October 4, 2010

"Wolf Back at Swiss Doors"

Wolves have resettled in Switzerland. Their appetite for sheep and even cattle has sparked fierce debates in the mountain republic. Nature conservation organisations demand the implementation of herd-protection measures. However, alp farmers are sceptical about their practicability and costs.

"On Jun. 24, the wolf attacked our 60 sheep for the first time, killing five of them. A week later, five of the 200 sheep on the neighbouring alp were slain. The next night, the wolf killed ten more sheep." Armin Andenmatten, tenant of the Alpage du Scex in the canton Valais in south-western Switzerland, looks serious as he tells how his nightmare began. The tall and strong farmer explains that all sheep herds in the area had to be taken down to the valley immediately after the wolf attacks.

Alpage du Scex extends over an area of 450 hectares located between 1,200 and 2,500 metres above sea level. Its steep and rocky terrain includes forests, grassland, creeks and waterfalls. The view on some of Switzerland's highest peaks is stunning, and only cowbells break the silence.

Andenmatten's weather-beaten face looks thoughtful as he continues to tell how in July his cattle were attacked, leaving two cows dead and one seriously injured. Before, wolf assaults on cattle hadn't happened and were considered very unlikely. In early August, the canton Valais authorised the killing of one of the two wolves detected on Alpage du Scex. Soon after, hunters shot the predator.

Historically, the widespread clearing of the forests and the disappearance of prey animals during the 16th century forced the wolves to nourish on domestic and farm animals. Consequently, wolf hunting was intensified and in the second half of the 19th century, the predator was eradicated in Switzerland.

A whole century later, the wolves have returned to the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, 15-20 individual wolves are believed to live here, their number is on the rise, and the emergence of packs is forseeable. According to the national wolf monitoring project, wolves have killed at least 62 sheep and two cows so far in 2010. Last year a record-high 358 livestock were slain.

Ralph Manz, who works for the Valaisan section of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) considers the wolf's return to Switzerland "a great event in environment conservation." At the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Reinhard Schnidrig says a majority of Swiss people welcome the wolf's return, while aggrieved parties in the mountain cantons are against it.

Indeed in the Valais, there is fierce resistance against the wolf. "It's not because we're stubborn people, but because we're the most affected. The Valais is the entry of the wolf to Switzerland," says Roberto Schmidt, a local National Councillor of the Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP). He argues that the wolf has no place in Switzerland. "Our country is too densely populated and the mountainous regions are too cramped."

On a European level, the wolf is protected by the Bern Convention of 1979. Roberto Schmidt and several other parliamentarians have successfully pushed for a downgrading of the wolf's protected status and the facilitation of its hunt in Switzerland.

"Our aim is to prevent the emergence of wolf packs. This way, the problem could at least be limited to the presence of individual wolves," says Schmidt.

Reinhard Schnidrig of FOEN doesn't consider the shooting of wolves a sustainable solution. "In order to minimise losses of farm animals in the long run, priority has to be given to protecting the herds," he explains. Mirjam Ballmer, project manager for environment conservation policy at the non- governmental organisation Pro Natura agrees and adds: "The wolf is back, that's a fact. We need improved herd-protection measures, even though they cost."

Over the years, livestock breeding in the Swiss Alps has adjusted to the absence of predators. In the Valais, sheep herds are mostly grazing freely and unprotected, which has repeatedly been criticised by the WWF and Pro Natura. Kurt Eichenberger, responsible in the WWF for biodiversity, says there's no alternative to adjustments. "Even if the wolf could be hunted, it would again and again immigrate from Italy and France and profit from unprotected sheep herds."

Herd-protection measures usually involve dogs and shepherds. Small herds are joined in order to facilitate their protection. Reinhard Schnidrig of FOEN says such measures are working well. "There are hardly any wolf attacks on protected herds and even if it happens, only very few animals are killed."

Unlike in other cantons, in the Valais such measures have hardly been implemented. There, sheep breeding is mostly done as a hobby or sideline and flocks are relatively small and heterogeneous. Kurt Eichenberger argues that in light of this, investment in herd-protection measures and shepherds is the only promising way for sheep-keeping in future." National Councillor Roberto Schmidt says that capacious herd-protection measures would cost the canton Valais 14 million Swiss francs yearly; a sum he considers totally disproportionate.

The image of the Swiss Alps presented to visitors doesn't meet reality. While as for tourists and 'flatlanders' the mountains are an idyllic area for recovery and sports, alp farmers do hard and low-paid work in an extremely harsh environment.

"There's a lack of understanding between city and countryside," says Valaisan politician Roberto Schmidt. The Valais, he say, shouldn't "become an Indian Reservation, just because city-dwellers like to find pure and untouched nature here. We do also have the right to cultivate our region!"

Valaisan WWF spokesperson Manz meanwhile finds it "incredible to demand from the world's poorest countries to protect lions and tigers, while we here are incapable of living with the wolf."

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.