French Wildlife Travels

But Wojciecowski is not convinced that the French Government’s determination to bolster bear numbers while giving money to farmers to reflect their extra cost is going to work. ‘Paris imposes bears in the Pyrenees. They don’t ask the farmers; they have no understanding of the issue from the farmers’ viewpoint. Most farmers won’t even come to a meeting to discuss bears because they are afraid to appear that they agree with the policy. It’s a war between farmers and bears; city people who like to think there are bears here and country people who don’t want them,’ he argues.

Wanting to get the farmer’s perspective I also arranged to meet Olivier Maurin, a young man who farms 200 sheep to produce cheese at Agnos about 20 km southwest of Pau. He’s typical of many farmers in the area. ‘I love bears but I don’t want to have to live with them. For us farmers it’s not about compensation, it’s changing our way of life, our way of farming,’ says Maurin who adds, contradicting himself, ‘I know we get EU subsidies to farm but we would have to get much more money before we accept bears here.’

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And while most farmers are implacably anti-bear, organisations like ACP quote public attitude surveys such as one done in the Haute-Garonne in 2005 showing 80% of residents in this part of the Pyrenees in favour of retaining them. There is much less conflict in Slovenia between bears and farmers than here in the Pyrenees. In Slovenia, sheep have always been gathered into enclosures at night to protect them. In other countries where bears have been introduced, in Trentino in Italy for instance, the state authorities talk directly to the local people about the options. In France they just talk to the local politicians and other representatives. So local people, farmers especially, feel that things are imposed on them.

It isn’t an argument that Frederic Decaluwe accepts. ‘We try hard to talk to farmers. Every summer we have nine people outdoors doing just that. The main problem is that farmers don’t want to talk about bears because they don’t want bears. They say they want bears removed not more brought here,’ he says. ‘The French Government has all the facts,’ says Decaluwe. ‘We have perhaps 20 bears in the Pyrenees. It’s not a sustainable population. Our farmers are compensated well for any problems and they get EU subsidies to farm. We have a detailed action plan that includes introducing more bears. But it’s all so slow. It’s local politics.’

Slowly, opposition is declining according to Francois Arcangeli. ‘Farmers are less and less opposed. The measures to protect sheep flocks are being put in place gradually and bear kills are stable or even decreasing. The opposition is a minority. There has been some successful breeding so the number of bears has increased a little,’ he says.

But not everyone is so positive. ‘Ultimately, I think the cash incentives have perhaps softened some hearts but overall, the programme is still meeting with stubborn resistance’ Julia Stagg, a writer and, for several years a resident of the Ariege Departement, told me more recently. ‘Now that the reintroduction programme has been stopped for a few years, it will be even harder to get going again. I’m not sure about changes in attitudes over the intervening years. I think some of the recent “calm” surrounding the issue of bears has been created by the temporary suspension of the reintroductions. There have been fewer protests. But as soon as there is any suggestion that a bear has attacked sheep, it all flares up again,’ she tells me. Dr Pierre-Yves Quenette of ONCFS, who is head of the project to manage bears in the French side of the Pyrenees, says that there’ll be no more introductions of bears at least over the next two or three years and, while farmer opposition seems less strong, he agrees with Julia Stagg that it can flare up at any time.

If the French Authorities fail to reintroduce more bears, the isolated population in the Pyrenees will struggle to survive. Since I visited the region, Brown Bear numbers have risen to around 25, ironically almost all of them on the French side of the mountains. Both the French and the Spanish Governments seem to be able to side-step their legal responsibilities under the EU’s Habitats Directive which requires them to get their Brown Bear populations into a viable state. Politically, instead, both governments seem willing to go along with the often irrational views of Pyrenean farmers rather than confront the issue itself. Seemingly, more introductions won’t go ahead until these concerns are very largely overcome. Whether all the talking and the compensation packages will reduce this opposition only time will tell. Meanwhile, any future that Brown Bears have in the Pyrenees continues to teeter in the balance.

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