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Government launches campaign to protect the wolf

Last year, wolves killed 242 sheep in Switzerland

(Keystone Archive)

The government has launched a campaign to protect wolves that have naturally returned to Swiss soil after an absence of more than 100 years. At a news conference in Sion, the authorities announced they have earmarked SFr1.3 million to ensure the safety of the predator as well as livestock.

Today the wolf is a protected species and the government says it is obliged, under international law, to ensure its safety.

"Switzerland has to follow international policies such as the Convention of Bern, and as the wolf is protected by law, we have to protect them," Willy Geiger, deputy director of the Federal Agency for the environment, forests and landscape, told swissinfo.

The Wolf in Switzerland project is still in its pilot phase, as experts gather information about the exact location and habits of the animal. The government hopes local authorities will help it monitor the animals that have made the Swiss Alps their home.

Although there have been very few sightings, the wolf entered Switzerland from northern Italy and eastern France and currently roams the southern canton of Valais and the eastern cantons of Ticino and Graubünden.

So far, the predator has had a less than rapturous welcome in these regions.

Farmers, angry that their livestock are now open prey to the wolf, have taken matters into their own hands. They have reportedly shot wolves they thought were responsible for killing their sheep.

Since 1998, more than 400 sheep have been killed, reportedly by wolves. The head of the pilot project, Jean-Marc Weber, told swissinfo that given the number of sheep roaming free in Switzerland, the wolf has done comparatively little damage.

"Last year, wolves killed 242 sheep. But compared to 450,000 sheep present in Switzerland, that's nothing."

Weber admits that for farmers, deaths among their flocks is a problem and most of the project's budget, SFr750,000 in total, will go towards preventing attacks on livestock.

Twenty-five guard dogs and 12 shepherds have been drafted in to help farmers protect their animals. Electric fences, too, have been offered as an alternative to farmers.

Weber notes that in one case where a shepherd was employed in an area known to be targeted by wolves, attacks fell 100 per cent from over 10 in 1999 to zero in 2000.
Geiger says farmers need to be reassured that the government is supporting them as well as the wolf.

"Of course we understand that some farmers have problems with wolves but under the pilot project the government completely re-imburses farmers whose sheep have been attacked," Geiger said.

"We have to work together with farmers and local authorities to create acceptance of the wolf, because without this tolerance, it's impossible that the animal will be able to remain here," he added.

Only a few farmers have taken up the government's offer and are using shepherds and dogs to keep the wolf away from their livestock. And although the government has assured farmers it is committed to helping them in the long-term, perhaps farming methods themselves need to undergo a sea change.

Rather than abandoning flocks of sheep in the mountains for the entire summer months, farmers now need to consider enclosing them. The government is sure the wolves are here to stay, and it is up to the farmers to accept the preventative measures.

by Samantha Tonkin

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