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Wolf death sentence fails to calm anger

The wolf is a protected species in Switzerland, but probably one of the few animals in the country has just been handed a death sentence after a series of attacks on livestock.

Last month, the wolf killed nine sheep in two separate attacks, overstepping the limit set down by the federal authorities. The environment office was left with no choice but to allow the wolf to be killed.

The hunt is now on in the Val d'Hérens valley in canton Valais, where the attacks took place. But despite setting snares and leg-hold traps in its favourite haunts, gamekeepers are finding the wolf elusive. It is thought the beast may have retreated back over the Italian border to safety.

This particular wolf's days are undoubtedly numbered, but livestock owners in the valley are not satisfied. They are still furious with the government and environmental organisations for seeking to protect the species.

"The wolf's a great predator, and we've seen clearly that it can kill anywhere, at any altitude," said one livestock owner in the Val d'Hérens, who asked to remain anonymous because feelings about the wolf run so high. "I really think the environmentalists still have not understood the true behaviour of the wolf."

The livestock owners know that sooner or later, other wolves will be back and fear that they might turn to attacking calves, and not just sheep.

"I find it absolutely unacceptable that they think our sheep can co-exist with the wolf," the livestock owner added. "The two cannot live side-by-side."

To try to calm the fears of the locals, the federal environment office and environmental organisations have employed Jean-Marc Weber, whose job it is to inform the public about the wolf, monitor the predator and seek to prevent it damaging livestock.

Weber told swissinfo measures were needed to prepare pastures for the summer, when sheep would be grazed there.

"If the wolf is around, that could be very problematic. So what we are going to do is just put some electric fences here," he said while inspecting a pasture where the wolf killed several chamois.

In addition to taking on Weber, the environment ministry is hiring eight shepherds from France, because the profession has died out in Switzerland, to help the people of Val d'Hérens co-exist with the wolf.

But although every owner is compensated financially for the loss of a sheep, there's also an emotional dimension which is often overlooked. One owner compared the killing of a sheep to the death of a pet, and said it was insulting to think a payment would settle the matter.

Another owner, Catherine Gaudin, sold her flock to her niece to avoid having to face that prospect.

"I love sheep, and they love me too," she said. "I couldn't bear the idea of having my sheep eaten by the wolf. So I decided to sell them. But I think that you have to have your own sheep to understand that. Otherwise you really can't."

by Juliet Linley and Malcolm Shearmur


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