Rebirth of the wolf sees French Greens at each other's throats

Environmental battle ignites as predators begin to encroach on sheep-farming land

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The lightning re-conquest of France by the wolf has provoked a civil war within French Greens, pitting one of the country's most renowned campaigners against environmentalists, some of whom are demanding his ousting from the movement.

Wolves have been seen this summer for the first time since the 1920s in the sheep-rearing area in Lozère in the southern Auvergne, the home of Roquefort cheese.

José Bové , sheep farmer-turned-environmental campaigner, has called publicly for the wolves to be shot, provoking protest from other French Greens, who point out that the grey wolf is a protected by European law. One wildlife protection group has filed a legal complaint against Mr Bové for "inciting the destruction of an endangered species".

Pierre Athanase, president of the Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages (Aspas), said: "Ecology means bio-diversity. If Mr Bové can't understand that, he should leave the (Green movement)."

Mr Bové, 59, became a hero to the anti-globalist and ecological movement when he drove a bulldozer through a half-built McDonalds' restaurant in Millau, in Lozere, in 1999. He has since served several prison terms for cutting down genetically modified crops. Mr Bové insists that the grey wolf is not a green issue. "We ecologists have to stop the double- talk," he said. "We can't be against the depopulation of the countryside and, at the same time, create areas of the country in which farmers cannot make a living. We should shoot wolves... the priority should be to protect small farmers in mountainous areas."

A handful of Italian wolves, which re-colonised the French Alps around 1993, are estimated to have multiplied to about 200 animals in 20 packs, ranging as far west as the Auvergne and as far north as the Vosges on the Alsace-Lorraine border.

Experts have predicted that they could reach the large forests just south of Paris by the end of this decade. Under a "wolf code" established in 2004, the animals can be shot legally only by government marksmen or by shepherds trained and licensed to defend their flocks from an actual wolf attack. In areas where wolves are present, shepherds are expected to invest in guard dogs, lighting and electric fences.

These measures are controversial, but reasonably effective in the high sheep pastures of the Alps.

Shepherds in Lozere say that the cost of protection from wolf attack for their smaller farms would be ruinous. Their flocks – up to 200, compared to several thousand in the Alps – are used to grazing unprotected at night on warm summer evenings.

André Baret, sheep farmer and mayor of the village of Hure-la-Parade, said: "Our farms are already threatened… That's not the fault of the wolves, but they could push us over the precipice."

Defenders of the wolf say that co-habitation between man, sheep and wolf is possible. There are 200 wolves in France but over 1,000 in Italy and 2,000 in Spain, where sheep farms still thrive. Until the late 18th century, long after the last wolf was shot in Britain, wolves lived just across the Channel in the Pas de Calais.

However, canis lupus is not expected to knock on Britain's door any time soon. Western and northern France is no longer wooded or wild enough to sustain them.

Running wild

Italy's bears: The reintroduction of European brown bears to the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy a decade ago has drawn a backlash from farmers who say the bears have been feeding on livestock.

Britain's badgers: A cull of badgers in Britain is likely to go ahead this year in an effort to combat the costs of Bovine tuberculosis among cattle. The government claims badgers spread the disease.

Staten Island's turkeys: Ocean Breeze on Staten Island in New York has battled scores of wild turkeys roaming streets.

Richard Hall

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