Wolves are at the gates of Paris.
A dead male wolf, probably shot by hunters, was found Jan. 31 in Coole, a town 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the French capital. Since May, wolves have attacked flocks of sheep 29 times in a cluster of villages about 180 kilometers southeast of Paris.
“That’s just a few days’ walk for a wolf,” said Maxime Zucca, a researcher at Natureparif, a government-funded body that studies wildlife in Ile-de-France, the region surrounding the capital. “We can’t predict if or when they’ll arrive in the Paris area, but it’s something we have to be prepared for.”
While wolves don’t pose an immediate danger to the city’s residents, they have been spreading out north and west in France since crossing over from Italy in 1992, and everywhere they’ve led to clashes between farmers who say their flocks are at risk and environmentalists who welcome the return of the mythical predators. Farmers, supported by some members of parliament, want France to pull out of accords banning the hunting of protected raiders such as wolves, lynx and bears.
“Wolves are fine in the Alps, in Siberia, in Yellowstone but they are incompatible with human farming,” Nicolas Dhuicq, a lawmaker who has entered a bill allowing wolf hunting, said in an interview last week as he and farmers in the Aube region, southeast of Paris, met at a local farm to discuss how to raise awareness about the challenges they face from wolves.
Until their return in the 1990s, the last wolves in France were killed in the southwest in the 1920s. They have been extinct in the Paris region since the middle of the 19th century.
France has a wolf population now of between 250 and 300, and their numbers are growing, according to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. That compares with 1,000 in Italy, as many as 2,000 in Spain, and about 50 in Germany.
Wolves killed 6,666 farm animals, mostly sheep, across France in 2012, up from 5,362 in 2011 and 4,691 in in 2010, according to the Ministry of the Environment. About half of those attacks were in the southern Alps, where Italian wolves first appeared in France after a hiatus of more than 60 years.
The number of mainland France’s 94 departments that have reported sheep killed by wolves rose to 16 in 2012 -- the latest figures available -- from 14 in 2011 and 11 in 2010.
Farmers say the statistics on the attacks underestimate the scale of the problem because wounded sheep often die later and pregnant females frequently miscarry because of the stress.
Jean-Baptiste Scherrer, a 41-year-old farmer with 12 parcels of land spread around the village of Bar-sur-Aube, southeast of Paris, said he got a call at dawn on May 22 from workers at neighboring vineyards who’d seen his sheep acting strangely and what seemed like a dog running away. He found two dead and nine wounded sheep.
Another attack a week later killed five of his sheep, and forest rangers confirmed both were wolf attacks. After that, he kept his 200 ewes indoors for the rest of the summer, feeding them grain and hay instead of letting them graze. On his iPhone, he has photos of a dozen stillborn lambs he said resulted from miscarriages in the following weeks.
The attack on Scherrer’s farm was the first in the Aube department. There have been 28 since, killing 88 sheep and wounding 111, according to the local government.
“We had no idea there were wolves in this area,” Scherrer said. “We just want the right to defend ourselves.”
The closest known pack was in the Vosges mountain range, 200 kilometers southeast. The rolling hills of the Aube, with their open farmland, Champagne vineyards and small parcels of forest didn’t used to be wolf country.
During the 2012/13 winter, 14 departments had established wolf packs, according to the ONCFS, the government bureau that overseas wildlife and hunting.
The wolves in the Aube department probably were young animals from a pack in the Vosges looking for new territory, said Eric Marboutin, head of the body’s large-predators project.
“We know there were births last winter in the Vosges, so it’s possible some young pack members have been forced to leave and head out on their own,” Marboutin said.
Ile-de-France, the region that includes Paris and seven surrounding departments, is an ideal environment for wolves in spite of its 12 million inhabitants, said Natureparif’s Zucca.
Forests make up 24 percent of its area, slightly less than the national average of 29 percent, and most are well stocked with deer and wild boar. And the local farms mostly grow grain rather than raise livestock.
Cases of wolves attacking people are almost non-existent, he said. For the moment public opinion backs wolves.
In an Oct. 1 poll by Ifop for OneVoice, an animal rights group, 76 percent agreed with the statement “the wolf has its place in French nature.” The poll questioned 1,000 people with a 1.8 percent margin of error.
Currently, farmers can shoot a boar that eats their crops, but wolves are protected by the Berne Convention, which in 1979 established Europe’s large predators as protected species.
There were no wolves in France then, and just a few dozen in the mountains of central Italy. The Apennines were returning to a natural state as farmers abandoned the rocky earthquake-prone soils. Also, with Italian hunters releasing game into the wild, the new laws meant wolves had a safe and forested highway all the way to Alps, with lunch served along the way.
Wolves are now present in every region of mainland Italy and crossed into Switzerland in 1996. Ten years after their 1992 appearance in France they’ve established themselves throughout the Alps, and by 2011 there was a pack in the Vosges, France’s most northern mountain range.
There’s no permanent presence of wolves in the Jura mountains between the Alps and the Vosges, showing the unpredictability of their expansion, said the ONCFS’s Marboutin.
In 2012 there were the first attacks on sheep in the plains of northeast France. The killings have increased since.
Still, Dhuicq said his bill is unlikely to pass.
“The majority of MPs are from urban areas, and like urban populations they have a romantic image of wolves,” he says.
Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told parliament on Jan. 20 that he’s against breaking the Berne Convention, though he recognized wolves “are not a minor issue” for farmers.
Farmers receive an average of about 300 euros ($413) from the government for each sheep lost to wolves, but Gerard Guery, a 58-year-old farmer in Chaource in the Aube department, said he’d prefer not to have to take the money.
Hunters reported seeing three wolves 12 kilometers from his farm, he said. He’s built a two-meter-high barbed wire fence around his 600 sheep, breaking with a local tradition of leaving sheep outdoors and moving them around parcels of farmland.
“City people dream about wolves and the countryside, but they don’t realize how much of the countryside is the work of farmers and farming practices,” said Dhuicq. “All that is put at risk by wolves.”