French Wolves Return Only to Become Prey / Jo Johnson in Paris / July 20, 2004

France yesterday defied environmentalists by permitting a limited cull of the country's small and protected wolf population, which is blamed for causing havoc among sheep farmers in the south-east.

On Sunday 140 sheep died after jumping into a steep ravine in the Alpes-de-Haute Provence department fleeing a suspected wolf.

The predators were hunted to near-extinction in France in the 1920s but have made a startling return in the last decade.

The French wolf population is still no more than 40-50 strong but the animals have been blamed for the deaths of nearly 2,200 sheep last year, up from fewer than 200 in 1994.

Environment minister Serge Lepeltier yesterday called for a national debate on the place of the wolf in French society, saying its return was a challenge for France's commitment to maintaining biodiversity.

"It is an intrusion of nature at its wildest into the heart of our modern society that raises questions not just for the sheep farmers but for our society as a whole," he said.

"For all who care about biodiversity, it is a positive sign. Today it's a question of balance."

Mr Lepeltier said the wolf's extraordinary capacity to explore and conquer new territory made it a question of national importance. "It is wrong to think that the wolf will stop at the banks of the Rhône," he said.

Almost half of all wolf attacks take place in the Alpes-Maritimes, the hilly coastal region that borders Italy, but the animals are extending ever further inland. Attacks have been recorded in eight other regions.

Farmers advocating a "zero-wolf" policy have been demanding the right to shoot them on sight. They say the wolves, extinct in France from the 1920s until they migrated from Italy 12 years ago, threaten to destroy the tradition of grazing sheep on high Alpine pastures in the summer.

Three administrative regions are authorised to cull up to four wolves in total - representing 10 per cent of the certain population and half the annual increase in the size of the wolf population.

Under the Berne Convention wolves are listed as an endangered species and killing them is illegal in France. Official culls are permitted to protect farm animals so long as there is no threat to the species.