French farmers blame the deaths of more than 10,000 animals since last year on wolves
Lyon (AFP) - Animal lovers may be delighted that wolves are roaming the French mountains once again -- but the predators' increasing attacks on sheep have farmers longing to get their guns out.
On Monday, farmers flooded the streets of the city of Lyon with hundreds of sheep, demanding more government action after what authorities say were more than 10,000 animal deaths blamed on wolves last year.
Some farmers wore t-shirts emblazoned with photos of their bloodied livestock as they marched alongside their flocks, who filled the city air with the sound of bleating and tinkling bells.
"When you discover the body of one of your sheep with its throat ripped out by a wolf, it is horrible. It's traumatic," said Nicolas Fabre, a 38-year-old farmer from Cornus in the southern Aveyron region.
Wolves have targeted his flock twice in recent months, killing three sheep.
The attacks, mostly in the Alps and southern France, have sparked an increasingly bitter debate between farmers and animal activists who fiercely defend the rights of Canis lupus, a protected species in Europe.
Wolves used to be common in France before dying out in the early 1930s. They reappeared naturally at the beginning of the 1990s and are now believed to number around 360.
Farmers across Aveyron, a sunny agricultural region famed for its pungent Roquefort blue cheese, say they have tried protecting their flocks with dogs, fences and netting, but to no avail.
And they say it is impossible to watch permanently over their animals, which are often spread over hilly, wooded land stretching dozens of hectares.
"There are 800,000 sheep in Aveyron," says Francois Giacobbi, a breeder in charge of the issue for the local farmers' association.
"It's basically a pantry for the wolves."
He noted that the sheep's milk used to make Roquefort has to be from animals that graze outside -- leaving producers with no choice but to expose their flocks to danger.
- Volunteer shepherds -
France's agriculture ministry has said it wants to stop the attacks, though it has not said how.
Its new "wolf plan" is set to be negotiated and put into place from early 2018.
The government gave the green light this summer for a maximum of 40 wolves to be culled by July 2018, unchanged from last year.
Once 32 have been shot, farmers are allowed to shoot a further eight to thwart an imminent strike or end an attack that is already underway.
But breeders want more leeway to shoot the animals.
"You must be allowed to shoot a wolf when it attacks a flock," said National Sheep Federation president Michele Boudoin, urging the government to come up with a plan that "puts farming and farmers back at its heart".
In the meantime, volunteers in the southern Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region -- which saw 268 wolf attacks from January to August -- is trying a different approach.
The animal protection group Ferus has trained about 20 volunteers this year to keep guard over flocks -- a scheme designed to ease tensions between the pro- and anti-wolf camps.
Among them is Pascal Gomez, an IT technician on sabbatical, charged with keeping an all-night vigil over a local farmer's 650 sheep.
"My deep conviction is that even if you kill all the wolves they'll come back," the 56-year-old says as darkness falls.
He has already spotted several -- "an adult and some younger ones" -- and the programme allows him to help a farmer while indulging his passion for wildlife photography at the same time.
"The first time, it warmed my heart to see them," he says of the wolves.
Gomez said he wanted to "see both sides -- that of the wolf and that of the farmers".
But distrust of animal activists is so great that many farmers refuse to open their doors to the volunteers.
"They see Ferus as the devil," says the programme's manager Eric Vissouze.
After trying everything from alarms to guard dogs, however, Julien Daumas, a farmer at nearby Blegiers, sees keeping watch as the only solution.
"Luckily there are the volunteers," he said.