Take a closer look at your neighbours

Suzanne Fitzgerald put up a tongue-in-cheek ‘Get your Roquefort now - before its extinct...’ discussion the other day. It was Terry Williams’ response that really made me think. Between Terry and Suzanne the list of animals mentioned was wolves, lynx, bears and vultures. We can add to that list quite easily. The Pyrenees are a particularly interesting area because that is where the European brown bear is still found, at most 20 of them perhaps only 15, and that because a few have been introduced from Slovenia to help boost the chances of the species’ survival. Wolves are there in small numbers, as elsewhere throughout France. Neither is wanted by farmers who have spent centuries trying to eradicate them to protect their stock. Dogs that have gone wild are far more likely to be at the root of the real problem, but let’s give the farmers the benefit of the doubt and accept that some losses might at least be wolves. However the introduction of vultures has not seen any increase in attacks on stock such as newborn lambs as farmers predicted, so let us not go overboard with our accusations of the risks involved in reintroducing and protecting predators.

There have been extinctions in very recent times, the Pyrenean ibex being a good example, most often because they have been hunted to annihilation. The ibex is one example where attempts to reintroduce the native species by cloning animals has failed. The beaver was almost eradicated in France but after reintroductions is recovering. So we lose animals, we regain others. Some animals such as genets and desman are not doing very well but are at least protected enough to get by.

It is not just the Pyrenees, but naturally other areas such as the Massif Central, the Alps and so on where human beings are not that thick on the ground that a space for animals should be easy to find. That is without going into the botany of France, which plants need protection, reintroduction or anything else. So, it is all of rural France to one degree or another.

It is ironic then that such animals as elephants are finding sanctuary here in France. Elephant Haven are trying to set up a sanctuary at present, perhaps in the Corrèze, depending on where they find a site of the right size, with the right topography and so on. I have no objection at all. My travels round the world have allowed me to see destroyed habitats where native species and human beings have been decimated if not exterminated. The recent news about attempts to displace the Maasai from their traditional lands in East Africa in order to use the land for game hunting parks struck a particular note. Sometimes to help species survive we must take them away from where they belong. Mind you, Elephant Haven is not a breeding programme but one that aims to rescue animals from miserable conditions in zoos, circuses and so on.

I am not beating a drum but drawing attention to the wonders of nature some of us have around us. Many people choose to come to live in rural France, yet often have not the faintest idea about what is around them. I am still amazed whenever I see roe deer (almost daily), red deer (probably each week at least once), wild boar (a couple of times a year) and various other indigenous creatures. In my time I have hunted, so I am not playing the sentimental pro-animal game, and know that serious hunters are as concerned with conservation as their sport. Without one the other is gone. A few irresponsible people who go out and shoot bears let their federations down and not all of them are licensed members anyway. My concern is that as hunting season begins people become angry about the way they lose access to parts of the countryside, which is absolutely true, but without being aware of what is around them with or without access. Some of it needs to be discovered, a big enough part needs protection.

It is that latter point my attention turns to when I think about the animals like wolves and bears that are fighting for survival. By showing interest in and learning about the immediate world around us we can also contribute. Coming to live in rural France for the peace and quiet is not enough, there are lives going on around us, neighbours we normally do not see but who we should learn to get on with like the human ones down the road.