Softly spoken and charming, Francois Arcangeli is a most unlikely recipient of death threats. And Arbas, the tranquil and somewhat forlorn village tucked away in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, seems an unlikely location for violent demonstrations. Testing the boundaries of incredulity yet further, the cause of this violence is an animal that inspired the cuddly teddy.
Arcangeli, an architect, has been Mayor for many years in Arbas, 80 km east of Lourdes, and we met in his Mairie (Town Hall) where I interviewed him for a Telegraph Magazine feature about the huge and often vicious fracas a few bears were causing. Perhaps 20 bears survive in these forests and mountains that divide Spain and France. It’s a population that is likely to die out unless it is better protected and its numbers get bolstered by bears introduced from Eastern Europe’s larger, much more stable populations.
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‘In the spring of 2006, the French Government arranged for three bears from Slovenia to be released into our forests near Arbas. Two others were released near other villages,’ he tells me. Gendarmerie intelligence warned us that there might be a few protestors, mostly farmers worried about their sheep being attacked by bears. But 250 turned up, smashing anything they could find outside the Mairie, trying to break in, spraying paint and throwing bottles of blood. Eighty gendarmes tried to keep order. It was terrible. Most of them came from the Ariege Departement [Arbas is in adjacent Haute-Garonne]. Augustin Bonrepaux, the President of Ariege and a Deputy in the French Parliament paid them 20,000 Euros to come and protest violently. He’s strongly anti-bear,’ he says. Many local politicians seem to have similar views.
The plan, agreed between Spain, France and Andorra, had been to introduce 15 bears over three years, but no attempt has been made to release any bears since those Arbas riots. Seemingly, successive French Governments have backed down in the face of threats from a hardcore of farmers who won’t tolerate bears. The latest releases were planned in 2013 in the western Pyrenees, Arcangeli (now Conseiller Regional in the
Midi-Pyrenees Regional Government, where he represents the Green Party) told me more recently. But he reckons the French Government backed out yet again with no rational explanation. It seems they are running scared of some thuggish farmers.
Of the five Brown Bears from Slovenia introduced in 2006, one gave birth to two cubs. Two bears, both females, subsequently died. One fell from a cliff in a rare freak accident. The other was killed by a car on a road outside Lourdes, much to the delight of many local farmers and the sorrow of conservationists. The strength of antibear feeling is best summarised by Marie-Lise Broueilh, President of the Association Interprofessionnelle du Mouton Bareges Gavarnie, an organisation promoting mountain sheep meat. She told me: We are immensely satisfied that this bear was killed. This is a great relief for local farmers.’
Bears are shy creatures, easily frightened by people. And while claims of aggressive bears are often promoted by anti-bear interests, there are virtually no records of anyone being attacked anywhere in Western Europe. So forest walking in bear country is perfectly safe. In most Eastern European countries where Brown Bears are much more common, people working in forests or walking for recreation don’t give bear attacks a second thought.
In any case Brown Bears are largely vegetarian. In spring they feed on flowering plants and grasses, adding in fruits and berries during summer. In autumn, preparing for hibernation, they need to eat fat-rich foods. So acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts figure highly. Hibernating in dens they dig or in natural rock cavities for three to six months of winter – the time that they give birth and feed their cubs on fat-rich milk – bears are active mainly at night, and around dawn and dusk, for the rest of the year. And, in true Winnie-the-Pooh tradition, bears really do love honey; hence their liking for wild bee nests and beehives. A wooden beehive is never any match for a strong bear; if it decides to do a break-in, it can tear a hive apart in seconds to get at the honeycomb.
Honey-making is an artisan industry in the Pyrenees. Beehives are easy to protect from marauding bears by using electric fences or by elevating hives on tripods out of their reach. And government compensation is available if such measures fail. But they will sometimes attack animals to add to their diet; hence Pyrenean farmers’ concerns. Powerfully built, they are quite capable of killing large deer. Sheep, though, are easier prey. And therein lies the source of most of the conflict.
