The whirligig of time brings in its revenges. The French newspaper, Libération, recently reported on the ravages wrought by wolves among the sheep-rearers in the remoter regions of France. Wolves are a protected species and may not be killed, whatever damage they do. Urban ecologists love them.
Wolves disappeared from France in the 1930s, but re-entered from Italy in the 1990s, perhaps because of the progressive depopulation of the French countryside. There are now believed to be 300 – 400 wolves in the wild in France and they are increasing at a rate of 10 per cent a year.
The article recounted the story of a man, an urban ecologist, who went to live his dream of natural, organic sheep-rearing in a mountainous area of the country. He imported a flock of sheep from New Zealand and hoped to produce wool by old-fashioned means. Among his motivations, he desired to ensure that farming in France was not entirely given over to agribusiness (peasant farmers are disappearing fast from the countryside).
But the wolves have destroyed his dream. They have decimated his flock, and the struggle against them has been unequal. This is not only because killing wolves is forbidden: in fact, to kill them would not be easy because they are seldom seen. The wolves are cunning and soon manage to evade all the permitted measures taken against them. Neither protection by enclosures nor increased vigilance makes any difference; the wolves get their sheep.
The would-be sheep farmer has learned the hard way that Nature is not warm and cuddly; it is not just wild flowers and beautiful landscapes. The struggle for him has been unequal, and he is now giving it up. Even the subventions given by the state to sheep farmers who can prove that their sheep have been killed by wolves that the state protects are not enough to keep him going.
At first I had an inclination to laugh, or at least smile ironically, at the man’s naivety, his shallow nature worship. But actually the story has a tragic dimension, for it illustrates the perpetual contradiction of Man’s desires, a contradiction that means we are condemned to dissatisfaction.
I respect the man’s desire to live a simpler life – he gave much up to try to live it in reality. And who wants a countryside given over entirely to agribusiness? As an urban romantic myself, I am pleased to think there are still wolves in the wild in Europe, though they make old-fashioned sheep-rearing impossible. Contrary to a famous feminist tract, you cannot have it all.