Farmers in the Provence region of France are demanding the right to hunt and kill more of the wild wolves that are killing an increasing number of their livestock – amid fears humans may also be at risk.
Last year more than 6,000 sheep deaths were reported in the region, victims of some 300 wolves in around 25 packs which now prowl across the countryside. It is feared that unless the growing problem is not addressed there will soon be wolves in the forests around Paris, as there are in Spain, 40 miles from Madrid.
Wolves in France were hunted to extinction in the 1930s, but then in 1992 a pair crossed the border from Italy and began to breed. Now wild wolves can be found across the Alps, Massif Central and plains of eastern France; one was illegally shot last month just 100 miles from Paris.
Under European law the wolf is a protected species, meaning it is illegal to hunt or poison one unless all other preventative measures have failed. The French government's suggestion that wolves be "educated" not to attack sheep attracted great derision. Conservationists say farmers should erect electric fences and use fearsome Pyrenean "patou" mountain dogs to protect their flocks, but farmers say these measures have been tried and simply don't work.
Deborah Courron, who with her husband Pierre keeps sheep and goats, told The Times: "We already have four patous. If I had 15 of them, we would doubtless have no wolf attacks, but a pack that big would pose a threat to humans."
As for whether the expanding wolf population poses a threat, historian Jean-Marc Moriceau is to publish a list of the thousands of people killed by wolves in France between 1362–1918. However some conservationists believe healthy wolves are rarely, if ever, a threat to humans.
The French government has now authorised a cull of 24 wolves in the region but has had mixed results. During one recent hunt not a single wolf was killed; hunters say there are too many restrictions and the wolves are too wily, and some have called for North American hunters to be brought in for their greater expertise.
Despite the growing number of attacks on sheep, 80% of French people want wolves protected. Farmers are becoming increasingly frustrated, believing the urban population of Paris and Nice has a romanticised perception of the wolf.
Senator Pierre Bernard-Reymond, who represents the High Alps, had one novel suggestion to get Parisians to alter their views: "It's time to release a few wolf packs in the Vincennes Park or the Luxembourg Gardens."
So far his suggestion has yet to be adopted.