The trouble is, few farmers will take any note of the statistics. These show that bear kills pale into insignificance compared with other factors. Of the half million sheep in the French Pyrenees, around 15,000 die naturally each year because of disease, bad weather and falls,’ Frederic Decaluwe of ONCFS, the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage – the French Government agency that oversees hunting – tells me when we meet in his office. But only 200 to 300 a year are killed by bears and the farmers are compensated for those kills.’ He is clearly exasperated that farmers won’t take any notice of such figures.
To me the compensation on offer seemed pretty generous. When I was there interviewing the protagonists, it amounted to upwards of three times the market value of a sheep killed by a bear, maybe as much as ten times its value depending on the quality of the animal at the time it was killed. Similar compensation schemes were operating on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees too. It’s a quick process. We usually get the compensation to the farmer within three weeks. If there’s doubt about what killed the sheep [wolves, stray dogs and even the farmers’ own dogs are other possibilities] a Commission on which farmers are represented meets at the end of each season to assess the evidence. If there’s any doubt, the compensation is paid’ adds Decaluwe. Francois Arcangeli, who is also President of Pays de lours-ADET, an organisation promoting bear conservation, likewise thinks the farmers do well from the system. Before the compensation for bear kills, farmers used to complain that stray dogs killed their sheep. But they never claim that now, only bears. It’s always bears!’ he says rocking with laughter.
Brown Bears are still reasonably common across North America, Russia and northern and central Asia. Their range once covered the whole of Europe too. But that was before forest clearance steadily reduced their habitat. By the Middle Ages, Europe’s Brown Bears were confined to the less accessible mountain areas. Hunting finished most of them off and they were extinct in Britain before the Norman Conquest. Today, their European stronghold is in western Russia and northern Scandinavia where thousands still live. They fare reasonably well in some Eastern European countries such as Romania, Slovenia and Croatia too. In Western Europe, where they are strictly protected, their populations are fragmented, very small and vulnerable to extinction. Most are confined to inaccessible forested mountain ranges.
Spotting one is far from easy. It’s no good walking through forests you know they inhabit and hoping to come across one. However quiet you are, they’ll hear you coming and be away before you even know there was one close by.
Slovenia, though, has one of the larger, more stable Brown Bear populations in Western Europe – at least a few hundred – the reason why bears introduced to the Pyrenees have been captured in Slovenia’s extensive forests. Here, in the Jelen Hunting Reserve near the Croatian border, I had been lucky to have help from Miro Uljan, a local hunter and game warden working for the Slovenian Forest Service. But it was a cool summer’s evening with puffs of mist and no moon to brighten the nighttime gloom; Miro was not confident that we would see one. Our concerns about the weather conditions, though, evaporated rapidly. Not long after settling into the hide overlooking a clearing, two Brown Bears came sauntering out between the trees. It was an almost surreal experience.
For the next three hours, until the coal-night darkness rendered it impossible, we watched, awe-struck, as these two magnificent animals, a large, chocolate-brown male perhaps weighing 300 kg and a paler brown and grey, three-quarter grown cub came within 30 m of our hide. They had come out of the forest to feed on grain scattered to attract them – so close, we could hear them munching it – bounded up grassy slopes alongside and, occasionally, retreated into the inky-dark safety of the forest. When time came for us to leave, we moved out quietly, up a path and on to the forest track we’d left three hours earlier. And as we walked away we could still hear the bears sitting on the damp ground eating the grain.
‘People are used to living alongside bears in Slovenia,’ Aleksandra Majic Skrbinsek at the University of Ljubljana tells me when we meet in her office. She was studying public attitudes to large carnivores (bears, lynx and wolves) in several European countries. Each year our government licences a number of bears to be hunted. Most of the hunting is done by local people and they take a responsible attitude. Bears are shot for trophies and the meat is sold so the local economy benefits. Although some people believe there should be no bear hunting, it means that country people value their bears and have a personal investment in maintaining the population,’ she says.
