Rewilding the Pyrenees: news about bears

Cet article est également disponible en: French


Last Saturday I went to a meeting of farmers, politicians and officials called to discuss the effect of bears on sheep farming in the Pyrenees. There are now about forty brown bears in the massif following two waves of reintroductions over the last twenty years. Their presence is still controversial, particularly in Ariège where the meeting was held. Ensauvagement, rewilding, is a dirty word in some quarters.

To my mind, there were two significant developments at the meeting which went by the name of the États-Généraux du Pastoralisme. One was the announcement of a scientific investigation into whether the government-recommended measures to protect livestock really are useful. And the second was the President of the Ariège council’s announcement that he could envisage, albeit reluctantly, that the bears are here to stay.


The famous video in which a group of armed men dressed in balaclavas threaten to “restart bear-hunting in Ariege”


The discussions started in the morning but it wasn’t until the Prefect [the government official responsible for overseeing the department] had left that things started to heat up. During the final plenary session, a man who had just arrived asked for the microphone. He grabbed the attention of the audience by mentioning “the famous video that you have all seen, with the guns” and then went on to say that bears had no place in the Pyrenees. The audience clapped and a few minutes later he left. For him, that was all there was to it.

Elsewhere, the pro-bear organization Cap Ours  had already denounced “this meeting which is nothing more than a gathering of those opposed to the bears who will let nothing stand in the way of their conviction. The bears have already been condemned.” The various groups of ecologists who support the reintroductions have declined their invitations: the dice were loaded against them.

Mont Rouch

And without those associations there could be no debate. On the other hand, I heard many people voicing their distress and incomprehension. One of these was Gisèle Gouzé, the president of the group of farmers which takes its sheep up Mont Rouch on the Spanish border each summer. This year the media were full of pictures from the Mont Rouch estive. But they weren’t the kind of pictures that Bo-Peep would have liked to see. 208 sheep died when they tried to run down a slope which was too steep for them, panicking after having got wind of a bear.

At lunch time I took the opportunity to talk to her. She told me that her husband had built up his flock over the last fifty years but that he died two years ago. This year six young farmers have taken up the reins. What a disastrous start! It isn’t just the sheep, it is fifty years of selective breeding to improve the stock that has been lost. And sheep pass on their knowledge of the mountain from mother to daughter. That’s gone too.

“The mountainside is steep and there are lots of rocks. We can’t keep the sheep all together,” she says.

That is one of the characteristics of the high estives, she explains. The sheep split themselves up into escabots [small flocks] of up to thirty animals and divide the mountain between them in their search for the best grass. Even with several patous, the Pyrenean dogs whose job is to protect the sheep, you wouldn’t be able to dissuade a bear. And when the cloud base is low for a week at a time a bear can still sniff out his evening meal but the shepherd may not even be able to find his flock.


Mont Rouch seen from Spain

Mont Rouch seen from Spain


Mayhem on the mountain

“I have had 38 sheep killed this year but I have only been compensated for two. Let me explain to you how these things happen. The sheep that I reported killed to the authorities, I found her at the edge of the forest. That’s why she hadn’t been eaten by the vultures [they couldn’t see her]. It was a Wednesday evening; she had been killed the previous night. I could see claw marks on her leg. She had been opened up and the stomach and the foetus had been dragged away – bears don’t like the smell. They only eat the entrails. I covered her with a piece of sheeting; otherwise there would have been nothing left.

The following morning, when our shepherd came back to the same spot he saw a black cloud of vultures hovering about 300m away. By the time he arrived the only things left were the skin and the bones. When the experts arrived on the Friday they were shown these two and a further twenty-two corpses but the others were older and had deteriorated too much for the cause of death to be determined.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The experts had been ‘greeted’ by a ‘welcoming committee’ of fifty or more farmers. The farmers are said to have fired their guns in the air and are currently being investigated for death threats.

A courageous woman

Although the ecological associations were not officially represented one farmer came to present her point of view. When she got up to speak she was greeted by so much booing that Henri Nayrou, the president of the Ariège council, had to demand silence. She told us of her experience of using a patou, which had done its job in defending the flock against bears and stray dogs. She has written a book on the subject.  Being booed is nothing new to her.

At the end of the meeting I manage to catch up with her on the way out. I congratulate her for her courage. She told me: “Somebody had to try to tip the scales in the other direction.”


La Bergère et l'ours by Catherine Brunet

La Bergère et l’ours by Catherine Brunet


Interview with Catherine Brunet

What the Prefect had to say

The Ariège Prefect, Marie Lajus, as the representative of the government which ‘imposed’ bears on the Pyrenees, must have known that addressing the assembly would be an uphill struggle. So the main thrust of her talk was to tackle some of the false suggestions that she had heard over the summer, to show that the government hadn’t been taken in.

