It recently reached the sparsely populated plains of eastern France, and last month, l’Observatoire du Loup, (The Wolf Watchdog), a group of a dozen or experts that charts sightings around the country, said at least one individual had strayed into the Paris area.
It placed the Val-dOise, an area encompassing the capital’s northern outskirts, and the Hauts-deSeine, to southwest bordering with Versailles, “under surveillance” following reported sightings. The wolf was in “the dispersion phase” to the south and west, in the Essonne and Yvelines, it said.
Covering 20 to 60 kilometres a night, a wolf requires prey and rest areas that are not too built up, said Jean-Luc Valérie, president of the association. Once it has these, it can settle in a new area “within 18 months”.
“That is certainly what is happing in the île de France area,” he claimed.
Pro-wolf group Ferus and the hunting and wildlife commission, ONCFS voiced scepticism, saying there was no proof the animals seen weren’t large dogs, but Mr Valérie insisted they were in “denial”. “The wolf is at the gates of Paris,” he said.
Nobody, however, questions that the wolf is gaining ground.
Today, there are around 300 individuals in 40 packs across France, though farmers say official estimates are laughably low. As their reach increases, so do attacks, resulting in the death of 9,150 sheep this year — three times the number seven years ago. The wolves also took down 88 cows.
A protected species under the Berne convention and European law, the wolf can no longer be hunted or poisoned. Yet culls can exceptionally take place when all other methods fail.
Under a government wolf plan, some 36 individuals were permitted to be “removed” over a 12-month period. After six months, newlyformed brigades of “wolf lieutenants” have already culled 32 but the farmers say there is no let up to the attacks.
To vent their exasperation, 50 staged an unlikely demonstration in Paris before Christmas by parking their flocks in the capital’s famed royal Tuileries gardens.
“The symbolic message to politicians and Parisians is: ‘This is the only place where our flocks can safely graze without fear of attack,’’ ” said Olivier Bel, who has 250 sheep in the Gap area of the Upper Alps.
Also present was Claire Giordan, 33, a shepherdess in the Roya valley on the Italian border, who has has lost 10 of her 750 sheep to wolves in the past three weeks. Her husband Joel now spends every night in a sleeping bag by their enclosure.
“We’re turning the wolf into a deviant through overprotection. It no longer needs to hunt for wild animals and isn’t scared of man”, she told the Telegraph.
Recently she chased a wolf that had one of her lambs in its jaws. “In the past it would have run off, but here it challenged me, baring its fangs and growling. The standoff lasted a long time. Afterwards I realised it could have been dangerous,” she said.
In another incident, her daughter was playing by their cabin. “She suddenly realised a wolf was observing her and screamed. But the wolf started approaching her so she ran back into the cabin. Who knows how far it will go?”
The Tuileries protest prompted a government pledge to lift the ceiling on the number of wolves allowed to be culled, pay overdue compensation to farmers who have lost sheep, and to push for the EU to drop the wolf ’s “strictly protected” status a notch.
It found a willing partner in Spain, where the Iberian wolf subspecies has recovered from near extinction in the Franco era in its northern strongholds to reach a population of around 2,500, the largest in Western Europe.
Most live in mountainous parts of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León, where licensed hunting is permitted to cull around 10 per cent of wolf numbers each year.
Further south, the wolf is untouchable and spreading to the point that the Madrid region is now part of the animal’s range. This year there were 200 attacks in Madrid — ten times the figure three years ago.
Italy is now home to up to 2,000 wolves split into approximately 350 packs, with the great majority concentrated in the country’s wild heart — the sparsely populated Apennine chain.
They have thrived thanks to the abandonment of farmland and the spread of woodland and forest, More than a third of Italy is now covered in trees — double the area at the end of the Second World War and a record in modern times.
That in turn has led to a sharp increase in the population of prey species such as roe deer, chamois and, above all, wild boar.
Now wolves are roaming the hills and forested valleys of Lazio region, just an hour’s drive from Rome, and some have mated with wild dogs.
Late December, remote cameras recorded one pack in the hills outside Lucca in Tuscany. There was a full moon. ‘It was like they were putting on a Christmas concert,’ said the mayor, Mario Puglia.
“We don’t even know who our animals’ enemies are anymore. We have wolves, packs of wild dogs and hybrids born between wolves that have bred with dogs,” said Franco Mattei, a Tuscan sheep farmer. “We don’t even know what to call them. We simply call them predators.”
Over in Germany, a pack of wolves was photographed only 30 miles from Hamburg, the country’s second-largest city, last year, in what has been a remarkable comeback.
From no wolves 20 years ago, there are believed to be 31 packs, plus a further 18 mating couples and 16 lone wolves. The numbers have become so large there are now serious concerns over ensuring they are no risk to the human population. Some local authorities now provide advice on how to react if you cross one.
France isn’t the only country to authorise disputed culls.
Finland culled 55 out of 290 wolves last year, Sweden intends to shoot 14 to regulate its 400-strong population.
Most controversial of all, Norway in September announced plans to kill more than two thirds of its remaining 68 wolves in a step that environmental groups slammed as disastrous but that it said was necessary to stop the wolves taking up to 10,000 sheep per year.
Nina Jensen, chief executive of WWF in Norway, said: “This is mass slaughter. We have not seen anything like this in a hundred years, back when the policy was that all large carnivores were to be eradicated.”
But in a last-minute coup de theatre, the government announced late December that it will only authorise 15 wolves to be culled on the grounds that exterminating four packs would violate Norwegian law and the Bern convention.
“This is the best Christmas present,” said Ms Jensen. “It proves once and for all that the wolf is at home in Norwegian nature.”
Wolves are “at the gates of Paris” according to one lupine watchdog as the predator regains ground around Europe.