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Guess who's coming for dinner? Wolf tracks spotted in central France

For the first time in 70 years, grey wolf tracks have been found in the peaks of the Massif Central. Conservationists are thrilled but French sheep farmers are howling, reports John Lichfield

The grey wolf appears to have colonised the uplands of central France for the first time in 70 years, inviting another battle in a ferocious pastoral war between wolf-lovers and wolf-haters.

Wolf tracks were identified this month in the snow of the Cévennes mountains, in the lower part of the Massif Central, north-west of Avignon. A park ranger also reported seeing a wolf near the Cévenol village of Bondons, close to the ripped carcass of a newborn calf.

Wolves began to recolonise the French Alps from Italy 16 years ago, provoking running battles between shepherds and animal-lovers and even between anti-wolf and pro-wolf shepherds. The sightings in the Cévennes suggest that a few animals are spending their second winter in the mountains 100 miles west of the Alps, on the other side of the busy and heavily populated Rhône valley. Two successive winters is the official definition of animal "residence" used by biologists.

In the past two years, there have been isolated, confirmed sightings of lone wolves in other parts of theMassif Central – as far east as the hills of Cantal. Until now, however, there has been no evidence that colonies of wolves have begun to settle in the vast upland territory west of the Rhone in which they were hunted to extinction in the late 1930s.

"This is a fascinating development but it was only a question of time," Daniel Véjux, one of France's foremost experts on the wolf, said yesterday. "It was inevitable that the need for new wild prey would force young wolves to establish new hunting territories across the Rhone at some point. Now, unless they are persecuted to extinction by mankind again, there is nothing to stop wolves spreading across thousands of square miles throughout the Massif Central and Limousin in the next couple of decades."

The news of a possible wolf claw-hold west of the Rhône has caused alarm bells to ring among the sheep farmers of the département of Lozère, which includes the Cévennes range. Joel Bancillon, a spokesman for the local branch of the militant small farmers' union, the Conféderation Paysanne, said: "Our only problem at present is with wild dogs. But if this is confirmed there will be a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear.

"In the Alps, shepherds have been forced to adopt anti-wolf defences but, even then, their flocks have been decimated."

That is disputed by animal protection groups and even by those Alpine farmers who have embraced official measures to keep the wolf at bay. M. Véjux is a wolf expert and a member of the national committee of the main French wildlife study and lobby group, L'Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages. "If sheep are protected properly, a wolf will not attack them," he said. "It will not risk injury by dogs. It will seek wild prey in the forests. If you leave sheep unprotected, well then, you make the wolf's choice an easy one..."

A bitter quarrel has been raging between animal lovers and some shepherds since Italian wolves began to recolonise the French Alps in the early 1990s. Wolves, which are a protected species under French and European law, have been poisoned, trapped and shot. There have even been attacks on flocks belonging to those shepherds who have agreed to live with the wolf and adopt new forms of protection for their animals.

The last of the original population of native French wolves was shot in the Massif Central in 1939. Wolves had already been driven from the Alpine regions of France by the end of the 19th century. Some time around 1991-2, Italian wolves began to creep back across the Alpine frontier with France. They have not posed any danger to humans but attacks on sheep began almost immediately.

Some militant shepherds' groups and local politicians insisted that the wolves had been reintroduced secretly by ecologists. DNA tests on dead wolves showed that the newcomers were indeed immigrants from the native Italian population, which had been reduced to a few packs in the Apennines by the 1920s but has been spreading northwards since the 1970s.

There are now believed to be between 100 and 120 wolves resident in France, split into about a dozen packs. In 2004, the French government introduced a Plan Loup (wolf plan) to try to pacify shepherds and protect the wolves. A small, official cull of six wolves a year was allowed. Sheep farmers were given grants to create anti-wolf defences, including electrified night enclosures and a permanent day and night guard by dogs and "summer shepherds" (often students).

The plan has been a success but some French alpineshepherds still complain that the arrival of the wolf has disrupted what was already a fragile summer grazing industry. Wild animal campaigners point out that wolves kill a fraction of the number of sheep that are destroyed each year by wild dogs, disease and rockfalls.

Officials of the French national agency for hunting and wildlife have recovered wolf droppings from the Cévennes in recent days. If they match samples found in the area last winter, the first wolf colony west of the Rhône since 1939 will have been officially identified.

"The spread of the wolf is an entirely natural phenomenon," said M. Véjux. "Two-year-old wolves often have to leave the pack to find new hunting territory. Isolated animals have also been seen in the Jura and the Vosges."

The Rhône Valley, with its motorways and railway lines and dense population, and the broad river itself, might seem to be an insuperable barrier for a young wolf to cross.

"Not in the least," said M. Véjux. "A wolf can run 60 kilometres (40 miles) in one night. It can swim a river and it can easily pass through urban areas unnoticed or mistaken for a dog. They are very intelligent, adaptable animals."

Could the grey wolf therefore soon be at Britain's door? Wolves are not that adaptable, it seems.

"That's not at all likely," said M. Véjux. "They will almost certainly stay in the hills and the forests. There would be nothing for wolves in the plains north and west of the Auvergne."