French farmers try to keep the wolves from their door

But anger over the loss of farm sheep cuts no ice with conservation groups

The first streets of the town are less than 300 metres away. Just across the fields, there is a main road with two garages. In the distance, the slopes of champagne vineyards glitter in the evening sunshine. The scene is the epitome of sleepy rural France, the kind of place where – you would imagine – sheep may safely graze.

But here, a few days ago, on the edge of Bar-sur-Aube (population 5,000), just over two hours' drive east of Paris, a wolf, or wolves, attacked Jean-Baptiste Schreiner's sheep. One ewe was torn apart; 17 others were injured.

"Wolves here? In the mountains, or in the forests, maybe, but this is flatter country, farming country. No one expected ever to see wolves here again. Even people in the town are scared," Mr Schreiner, 41, told The Independent on Sunday.

Since May, there have been 22 confirmed wolf attacks in the so-called "little Champagne" region in the Aube and Haute-Marne, just south of Champagne proper. Mr Schreiner's sheep have been attacked three times.

Animal protection groups believe that a single animal – a lone wolf – has strayed from the Vosges mountains 200 miles to the east. Local farmers and hunters fear that at least two wolves are living in the dense local woodland, maybe even a family group or a small pack.

It is almost a century since wolves last lived in lowland France. Two decades ago, wolf packs began to push back over the Franco-Italian border in the mountains to the north of Nice. Since then, Canis lupus, the world's largest wild canine, has spread throughout the French Alps, across the busy Rhône valley into the Massif Central and up the eastern border of France to the Jura and Vosges mountains.

This year, for the first time, an unknown number of wolves has ventured into the rolling woodland and farmland of the sparsely populated plains of eastern France. Others are believed to have reached as far north as the French Ardennes, just south of the Belgian border.

"None of this should be surprising or scaring," said Pierre Athanaze, president of a French wildlife defence group, Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages (Aspas). "The wolf is a lowland animal, an animal of the plains. In Italy, they live in the flatland around Florence, without causing any problem. The same is true in Spain."

The wolf is a protected species under the Berne convention and European law. It can no longer be hunted or poisoned – as it was to extinction in France in the early 20th century (and in Britain in the 18th century).

There are believed to be up to 300 wolves in France in an estimated 20 to 25 packs. Whenever a pack becomes too large, younger members are forced to seek new territory. Within a couple of years, it is predicted, wolves will have colonised the forest of Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, 150 miles west of "little Champagne".

Mr Athanaze says that "nothing can now prevent" the wolves that are recolonising France from "joining up with" the wolves that are reconquering Germany from Poland – a kind of European Union for wolves.

Mr Schreiner, a gentle, thoughtful man, disagrees. "They should be shot on sight," he said. "We should have the right to hunt them. Maybe there is a place for them in the mountains, but you cannot allow wolves to roam in countryside like this. There is no room for them here.

"They have roe dear and other game to eat in the forests but it is much easier to attack sheep enclosed in a field. Because we don't hunt them, they no longer fear humans."

The number of sheep killed by wolves in France is running at about 5,000 a year – double the number of five years ago. Farmers' organisations have been pressing for a suspension of the wolf's protected status and the right to hunt wolves where they are troublesome. An experimental local ruling allowing wolf hunts in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence was struck down as illegal by a French court last week.

Under the present rules, strengthened in farmers' favour in February, up to 24 wolves a year are to be culled by government marksmen. Trained and licensed shepherds are allowed to defend their flocks from an actual wolf attack. To protect their flocks, farmers are encouraged to buy a savage dog or to erect electrified fences two metres high around their fields.

Pierre Athanaze accuses French sheep farmers of refusing to adjust to changed reality. A recent poll, commissioned by his organisation, found that 80 per cent of French people wanted wolves to be protected from farmers, rather than sheep from wolves.

"It is estimated that 100,000 sheep a year are killed by wild or stray dogs in France – 20 times as many as are killed by wolves," Mr Athanaze said. "We seldom hear farmers complaining about that. Farmers in Italy and Spain, and some farmers here, have learned how to live alongside wolves. The others refuse to do so."

To which Mr Schreiner retorted: "Do we really want a French countryside full of savage dogs and two-metre-high electric fences?"