THE FRENCH Government was set to incur the wrath of environmentalists earlier this week when it was expected to announce a cull of Alpine wolves that are prospering in the Alpine pasture region above Vignols, in Southern France, after first crossing from Italy in 1990.
Protected species or not, the shepherds want to be rid of all the roaming packs, which they say are killing up to 2,000 sheep a year and destroying their livelihoods.
Looking out from his stone hut 6,600 feet up in the Mercantour national park, a 38-year-old sheep farmer named Bernard Bruno says he is close to committing violence against the wolf-lovers and bureaucrats who want to help him live with the beast that was eradicated in France in the 18th and 19th centuries.
"It’s madness," he says. "The wolf has completely changed our lives. There’s not a free moment. As soon as you turn your back they attack, sometimes in broad daylight. At night the wolves come to the door. You can hear them eating the sheep".
Bernard claims he has lost 14 ewes to wolves since he arrived two weeks ago, marching his 2,000-strong flock the 75 miles up from the hinterland above Cannes. Last year 85 were killed during his three-month summer pasturage.
The environmentalists and the state acknowledge that the wolves are killers but welcome the return of the animal that was hunted to extinction in France and is protected by an international treaty.
The wolf population is growing rapidly by an estimated 20 per cent a year and wolves are now being sighted across hundreds of miles to the north and west. But the population still only numbers about 55 animals and the species is not yet secure again in France. The farmers must adapt by Government decree, which means mounting 24-hour watch on their flocks and using more "Patous" — wolf-fighting guard dogs.
Moreover, the wildlife lobby suspects that shepherds are crying wolf for the sake of insurance subsidies when many killings are the work of wild dogs.
Some believe that ancestral memory is a factor. France has more than its fair share of wolf folklore and superstition, especially in rural regions. Le grand méchant loup (big bad wolf) was more feared in France than elsewhere. Hated yet admired, he was supposedly a devourer of children and the invisible agent of the devil. Women still call their husbands and sons "mon petit loup". Press coverage of the present row usually calls the animal "Ysegrin", the cunning wolf in mediaeval folklore. The wolf remains in many French place names, such as Canteloup (wolfcall).
Across the Mercantour at St Martin de Vésubie, Gaston Franco, the village mayor, says that the farmers should be more like the Italians, with their far bigger wolf population. "The Italians are not so paranoid," he said. "They have a very different relationship with the wolf.
This is due to the good memory of the wolverine [sic] of Rome, and Romulus and Remus. In France we have always wanted to exterminate and slaughter."
Ferus, an environmental organisation that sends volunteers to help guard the flocks, wants to encourage the "social acceptance" of the wolf.
"The big bad wolf lives on, thanks to some politicians and hunters who promote the devil mythology," said Jean-Louis Borelli, head of Pastoraloup, a programme to help the shepherds coexist with wolves.
M Bruno describes the wolf in superstitious terms, more akin to the Loup Garou, or werewolf of legend. "He is formidable, about 35kg, like an Alsatian dog but much more muscular. He is hard to describe because he changes colour before your eyes. Crossing the scree, they are grey, and on the grass they appear green, and then they can look brown like wood."
He adds: "The wolf kills, not just for food but for the taste of blood. He always goes for the throat. Then he eats the organs neatly from the inside. Wandering dogs are different; they maul the sheep all over. There are none here."
M Bruno, who leads the local sheep-farmers’ union, loathes the wolf’s defenders, dismissing them as ignorant townspeople. "Coming here and saying they want to put up their tents and guard the sheep at night! Where do you start with people like that?" He also has little time for the state programme to promote coexistence, which includes a £100 payment for each dead sheep, finance for fencing and guard dogs.
The Patous are useful in the high Alps, he said, but neighbours fear them and shoot them when he takes them back down to his farm for the winter.
Serge Lepeltier, the Environment Minister, has repeatedly postponed his announcement on what is expected to be the shooting of up to ten animals. The pro-wolf camp is crying massacre and planning to swarm the Alps to scare the animals away. Meanwhile, the farmers, pleading near bankruptcy, are threatening to take up their own arms against the wolves.
M Bruno minces no words, saying only half in jest: "We’re thinking of kidnapping the next environmentalist or state prefect who shows up. "Only violence is left to us to get things done."