France's Roquefort farmers say their age-old tradition of sheep-rearing to produce mouldy blue cheese is under threat from the return of the wolf.
Seen this summer for the first time since the 1920s in the southern appellation, the elusive and protected predator has fanned out from the Italian and southeastern French Alps and is now carrying out attacks in the Cevennes mountains of Lozère in the southern Auvergne, the home of Roquefort cheese.
Roquefort farmers warn the future of the cheese could now be in jeopardy as they will no longer be able to respect the appellation's strict rules on allowing their sheep to graze freely. These stipulate that it is "compulsory" for sheep to roam on the hilly pastures "every day" provided there is sufficient grass, "weather conditions permitting".
There have been 30 recent attacks, with 62 ruminants killed and 73 injured.
Only a few have been officially attributed to the wolf, but farmers say coexistence in the area is impossible.
Christian Robert, 48, has a flock of 550 Lacaune sheep, whose ewes' milk is used exclusively for Roquefort. According to a 1,000-year tradition, their milk is left to ripen in the caves of Mont Combalou beneath the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
In the summer, Mr Robert's livestock grazes freely on the dry mountain plateau known as the Causse de Méjean. But in recent weeks, he has suffered five attacks, the latest little more than a week ago, with three sheep killed and four injured. There has been a spate of similar attacks on neighbouring flocks.
"It's become unbearable. I'm forced to mount the guard every two hours," he told The Daily Telegraph.
Under a "wolf code" established in 2004, the animals can be shot legally only by licensed "wolf lieutenants" or government marksmen and only if all other measures have been exhausted. To ward off the carnivores, shepherds are expected to invest in guard dogs, lighting and electric fences.
But shepherds in Lozère say such measures would put an impossible strain on their fragile economy and would be impracticable given their smaller, more dispersed flocks used to grazing unprotected on summer nights.
Mr Robert now has devices that set off projectors every 15 minutes and play music to scare off predators, but these have proved ineffective.
He fears for his ewes, as many are now pregnant. "When they are pursued like that they all abort without us even knowing. I have guns in all my vehicles and if I see a wolf I will kill it," he said.
Mr Robert has received the unlikely support of environmental campaigner José Bové, a former Roquefort sheep farmer. The Green Euro MP enraged fellow ecologists this month by publicly declaring: "We should shoot wolves ... the priority should be to protect small farmers in mountainous areas."
This sparked one wildlife protection group to file a legal complaint against Mr Bové for "inciting the destruction of an endangered species".
But Mr Bové stuck to his guns in an interview with the Telegraph.
"The cohabitation of man and wolf can be interesting in some areas, but I don't see compatibility being possible in Lozere and Aveyron given the type of farming," he said.
Eric Marboutin, head of the government's Wolf and Lynx Project, called for calm, pointing out that for the moment only one lone wolf had been positively identified in the area and that farmers received compensation for any sheep killed.
But he said if the wolf proved to pose a real threat to Roquefort sheep farmers' way of life, action could be taken.
Italian wolves, which crossed into the French Alps around 1993, are estimated to have multiplied to about 250 animals in 20 packs, ranging to the Auvergne in the West and the Vosges in the North.
The bulk of wolf attacks take place in the Alpes-Maritimes or the Var, where hunters have just been authorised to shoot an animal after a spate of killings.----
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