Rewilding: with sheep, by hunters

Mouflon

Mouflon. The principal distinguishing characteristic of the male mouflon is its long, curved horns (in females the horns are absent or smaller) © Laurence Terminet

 

The sheep isn’t the first species that comes to mind when I think of ‘rewilding’. It seems unlikely that the idea of rewilding with sheep will warm George Monbiot’s heart 😉, given his views on the animal’s ecological hoofprint. But an ancient variety of sheep, the mouflon, present in the French Pyrenees in the Pleistocene, has been reintroduced: by hunters who were not in the least interested in the idea of rewilding. Indeed, they started the project in 1957 before the term ‘rewilding’ even existed. Yet, if there were more mouflons, they could become a food resource for the more charismatic brown bears and wolves currently preying on domestic flocks. Even shepherds – traditionally opponents of rewilding – might find some solace.

 

Mouflon (wild sheep) Ovis antigua/Ovis gmelini musimon – mouflon « méditerranéen » or  «corse » (fr) – muflón (sp) – mufló (cat)

The case of the mouflon highlights the role played by hunters in rewilding the Pyrenees. It is a long story. Mouflon bones and teeth were discovered (along with rhinoceros etc) during excavations on the Paleolithic site of Tautavel (Pyrénées-Orientales), near the Mediterranean.

Tautavel Man (homo erectus) and the associated mouflon remains have been dated to around 450,000BP: Ovis antiqua was an important part of the Tautavel hunter-gatherer-scavenger diet. But don’t imagine an animal the size of the modern sheep or indeed the modern ‘Corsican’ mouflon: they were the size of a red deer.

 

Tautavel skull homo erectus [source Wikipedia Luna04]

Tautavel skull homo erectus [source: Wikipedia Luna04]

But the presence of one of the ancestors of modern sheep in the middle of the Pleistocene doesn’t mean that they were still part of the Pyrenean fauna when the last glaciers melted. Sheep were initially domesticated in Mesopotamia. On current evidence, it was domestic sheep that were introduced into Corsica and Sardinia, at the beginning of the Neolithic. Some of them became feral, diverging from their domestic counterparts and recovering ancient traits.

Although sporadic reintroductions from Corsica and Sardinia into mainland Europe started earlier, in modern terms, the mouflon was first reintroduced into the French Mercantour (Alps) in 1949. It was seen by hunters as an alternative to deer and other ungulates. Of course, the modern mouflon is not the same species that roamed Tautavel – for hunters that wasn’t even a consideration. After the Mercantour, it was reintroduced in the Pyrenees on the Carlit massif (Pyrénées-Orientales department) in 1957 with reinforcements in the 1980s.

Carlit

I see the Carlit as a kind of litmus paper where the suitability of reintroductions is being tested. With visits from bears and wolves, with nearby populated areas, and with sheep farming, all the potential human/nature conflicts are present. So, if a reintroduction can work there, it could work all along the Pyrenees.

 

Major mountains in the Pyrenees

Major mountains in the Pyrenees: Carlit

 

The highest mountain rises to 2921m above sea-level, a rocky peak dominating coniferous forest interspersed with lakes, marshes and prairies. The area is a major watershed, the source of rivers flowing east and south into the Mediterranean and west into the Atlantic, 300km away. As such, it is subject to varied climatic influences, making it potentially a biodiverse landscape.

 

Orlu Nature Reserve

Orlu Nature Reserve

 

At one time heavily used in summer for pasture, the massif includes an almost treeless plateau known as the Carlit Desert. But the banks of rhododendron and broom now taking over the valleys are evidence of widespread abandonment by shepherds. On the other hand, the Bouillouse lake, a hydroelectric dam at 2000m with road access, and nearby ski resorts result in all-year-round human presence.

 

Estany Negre lake

Estany Negre lake, near Bouillouse

 

All these diverse factors make the Carlit massif an interesting test bed. There, the mouflon is thriving.

 

Snowshoeing above Bouillouse lake

Snowshoeing above Bouillouse lake

 

More reintroductions

In 1999, twenty-four more mouflons were released nearer to the Mediterranean on the Canigou massif. There were an estimated 2785 individuals in the Pyrénées-Orientales department in 2010, with 605 being killed by hunters.

In neighbouring Ariège, the population was estimated at 70 in 1992, growing to 420 in 2010. But here, as elsewhere, frequent interbreeding with domestic sheep has resulted in many sub-species, often loosely grouped as ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Corsican’. The problem of hybridisation – 27% were regarded as ‘not true to type’ in Ariège in 1992 – has been reduced to 10% today by selective hunting.  In 2016, 90 mouflons were killed. Reintroductions are continuing with fifteen more mouflons from the Gard department being imported in 2016.

In Hautes-Pyrénées, further west, reintroductions in 1975 and 2016. have brought the population there to over 350. There are no known mouflons in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques at the western end of the mountains and none on the southern side, although there are many further south in Spain.

Although it is a very adaptable species in terms of habitat, the mouflon is clearly not a very adventurous kind of animal – what do you expect of a sheep? In 1968 its territory in the Pyrenees covered 404km2; 42 years later, although the population had increased from 1010 to 3850, it was only 803km2.

So, what are the prospects? Could mouflons become the ungulate dinner of choice for wolves and bears? Certainly not yet, given that they are much more wary of carnivores than domestic sheep and the population represents less than 1% of that of domestic flocks.

The mouflon has jumped the gun in the race for rewilding … and with hunters on its tracks it will need to keep on running.

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