This Europe: Shepherds despair as wolf packs drive sheep to suicide

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The Independent Online

The death of 400 sheep which hurled themselves into a ravine in the French Alps has re-ignited controversy over the recolonisation of the country by wolves.

The death of 400 sheep which hurled themselves into a ravine in the French Alps has re-ignited controversy over the recolonisation of the country by wolves.

The panic which gripped the mostly young sheep in the Mercantour massif north of Nice last weekend was originally attributed to a violent storm or an attack by wild dogs. But examination of the carcasses showed several animals were bitten by the powerful jaws of animals, almost certainly wolves.

The wolf, wiped out in France in the early 20th century, has infiltrated from the Italian Alps in the past decade and reached as far north as the Belledonne chain of mountains near Grenoble and the Vercors range in the Rhône valley.

There are believed to be four packs in the Mercantour mountains just south of the Italian border in the Alpes-Maritimes where the 403 sheep died last Saturday.

Shepherds, whose animals graze the mountains in summer, have reported a sharp increase in attacks this year. They have campaigned for the the wolves to be exterminated but the last French coalition government – which included Green ministers – argued wolves were part of the natural fauna of France.

The dead sheep, rotting in the 120ft ravine, threaten to cause an environmental disaster. To prevent the carcasses poisoning water courses, men were winched into the ravine from helicopters yesterday to burn the sheep.

The animals' owner Jean-Claude Giordino, who lost half of his flock, said it was mostly younger animals which ran into the ravine. The older ewes fled in a different direction.

"The authorities have to choose. It's either sheep or wolves," he said.

In the Vercors range, between Valence and Grenoble, there have been 50 wolf attacks on sheep in the past two months and 70 in the Belledonne range further north. "We have had more attacks by wolves in a month this year than in the whole of last summer," said Yves Feydy, president of the sheep producers' federation in the Vercors area.

Christian Estrosi, a member of parliament for the Alpes-Maritimes département, has called for a parliamentary inquiry to decide whether the new centre-right government should scrap the pro-wolf policy of the previous administration.

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