SAINT-GIRONS — Jean Benazet is still in shock. In the early morning of Sept. 9, he discovered 30 of his sheep lying motionless at the bottom of a cliff. It was clear right away that they had all fallen to their death.
He and his herd had been spending the season in the summer pastures of Pouilh, amidst 3,700 acres of tender grass in an area of the French Pyrenees Mountains called Couserans. The shepherd could think of only one thing that would have made his flock panic enough to force them over the precipice: bears.
“It makes you feel powerless,” says the 65-year-old shepherd, who seems almost apologetic about what happened to his animals after 36 years of sheep tending. “Above all, we’re here to attend to our animals.”
In Pouilh, as everywhere else across the Pyrenean chain, seasonal grazing in the mountains ended this year on Sept. 30. About 600,000 sheep have returned to their farms after spending two to four months at high altitude. Since bears were reintroduced into the mountain range in 1996, not a summer has gone by without intense debate about the animals.
The situation became especially tense when an anti-bear group organized a so-called bear-scaring event at the end of July. Their aim was to rattle the animals so that they would stay away from the sheep, and also to show that if they wanted to they could kill the protected animals — an offense punishable by seven years in jail. Fearing that some might actually take action in this way, one environmental organization just launched an appeal to hikers to report any evidence that could be seen as “poaching,” deadly lures such as “honey pots filled with crushed glass,” for example.
It is no coincidence that the Couserans is where the anti-bear movement is strongest. Of the 22 bears that have officially been counted in the Pyrenees, 20 have taken up residence in or very near the Couserans. Attacks are frequent: 73% of the sheep killings that were attributed to bears in the mountain range this year happened in the same 10 Couserans pastures. A minority of them have adopted the “protection plan” that the French state put forward: mountain dogs and pens to herd the sheep together before nightfall. Not only do the shepherds think the plan is ineffective, they also claim it is not adapted to the region’s mountainous area and is contrary to the shepherds’ best practices. “Our mountain is steep and craggy,” says Benazet, the Pouilh shepherd. “It’s absolutely impossible to herd the animals together in the evening.”
Here, the sheep graze in small groups scattered around the pastures. When it gets too hot, the animals do not eat. Instead, they prefer going uphill along with the cool air of the evening, precisely when the government suggests they should be gathered for their protection. The shepherds say that pens raise the risks of developing diseases and foot rot.
The bear and the maggot
These arguments, repeated from one pasture to another, have little effect on the pro-bear contingent, whose outlook tends to be more global. “Around 25,000 sheep die every year in the Pyrenees, of which only 250 are killed by bears,” says Alain Reynes, head of Pays de l’ours-Adet, an association funded by the Ministry of Ecology. “Each death is traumatic and represents a loss, whatever the cause: falls, diseases, lightning, predation. But for sheep, the fiercest predator isn’t the bear, but the maggots that develop when wounds aren’t treated well. You feel less glorious when fighting maggots than bears.”
He acknowledges that the protection plans are “not 100% reliable,” but Reynes nevertheless praises them. “The pastures that have adopted them are the ones with the fewest predations,” he says. But attacks have also decreased in pastures of the region that have used neither herding dogs nor pens. That’s no doubt because two bears there were killed, probably by gunshot.
Although a 2010 police investigation yielded little information, it seems established that a certain Boutxy, a 440-pound bear with a fierce appetite, was among the victims. Killing others will not be complicated, people in the valley say. A new method is even being studied, a slow-acting poison that leaves very few traces.
Have 17 years of coexistence between sheep and bears finally led farmers to lose their patience? Even though the state compensates farmers for sheep deaths attributed to bears (176 euros per sheep), the farmers are tired of seeing their work “wrecked” by a predator that had previously been eradicated. The Mirouze family, whose sheep were severely attacked in 2005, explains that the costs are not always so easy to calculate, and the damage is partly pychological. In the attack, 162 sheep fell from a cliff, 50 were never found, 30 suffered broken legs, 15 had to be euthanized, to say nothing of the 170 ewes that could not give birth because of the trauma.
“This event has eaten away at us, but we have persisted on keeping on going,” Jean-Pierre Mirouze says angrily. “We had to get the herd back on its feet, knowing that it would take some time. I received this herd from my father, who received it from his father, and so forth. A herd is a lifetime’s work. It’s also a whole process of selection and has a certain rustic character that we won’t get back just by buying animals at the local supermarket.” Eight years later, his flock still has not found the “homogeneity” it used to have, he says. As for his father, Roger, who was there the night of the attack, “He still feels disgraced and has never gone back to a single agricultural fair.”
Again, the farmers’ distress doesn’t move the bear protectors, who see only agitation, pathos and strategy. “Lashing out at bears,” Reynes says, “is a good way for the farmers to draw attention to the rough period that the profession is going through. That allows them to claim more financial help, notably through the mountain economy support program launched in 2007. This program expires at the end of the year. It’s no coincidence that the bear problem is causing more tension in places concerned with the negotiations. And the system works on only one condition: complaining.”