Calls for scrap­ping of pro­tected sta­tus as rise in preda­tor numbers sparks fear

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - NATURE - By HENRY SAMUEL in Paris, JAMES BADCOCK in Madrid, NICK SQUIRES in Rome and JUSTIN HUGGLER in Ber­lin

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.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Wolves are “at the gates of Paris” ac­cord­ing to one lupine watch­dog as the preda­tor re­gains ground around Europe.

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