She told us that she had been “shocked” to hear that “farmers were only interested in the compensation” and that “they were merely shedding crocodile tears”. What she had seen was gritted teeth.

She had also been told that “the State has chosen the bears rather than pastoralism”. No. The State was already subsidizing pastoral farming before the arrival of the bears.

“The bears pay all the subsidies.” Wrong again, less than 30% is connected with the programme to support the reintroductions.

“The State doesn’t listen to farmers.” She pointed out that she had visited the estives in this ‘bloody’ summer [with twice as many losses than 2016, even after Mont Rouch has been removed from the statistics]. The government is sending a committee of experts to review the recommended protection measures – a shepherd permanently in the estive, keeping the flock together in the day and bringing it back to the fold at night, use of patous. [The vast majority of the speakers at this meeting insisted that these measures were ineffective although other shepherds seem to have made them work.]

Everybody was pleased the mission was being organised conjointly by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Ecology because they have more confidence in the former than the latter, which is usually the organising body.


Sheep at the Tarascon fair

Sheep at the Tarascon fair


The Prefect added that the compensation paid for an attack by a bear would be harmonised with that paid for a wolf, which is more generous. And that there would be a mechanism to take into account the sheep which disappear after an attack, never to be found again.

Her talk seemed to be well received although after she had left someone reminded the assembly that the one thing that she hadn’t mentioned was the possibility of removing the bears completely.

The legal expert’s contribution

Julian Bétaille looked rather nervous. One of the very few wearing a smartly ironed suit and tie, he had come with bad news for those who want to get rid of the bears in the Pyrenees. The maximum penalties for killing a protected species have been increased recently to two years in jail and a fine of 150,000€ plus an unlimited sum for ‘ecological damage’.

But let’s stay on the right side of the law. The European Habitats Directive requires States to establish a favourable conservation status, which is not the case at present. It is a question of quantity and quality. How many bears? More. How much interbreeding can be tolerated? Less. There are no exact guidelines.

On the other hand the Directive only envisages removing ‘problem’ bears if a favourable status has been achieved and all other possible solutions have already been tried.

Some farmers complain that the brown bear is not in danger of extinction in Europe, so why should they pay the costs of its conservation? Mr Bétaille explained that this ecological fact has no bearing on the law. The protection is guaranteed in European law for each zone individually, in this case the Pyrenees. The fact that there are bears in Slovenia doesn’t allow France (and Spain) off the hook. The principle is known as European solidarity, a very general concept. One country cannot leave another to take responsibility for a particular topic. Slovenia cannot be singled out as Europe’s bear park. Mr Bétaille thought it very unlikely that the EU would change its stance.

On the other hand, our MEP Eric Andrieu announced that he would like to create a working group on the subject of predation to try to change the situation.


It was then Henri Nayrou’s turn to speak and draw conclusions. He thanked the local agricultural office and farmers’ union and reminded us of the morning’s workshops, the Prefect’s talk and the legal expert’s opinion. He reminded us of what shepherds and farmers had said. He concluded that pastoralism was in dire straits. But in his opening address he had promised us that he would look towards the future.

“There are three solutions,” he said, “removal, cohabitation, or coexistence.”

Removal, he explained, had little chance of being accepted by the State. Revising the Berne Convention and the Habitats Directive wouldn’t be easy.

Cohabitation had been succeeded only in creating a real mess and a dangerous situation. Cohabitation? No, no way!


Cannelle, the last representative of the Pyrenean brown bear genetic isolate, died in 2004

Cannelle, the last representative of the Pyrenean brown bear genetic isolate, died in 2004


“So what are we left with: coexistence.

Yes I know that coexistence has many facets and is a dangerous option but I regret to admit that we have now arrived at the end of our meeting and we haven’t discovered anything better. The question is how and where?

Before going any further I want to go back to basics. It appears that the bears are going to stay which means that they are going to continue to create chaos in the Pyrenees. How can we keep the predators despite ourselves whilst maintaining stock breeding, transhumance, open countryside, paths for walkers and mountain tourism?

The answer is simple, like Columbus’ egg, by separating them. I know, it is much easier to say than to do.

Ten or fifteen years ago this idea was merely a working hypothesis which was considered in numerous analyses ordered by the State but systematically rejected… It isn’t possible go into details of such an operation here; we can say even less about how it might work, but I know that at present some farmers are no longer opposed to this extreme eventuality.”

See also the minutes of the meeting published by the Ariège council.

  • Nayrou’s proposition is similar to the one published by the anti-bear ASPAP in September
  • Report on the meeting in the Dépêche newspaper
  • Spreadsheet showing where bears have been detected. This spreadsheet is updated on workdays. It contains information based on indications of the presence of bears (prints, hairs, droppings) and reports of predations and any conclusions as to the bears involvement.
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