Shepherds face prison for shooting killer wolves

While shepherds watched their flocks by night ... wolves prowled, lawyers and politicians squabbled and animal-rights lobbyists breathed down their necks.

A test prosecution of an Alpine shepherd in the New Year will signal the beginning of what is likely to be a pitched legal and political battle over the gradual invasion of the French Alps by packs of wolves.

Hervé Bernardon from the village of Saint-Crépin near Gap in the Hautes-Alpes will become the first man to be prosecuted in France for killing a wolf.

Other French Alpine shepherds, who claim to have lost 8,800 sheep to wolves in the past 10 years, plan to stage a noisy demonstration in his support outside the court.

M. Bernardon, 35, caught the animal in a metal trap two years ago after wolves had killed 60 of his ewes. The decision was finally taken this week that he should be prosecuted for "destruction of a protected species". If convicted, he faces a fine of up to €9,000 (about £6,000) and a prison sentence of up to six months.

The case will bring to a head a gathering confrontation between shepherds and anti-wolf, mostly right-wing politicians on the one hand, and environmentalists and pro-wolf, mostly green and left-wing politicians on the other.

The French parliament has begun a commission of inquiry into the implications of the recolonisation of France by wolves from Italy. The inquiry – boycotted by animal-rights groups – will consider next year whether France, as a signatory to Eiuropean conventions on the defence of endangered species, should abandon its commitment to protect the wolf.

Alpine shepherds complain that the only endangered species since wolves began to re-appear in the French Alps in 1992 have been the sheep and the shepherd. The wolf, exterminated in France in the 1920s, has infiltrated from the Italian Alps and has reached as far north as the Belledonne chain of mountains near Grenoble and the Vercors range near Valence in the Rhône valley.

Although there are thought to be no more than 40 wolves in France, organised in five or six packs, Alpine villagers say that the creatures are becoming increasingly aggressive and increasingly bold.

Two weeks ago, the mayor of Chichilianne, a village near Grenoble, reported seeing a wolf trotting through his village during the day. This winter, there has also been a rash of reports of wolf-attacks in Alpine valleys, compared with in the high pastures where the animals mostly roam.

Although the government pays compensation for proven wolf attacks, M. Bernardon is not the only shepherd to take the law into his own hands. The Ministry of Ecology announced last month that it was investigating the deliberate poisoning of a wolf cub found dead in the Mercantour range of mountains on the Italian border north of Nice.

The French Association for the Protection of Wild Animals accuses the shepherds of, in effect, crying wolf. Although it does not dispute that there are some wolf depredations (1,466 dead sheep last year alone), the association says that wolves are responsible for only 1 per cent of premature sheep deaths in France.

In 2001, wild or undisciplined dogs killed more than 20,000 sheep, the association points out. Thousands of other sheep were killed by avalanches and lightning strikes. The environmentalists argue that a wolf is as natural a part of the Alps as an avalanche and should be left alone.

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