Nothing has changed?

There has been a sheep market in Tarascon since at least 1158

There has been a sheep market in Tarascon since at least 1158

At the end of September every year, for the last 851 years at least, there has been a livestock fair in Tarascon in the Ariège département in the Pyrenees. This year the sheep seem to be exclusively tarasconnais – the breed being named after the town – with impressive corkscrew horns. A farmer climbs over a hurdle, picks up the back leg of one and inspects her belly. She is heavily pregnant, like nearly all her sisters. Only a couple of concave mothers are already suckling their weak-legged lambs. The farmer offers 75 Euros per sheep. The seller refuses. “77,” he insists. The farmer moves on. The sheep hide their heads from the sun under the flanks of their neighbours. The air smells feisty, of sweat, wool and sheep shit. Here, apparently, nothing has changed for centuries.

But this illusion quickly evaporates when I spot a nearby mini-van, one side entirely covered by an angry poster. Stark black writing on a yellow background announces a demonstration scheduled for Saturday. A stout man in black tee-shirt and black trousers thrusts a black-and-yellow leaflet into my hand. Without saying a word, he shouts: “danger”. He tells me that he wants to protect the tarasconnais sheep from bears : “I threw blood at the town hall in Arbas in the demo in 2006.”

Contented sheep

Contented sheep

He was given a suspended sentence of a month and a half in prison. He and nine other protesters – out of the 300 present – were selected by the authorities to pay for the damage.

The mayor of Arbas, François Arcangeli, had agreed to bears, imported from Slovenia to boost the local population, being released in his commune. The demonstrators also burned a wooden statue of a bear, daubed walls with graffiti, and would have attacked the mayor’s house if it hadn’t been protected by the police.

The association ASPAP, which organised the 2006 demonstration and is represented here today, is fiercely against the bears. Although there are fewer than 20 in the whole of the Pyrenees, in areas where the bears habitually attack, shepherds and their employers are angry at the devastation of their flocks. For a shepherd who cares for his flock an attack which kills or maims one, two, ten, twenty sheep in one night is unbearable. In an exceptional case in 2005, 160 sheep frightened by the presence of a bear stampeded over a cliff. Even shepherds who live with their flocks and use patous (guard dogs) (as recommended by the authorities) are not spared.

The official figures for 2008 for the French Pyrenees (far too low according to the ASPAP) show 137 sheep attacked, 5 rams, 20 lambs, 1 cow and 40 beehives. Two-thirds of the attacks were here in the Ariège, although it only accounts for about a quarter of the French side of the mountains.

Blockade near Luchon, 1 May 2006

Blockade near Luchon, 1 May 2006

These figures need to be put into perspective. Half a million sheep live in the French Pyrenees. On the first day of their summer holidays this year there was a thunderstorm. The lightning killed 132 of them in the Ariège.  In July two stray dogs in the Couserans (also in the Ariège) killed 92 sheep, a calf, a foal and a goat. According to Alain Reynes (of the pro-bear ADET) 50,000 sheep die each year from attacks by wild dogs, falls, and lately the blue tongue epidemic.

There is also the question of compensation. For a sheep killed by a bear the owner will receive 126-180 Euros according to the type of sheep and its age. [In contrast, when a sheep is infected with blue tongue disease which is sweeping across the Pyrenees at present, the farmer only receives a paltry 46 Euros.] Of course, it is not always possible to prove that the sheep was killed by a bear…

Setting aside the statistics, there is another aspect to the rejection of the bears. The ASPAP sees the arrival of (foreign) bears as unwarranted (urban, Parisian) interference in local (rural) affairs. Some participants in demonstrations evoke the 19th-century “War of the Maidens” , when local pressure kept state interference at bay for over half a century. The full name of the ASPAP, which translates as the Association for Preservation of the Heritage of the Pyrenees in Ariège, shows that the dissent is as much about identity and decision-making as about bears.

Propaganda or reality?

In 2009, bear attacks in the Ariège have been half those of 2008 and pro-bear groups were claiming that the government’s 2006-2009 management plan was beginning to work. The bears were becoming less problematic. Even the shepherds were calming down. More bears could safely be imported.

And then, in an interview on France 3 television, PhilippeLacube, who sits on the committee of the ASPAP, surprised members by announcing that two bears had been illegally killed in the Ariège. That was why the attacks had decreased. The members were not surprised by the killings, but by the indiscretion, which launched a police operation to find the culprits. Was he ratting on his friends? In the October bulletin of the ASPAP, he explains: “I wanted to throw a big stone into the millpond so that the minister would hear the splash. On the one hand so that she would realise that if there were fewer attacks, it was for other reasons [the bears had not become vegetarian!]. And on the other hand, so that she would realise that the bears had not been accepted locally.” The investigation was inconclusive. No bodies, no weapons, and no confessions.

A sheep contraceptive

Sheep contraceptive

Whatever the truth of the matter might be, the splashes in Lacube’s millpond show that the 2006-2009 management plan has failed on all counts. The Pyrenean bear is still heading towards extinction – the last native female, Cannelle, was killed by a hunter in self-defence in 2004. Franska and Palouma, two of the newcomers, have died in accidents. The shepherds are still angry. And the debate has polarised into pro-bear and anti-bear, degenerating into insults and threats.

The man at the stand tells me: “We have pulled out of the meetings with the authorities. They were loaded against us. Whatever we said was ignored, but our presence gave them a legitimacy. Afterwards it was said that all the diverse opinions had been considered. We’ve learned from the Alps. The same thing happened there with the reintroduction of wolves. The shepherds were invited, and were ignored but they had been consulted,” he says, ironically.

François Arcangeli, the mayor of Arbas, fears that the new minister responsible for the bears will back down from her predecessors’ pro-bear stance: “I hope that France won’t celebrate the International Year for Biodiversity in 2010 by trying to bury the plans for the bears.”

Alain Reynes was quoted in the Dépeche du Midi, Lot edition, 6 October 2009, p 8.

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