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Sheep farmers in Aveyron warn against over-protecting wolves in France

By Sarah Elzas

France's famous Roquefort cheese may soon be threatened by wolves. It is made from sheep's milk in Aveyron, the French department with the most sheep in the country. For the first time in a century, sheep farms there have been victims of wolf attacks.

Wolves reappeared in France some 25 years ago, and since then, the population has been increasing, as have attacks on livestock.

They are a protected species in Europe, and are symbols of a wilderness that has all but disappeared.

But farmers warn that pastoral agriculture cannot exist with the presence of wolves.

(Click on the photo above to listen to the audio report)

Sheep in the Brunet's field. Sarah Elzas/RFI

Jean-Christophe and Melanie Brunet run an organic sheep farm in Buzareingues, in the Aveyron department. Their 150 ewes produce about 180 lambs each year, which they sell for meat.

Sheep farming in this region depends on the animals being outside as much as possible. The Brunet’s sheep are outside from 15 April to the middle of November, rain or shine.

On the morning of 4 May 2016, Jean-Christophe went to see the herd in a field not far from the house, and found several sheep dead, eviscerated. That night, there were more.

Jean-Christophe recalls the second attack: "I run into the field and fall, because I trip over a dead lamb. I see a dead ewe, and an animal on it. I was wearing a headlamp, and it reflected back. I only saw its eyes, and a silhouette."

In the morning he discovered the carcasses of four more dead sheep; in total, eight were killed in the two attacks, 10 injured.

The Brunet’s first thought was that it was a stray dog attack. Wolves had been attacking sheep in neighbouring departments, but had not been seen in Aveyron before.

And French officials generally hold off on identifying wolf attacks, as it is costly to the state, because farmers get compensated for those animals that are killed.

The Brunets got lucky that a scientist friend of theirs had been tracking vultures at a site less than a kilometre away from the farm, using a motion-activated camera, and the camera had been running the night of the attack.

He put the card in the computer and looked at the photos,” recalls Jean-Christophe. "Melanie was with him, and she called me and said, ‘do you know what we just saw? A wolf.' There were 15 photos."

The photos proved to the authorities that the Brunet’s sheep had indeed been attacked by wolves. They received 110 euros per lamb, not enough, they say, because they usually sell between 180 and 200 euros.

Melanie says the wolf attack traumatised the herd, and made the sheep more susceptible to illness.

"This winter we realised we had about 20 ewes who were not in good health, and losing weight, and we didn’t know why. We think it was because they were fragilised."

Melanie Brunet feeds a ewe that has been loosing weight since a wolf attack in 2016. Sarah Elzas/RFI

Wolves were first seen in France in 1992. They came naturally, into a national park in the Southern Alps, and started to spread. In 2016, there were officially 360 wolves in France.

The population is growing, as are the number of attacks on livestock. In 2016, wolves killed 9 788 sheep in France, and they had not yet spread into Aveyron, which is the department with the most sheep in the country.

Farmers here say that that once wolves do arrive, the numbers of attacks will skyrocket, because their pastoral farming methods have been developed for nearly 100 years without predators.

The wolf attack turned Melanie Brunet into something of an activist, and she has spent time researching preventative measures taken by farmers in the Alps: high fences or protective dogs.

But she says they don’t work, because the wolves outsmart them.

"They learn how to attack, even with the protection dogs, even with fences,” she says, adding that they learn to time the farmers’ comings-and-goings. "They know everything. Wolves are watching."

The Causse behind the Brunet farm, where most of the flock spends its time eating grass and small bushes. Sarah Elzas/RFI

Most of the Brunet’s sheep spend their time in a 60-hectare area of brush and low trees on a hill rising up behind their farm.

This is the Causse, an area named a Unesco heritage site in 2011, because of the relationship between pastoral farming and the environment.

It’s a vast and open, and Melanie Brunet says is sometimes called "wild”, but it is not. The moon-like landscape was made and is maintained by sheep.

"It's only because the ewes,” she says. "There is no more wild nature, especially in France.”

Wolves, she says, represent a wilderness that no longer exists: "People are projecting this desire of wild nature, which I understand! That’s the reason why I became a farmer. I was attracted by nature. That’s the reason I’m here now.”

But now that she’s here, she sees that it is impossible to farm the way she does with wolves in the area.

The irony is not lost on her, of being an organic farmer, who finds herself pitted against pro-wolf environmentalists.

A ewe and lambs in Arnaud Gely's barn. He has not had a wolf attack yet. Sarah Elzas/RFI

Aveyron may be a tipping point, because it’s a department that depends on sheep. The most famous product is Roquefort cheese.

Arnaud Gely raises dairy sheep and sells the milk to Roquefort. He and his two uncles have a herd of 800. They try to have them spend as much time outside.

When the weather is hot, they leave the sheep out overnight, because they will not eat when it is too hot.

"They gather in groups, and rest,” he explains. "So we take them out after the evening milking session, and they eat. They eat at night, and early in the morning, and we get them at 6am to milk them again.”

Gely’s sheep have not been attacked by wolves, but he wonders when it will happen.

He has been told to take preventative measures, but he is concerned about having aggressive wolf protection dogs around the farm. And building high fences is not practical or affordable, as this area is not made of neat squares of small green fields.

"This is not intensive agriculture,” says Gely.

Laurent Fages and his Patou. Sarah Elzas/RFI

In a nearby farm, Laurent Fage opens the door to a barn and greets a big white dog, which wags its tail but doesn’t bark.

Kami is a Pyrenean Mountain Dog, called a Patou, which Fage says was bred to protect sheep. They respond to their masters, but are not particularly friendly to other humans.

Fages decided to get a Patou dog after a string of attacks on neighbouring farms over three weeks in 2015; attacks that were not officially attributed to wolves, but he and others had suspicions.

"I felt the wolves could be coming closer,” he says. And as a dog lover, and a sheep farmer, he was always interested in Patou dogs. The attacks were a good excuse to get one.

Fages says one dog, even if she is aggressive, is not going to protect his whole flock. He has 600 sheep, that he raises for milk, which he sells to a nearby organic yogurt plant.

"Effective protection against wolves needs one dog per hundred sheep, so for his herd, I would need six,” he explains.

Even if he wanted to protect his sheep himself, he is not allowed to shoot at them.

France signed the 1979 Bern convention, which protects endangered species. Since 1993, a French law specifically protects wolves, setting in place a limit on how many can be killed each year. This year, the quota was set at 40.

Fages says he doesn’t even have a hunting license.

"And the idea of going around with a gun on my shoulder is not very appealing,” he adds.

As a dog lover, he is intrigued by wolves. As a farmer, he says it’s impossible to do the work he does with them around.

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