Some 2,000 farmers were set to descend on the central French city of Lyon on Monday to demand the government take action to deal with a rise in wolf attacks against their livestock.
Farmers in southern France say they are “powerless” against the rising number of sheep slayings by wolves. They fear their livelihoods are in danger unless the government takes the necessary action to cull the predators.
Over 8,000 farm animals, mostly sheep, were killed in attacks blamed on wolves in the past year — mainly in the south-east of the country.
So far this year, wolves have killed 4,153 animals in France, according to an official government tally.
In July the government gave the green light for the slaughter of up to 40 wolves by July 2018 — unchanged from 2016/2017 — representing a little over 10 percent of France's growing wolf population.
Farmers in the southern department of Aveyron, where sheep are particularly prone to attacks by the five or six wolfs who prowl the area, say that electric fences and fearsome dogs are powerless in the face of the predators.
And building fortress sheep pens would be futile anyway given that many farmers wouldn't be allowed to use them.
Farmers claim one of the main reasons their sheep are vulnerable to the wolves is the need to stick to the strict regulations surrounding the production of one of France’s famous cheeses that is made in the area.
Roquefort is a sheep milk blue cheese from Aveyron and is recognized as a geographical indication with a protected designation of origin.
Among the AOC regulations around its production the cheese must be aged in the aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
But another of the strict regulations states: “The sheep must be on pasture, whenever possible, in an area including most of Aveyron and parts of neighboring departments.”
One Aveyron breeder François Giacobbi told AFP: “The Aveyron department has 800,000 sheep. It’s a real pantry for the wolf.”
Giacobbi says because sheep have to spend most of the year in open pasture they are particularly vulnerable to wolf attacks.
Farming unions in Aveyron are demanding that the government adopts a “zero-attack” policy to protect both the farmers, the livestock and one of France's most-loved cheeses.
According to France’s rules on killing wolves, known as “Plan Loup”, once 32 wolves have been shot — usually during organised hunts — farmers are only allowed shoot a wolf to thwart an imminent strike or end an attack that is already underway.
A further eight wolves can be killed in such circumstances.
But farmers say the chances of them actually catching one in the act are slim given the huge grazing areas they must survey.
They are demanding the right to be allowed to shoot wolves on sight when it looks like an attack is about to take place.
Michéle Boudoin France’s national sheep federation said “the wolf must become afraid of man”.
Boudoin says the wolf attacks are endangering rural life in 33 departments in France.
Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot said France needed to strike a balance between safeguarding wolves, a protected species in Europe, and protecting livestock.
Successive French governments have, however, struggled to reconcile the competing demands of the pro-wolf and pro-farm lobbies.
After being eradicated in the 1930s wolves crossed back into France from Italy in the 1990s.
They are now to be found in 30 of France's 101 “departments” or administrative areas and are even advancing on Paris.