It’s not an attitude I found to be prevalent in much of the Pyrenees. In the 1930s there were perhaps 200 bears in these part-forested mountains. By the mid-1990s, just six are thought to have remained even though hunting had been banned – in theory but not so in practice – in Spain and France. Three bears from Slovenia were introduced in 1996 plus the five in 2006 in an attempt to bolster their numbers. One of the few remaining native Pyrenean bears, a female, was shot trying to defend its cubs against a hunter’s dog in 2004, an incident the then President Jacques Chirac called a great loss for France and Europe’ and which galvanised public opinion in favour of better protection. But, great loss’ or not, the French Government has done nothing to boost their dwindling population ever since. The current population, less than 20 spread over a huge land area, is too small to be self-sustaining.
Recognising that Pyrenean farmers have to change the way they farm if they are to co-exist with bears, payments are available to encourage them to adapt. Most of this cash is channelled through local voluntary organisations and comes from the Spanish and French Governments. I went to meet Catherine Lacroix, a farmer in the tiny village of Barjac, a few kilometres north of St Girons, and a founder member of the Association pour la Cohabitation Pastorale (ACP). She has changed the way she farms. Walking with her on her farm’s lush fields framed by beechwoods on the hill slopes around, it’s not easy to spot the white Pyrenean Mountain Dog – known here as a Patou amongst her sheep flock as they thunder towards us across the flower-specked turf.
A Patou can weigh over 50 kg and stand 80 cm high, the height of a small sheep. It’s a very old breed that has been used for hundreds of years by shepherds, including many in and around the Pyrenees on both the French and Spanish sides. One of the first descriptions of the breed dates from 1407, and from 1675 they were a favourite of the Grand Dauphin and other members of the French aristocracy. By the early 19th century there was a thriving market for the dogs in mountain towns, from where they would be taken to other parts of France. The breed was developed to be agile in order to guard sheep on steep, mountainous slopes.
‘The Patou lives out with the sheep whatever the weather, day and night,’ says Lacroix. He’s here to protect the flock and if the flock is in danger – from a bear perhaps or wolves or a feral dog – the Patou will become aggressive, barking loudly. They have to be brought up with the sheep as puppies and they are never treated like pets. Otherwise they couldn’t do their job.’ Lacroix’s Patou looked friendly enough but that was entirely because she was with me; on well used footpaths throughout the Pyrenees the Patous are the reason why leaflets are now commonplace telling walkers not to venture into a field with sheep and not to get close to a flock grazing the open mountain pastures. A Patou might be guarding them and a guarding Patou is of far greater danger to a walker than a bear would ever be.
Using government grants paid by ACP as enticement, several hundred farmers now use the Patou. They receive a one-off payment once the dog has been trained to the correct standard (to offset its purchase cost plus the time to train it) and annual payments after that. Surveys of farmers using these dogs have found a reduction in the number of sheep killed by bears of more than 90%. But not all farmers are happy to accept Patous and the cash that goes with them. Some, Lacroix acknowledges, are unwilling to accept the extra work required to train and keep a Patou and are resentful that they have to change the way they manage their sheep.
EU cash is also available here to employ shepherds and to accommodate them in mountain huts when sheep flocks are taken up to the high summer pastures. Watching over their charges by day, with or without a Patou, the sheep are then rounded up at night using a collie and often brought within a temporary enclosure protected by an electric fence. I arranged to meet Robert Wojciechowski who runs a small company designing such temporary electric fences and other bear deterrents including lights, pyrotechnics, and harmless lasers that can be triggered if a bear approaches. In the mountains they can be run using solar panels. Farmers buying such devices can receive government grants to defray their cost. There are about 200 farmers in the three valleys I work in,’ says Wojciecowski. Forty have bought my fences but even they are not happy knowing that they have to protect their sheep against bears. Not that it’s always bears; feral dogs are just as much of a problem.’