Shepherds demand cull as wolves reclaim Alps

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WHO IS afraid of the big, bad wolf? Marie-Louise Darves-Blanc is, for one. So are Jean-Pierre Jouffrey and Ulysse Darves-Blanc and Rene Tavan. So are dozens of other shepherds in the high, summer pastures of the French Alps, who have relived in the past three months a terror unknown in these parts for more than 100 years; a terror kept alive down the centuries by a score of fairy stories and children's rhymes. (Little Red Riding Hood was originally a French tale.)

"I will never forget the eyes I saw," said Mrs Darves-Blanc, who farms sheep with her husband in the 9,000ft-high Belledonne massif, just north of Grenoble. "We shone the light into the darkness and we saw four, large yellow eyes staring back at us. I know dogs. That could not have been dogs. That was not chamois or deer. That could only have been wolves."

For weeks, officials have accused Mrs Darves-Blanc, and others, of "crying wolf". There was a 99 per cent chance, they said, that the unknown animals that have left a trail of bloody carcasses and terrified sheep and shepherds in the Belledonne and Oisans Alpine ranges this summer were packs of wild dogs.

This week the Prefect of the departement of the Isere, Jean-Rene Garnier, announced that the droppings of the animals had been conclusively identified. They were from wolves.

To the delight of naturalists and to the horror of farmers, wolves have been spreading slowly into France from the Italian Alps for the past six years (and for much longer than that, according to some ecologists). Several packs are now well established in the high wilderness of the Parc de Mercantour, north of Nice and Monaco.

This, however, is the first time this century that they have been mapped so far north: close to motorways and railway lines and hypermarkets and branches of McDonald's and only 20 miles or so from the suburbs of Grenoble.

What is more to the point, this is the first time in living memory that wolves have entered some of the best French sheep country, the Alpages, or unfenced, high pastures over 4,000 feet, where the sheep once safely grazed from June to October. Since June of this year more than 200 sheep have been attacked and killed in the Alpages of the stunningly beautiful Belledonne range alone. Hundreds of others have been wounded or driven crazy, even blind, with fear.

At 3,000 feet in the Vallee de Veyton, having bumped for miles up the track from Allevard, my hire-car was halted by a foaming river of sheep. They were pouring down the mountain track, 10 abreast, leaving their summer home amid the Alpine peaks one month earlier than usual.

At their head were Jean-Pierre Jouffrey and Ulysse Darves-Blanc, two of the shepherds in the Belledonne range who have lost the most sheep to the predators. They explained that they had decided to bring down the sheep early this year and leave the mountain slopes to the wolves.

"For months we have been treated as illiterate cretins, who saw a wolf behind every rock," said Mr Darves-Blanc, 57 "Now they finally admit that we have been right, all along. But will we get any action? I'm not optimistic. This country is a huge bureaucracy. It will be years before anything is done. By then the wolves will be breeding here and they will be impossible to get rid of."

Mr Jouffrey, 48, who has lost 89 ewes to the wolves this summer, more than any other farmer, wants the predators tracked down and shot. "They say we must learn to co-habit with the wolves because they are an internationally protected species and it is illegal to kill them.

"But what has happened in the high pastures this summer is not co-habitation. It is a bloody massacre.

"These people who defend the wolves claim that they are animal-lovers. They should have been with me when I found ewes with their throats half- torn out which had been dragged alive by these creatures further up the mountain."

Mr Jouffrey is convinced that the wolves did not come to his mountains by natural means. "These wolves came here by motorway and then up this track," he said. Hhe believes that they are domesticated, or semi-domesticated wolves, returned to the wild by their owners, either from idealism or desperation.

The theory makes sense to one of the local defenders of the wolf, Jean- Paul Vieron, administrator of the Alpine Federation for the Protection of Nature. The savagery of the attacks, the killing and wounding of animals not needed for food, is, he said, not the standard behaviour of wolves born in the wild. It could mean that they are, indeed, ex-domestic immigrants.

Wolves, he says, have had an unfairly bad press for centuries. They rarely eat grandmothers. In many countries farmers have learnt to live uneasily alongside them. The reconquest by wolves of lost territory is a pattern seen across Europe and North America as more and more people huddle into cities and suburbs, de-populating the countryside.

"We need to work with the shepherds, to train them, and help them financially, to provide new guard dogs and enclosures. The wolf is not a threat to man. He is an opportunity. An opportunity to prove our tolerance. But also an opportunity to welcome back a natural predator, who has every right to live in France, and who can restore the balance of other wild species, such as chamois and deer, who are threatening to get out of control."

The Prefect of the Isere, Mr Garnier, has called a meeting next Wednesday of the departement's "wolf committee", including farmers and ecologists, to decide what to do next. He has already warned shepherds that extermination is not an option.