By Robin Noble
If I am on my own for a while, I have a tendency to eat too fast, and in order to avoid that I read, and re-read, magazines at meal times. Recently I went back to an issue of that beautifully presented and illustrated one, PYRENEES Magazine; this was the issue from November/December 2017. There was, as ever, a lot in it of interest, including the information that the Corbières and Fenouillèdes (areas we explore quite a lot) will, in 2019, become a new Parc Naturel Régional. There was also an article entitled: OURS: les enjeux du conflit. (BEAR: what is at stake in the conflict). If anyone is seriously interested in the topic, I do recommend, of course, that they refer to the magazine, as I do not propose to precis it here, merely to pick up a couple of points.
The topic of the bear within the Pyrenees is, of course, of general interest; it is of some particular interest to Martine and me, as we make regular sorties further west in the Pyrenees, and it is precisely that area, the Ariege, which is the focus of the said conflict. But, interestingly, one bear has apparently been located in our area, that of the PO. The population of Slovenian bears, introduced in 1996/7 and 2006, now officially numbers 39, although some of those are on the Spanish side of the mountains.
According to my reading of the article, the brown bear is, in Europe, a protected species, and where it has been made extinct (I have no idea within what period of time), there is an obligation to reintroduce it, hence the programme of releases referred to above. Nobody denies, I think, that those bears do, and will, take sheep in particular, although I presume that goats, foals and calves must also be at risk. There is in place a system of compensation, and I do not read that there are any particular problems with it, either in the scale, or the rapidity (so often a problem with such schemes) of payment. The trouble last year seems to have begun after 209 sheep died after jumping over a cliff, panicked by a bear. And the fundamental question seems to be: to what level will this population of brown bears be allowed to grow, and what effect will this have?
In all honesty, these are pretty fair questions, of the sort that, in Britain, we should be asking the proponents of the introductions of the lynx or wolf. There is no doubt, to someone interested in the natural world, that there is a great, if simple, attraction in the idea of restoring missing species to the landscapes they once inhabited. In Britain, the ospreys did it themselves, but we have successfully reintroduced the red kite and sea eagle, among the predators, and there are projects to do the same with bustards and cranes. It all sounds very attractive; but, for instance, the reintroduction of the sea eagle has not been without similar problems of compensation required when lambs have been taken. Those introductions are, obviously, of birds; the problems become significantly greater when you are talking of mammalian predators that are capable of taking larger prey.
And at this point, there is a compelling need, I think, to ask three questions: why exactly are you reintroducing these creatures? How many of them should there be? And what will the impact of those numbers be on the likely prey species (which always include farm animals)? While it may seem quite simple to answer the first, the rest are far more tricky, and, to be honest, often ignored by their proponents. If the answer to the first is that you are reintroducing bear, or lynx, or wolf because they are currently “missing", then there has to be an answer to the other questions - and that you can rarely get. The normal justification for reintroducing lynx (apart from the fact that they are simply "no longer there") is that they would help control the number of deer in Britain. I have succeeded once in asking: How many lynx do you think there need to be in order to have any such impact? The answer was: About three thousand. And the man who gave that answer had really no interest in the question about the other impacts that would arise from such a population of lynx.
An area like the Pyrenees, or the Highlands of Scotland, has been populated for thousands of years and, until very recently, that population did really have to live off the land, whether by cultivating small fertile patches, or herding stock elsewhere. That history created its own diversity of scenery, and its own biodiversity within that scenery - such as hay-meadows. The stock - sheep, cattle, horses and goats - which we still see in the Pyrenees but far less in the Highlands, play their own part in shaping that landscape. I have written often enough about their contribution at the Batère to keep the foothills of Canigou clear of encroaching dense woodland, and allowing the wildflowers to flourish in the grazed grasslands, along with their attendant butterflies and birds (to say nothing of the marmots!). Actually, it could be argued that such an area, which a serious environmentalist might describe as merely “semi-natural", contains far greater biodiversity than would a purely natural woodland, even with bears.
Of course it would be wonderful if in Scotland you could train wolves only to chase deer, and in the Pyrenees the bears only to take wild boar, but the reality is that in both cases sheep make much easier targets, and farmers have as much right to earn a living as anyone else.
Wildlife management is never simple!