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French farmers lose the battle to keep wolves from their door

Shepherds fear for livestock as government confirms predator has colonised Pyrenees

A ferocious pastoral war over the reconquest, or repopulation, of France by large wild animals has entered a new phase – or two. There has been a victory for wild wolves and a partial defeat for government-assisted bears.

After a long protest campaign by shepherds, the French government has abandoned a 20-year drive to repopulate the Pyrenees with brown bears. New animals will be introduced only if the surviving bears are "killed accidentally" or fail to reproduce. The bear breeding programme received a boost this week with the news that two sets of young twin cubs had been spotted in the Pyrenees, bringing the bear population to over 20 for the first time.

Meanwhile, it has been officially confirmed that wolves are now resident in 15 of the 94 départements (counties) of mainland France, including, for the first time in a century, the French Pyrenees.

Wolves first re-entered France, without human assistance, from Italy in the early 1990s. Packs roam throughout the French Alps, into parts of the Rhône valley, into the hills of the Jura in eastern France and over parts of the southern Massif Central.

The environment minister, Chantal Jouanno, has confirmed that the grey wolf (Canis lupus) has also opened a new, southern front in its campaign to recolonise a country from which it was exterminated in 1939. At least one pack has crossed the border from Spain and is ranging over the two easternmost départements in the French Pyrenees.

The news will infuriate shepherds' groups and delight environmental activists, who have fought ferocious anti-wolf and pro-wolf political battles in the last 15 years.

Last month, the French government authorised a wolf cull in the Haute-Alpes after 30 sheep were killed. In the Ubaye valley, shepherds blocked roads to protest against what they claimed were 17 attacks by wolves in broad day-light in the month of June alone.

Despite agreement on a government plan to protect sheep and compensate for attacks in 2004, fear of the Big Bad Wolf threatens rages again in Alpine France. Yves Derbez, president of an association to "protect pastoral traditions", said a shepherdess in the Ubaye valley had seen a wolf running "three metres behind her back" last month. Two days later, her daughter stepped out of their house at 11pm and saw a wolf a few feet away. "These wolves have no predators. They don't know what a rifle is," Mr Derbez said. "They have no fear of attacking in broad daylight or approaching houses."

Environmental groups say that these fears, and often the scale of the attacks themselves, are exaggerated. Wolves will not approach humans, they say. Wolf attacks amount to only a fraction of the deaths of sheep attributable to wild dogs, avalanches and storms.

As part of the 2004 Wolf Plan, the government has subsidised farmers to buy and train large dogs of the patou breed which used to protect sheep from wolves in France in past centuries. Many shepherds have refused, complaining that the dogs attack tourists and cause more problems than they solve. In some parts of the French Alps, there have even been running battles – and allegations of dog poisoning – between pro and anti-sheepdog groups of shepherds.

Daniel Véjux is a wolf expert and member of the national committee of the French wildlife study and lobby group, L'Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages. He says the shepherds could solve their problems easily. "If sheep are protected properly, a wolf will not attack them," Mr Véjux said. "It will not risk injury by dogs. If you leave sheep unprotected, you make the wolf's choice an easy one."

There are now estimated to be about 180 wolves living in France. Their arrival in the eastern Pyrenees in the last year is believed to have influenced the government's decision to scale back its 20-year-old programme to reintroduce the brown bear (Ursus arctos).

Earlier this year, the environment minister, Ms Jouanno, insisted that the programme to release Slovakian bears in the Pyrenean wilds must continue. Shepherds' groups have protested for years that the bears eat their sheep or terrify flocks and drive them over cliffs. At least one bear has died in suspicious circumstances. Another, Franska, was killed in a road accident in 2007.

At a meeting with local politicians and shepherds' leaders in Toulouse, Ms Jouanno accepted it was too much to expect Pyrenean shepherds to put up with a proliferation of both bears and wolves. She said a female bear would be released to replace Franska. After that, there would be no new animals introduced unless one of the 20 existing bears died accidentally. She also reserved a right to boost the bear population if they failed to breed. Shepherd's groups and environmentalists grudgingly accepted her compromise.

Europe's wild animals

The bison

The bison is Europes's largest mammal. It survives in the wild in just a few herds. The largest of these are on either side of a forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. For hundreds of years they were protected but their numbers fell dramatically when they were hunted by those desperate for food after the First World War. None were left by 1919 and had to be repopulated from collections.

The wild boar

The wild boar is common throughout the continent. Germany has reported a surge in numbers, causing problems including destroying crops, killing pets and even attacking people. It has been re-established in the wild in Britain in the last 30 years, including breeding populations in Sussex, Dorset and the Forest of Dean.

The elk

Thousands of Scandinavian elk, known as the moose in North America, live in the forests of northern Europe. The notoriously shy creatures are known to retreat into deep forest when they are disturbed.

The lynx

The lynx, a large wild cat, still has significant populations in Scandinavia and the Alps. The Spanish species, the Iberian lynx, is down to a few animals and is the world's most endangered feline.