Sunday book review – The Implausible Rewilding of the Pyrenees by Steve Cracknell

I’ve written several times that rewilding isn’t all about letting wolves and bears loose in the countryside, it’s about habitat restoration and letting nature take its course rather more. But this book is about the impacts of top predators on the pastoral communities in the Pyrenees (mainly) to which they have returned on foot or have been given assisted passage.

It’s a very good book indeed. The author has spoken to a great number of people on both sides of the debate and what they say is worth thinking about. These are not theoretical discussions, they are interviews with angry farmers with tales of their sheep being attacked, killed, and eaten, or injured and part-eaten. Large carnivores eat a wide range of prey from nuts and berries through deer to, yes, sheep. Not many people worry about the nuts and berries, or the deer, but the sheep have owners and those owners are trying to make a living in what they consider to be a traditional manner. They consider themselves to be guardians of the places where they live and the Brown Bears or Grey Wolves are intruders – unwanted intruders, either foisted on them by uncaring people who care more for wildlife than the people who must cope with it, or simply through the return of carnivores that have been largely absent for upwards of a century.

It seems that this is simply an economic conflict, and probably not a massive one, as Brown Bears and Grey Wolves don’t attack people and certainly don’t kill them in this part of the world. Maybe they will some day, it’ll probably happen eventually, but we’d be better off, at a very facile level of argument, getting rid of dogs, cattle and cars if we want to be safe. Living with large carnivores requires some adjustments but some communities don’t want to adjust. There are some landowners who swear by the effectiveness of having guard dogs with the sheep flocks as a sure-fire way of seeing off any bear and wolf attacks, and other farmers who won’t consider even trying such measures. Who has your sympathy? And verified losses to large carnivores are compensated by the authorities. How much is a highly subsidised sheep industry worth anyway?

There is discussion about Lynx and many other species in these pages, it’s wide-ranging but not rambling, though there are many walks in the hills and mountains.

I was rivetted by this book as the author has done what appears to be a great job talking to a very wide range of people with very different views. Their voices speak from these pages and the author’s own opinions are quite well kept under wraps.

I’d recommend this book very highly as interesting in its own right about a case study of rewilding just down the continent from us. But it is also a case study in conflict and I see similarities with other conflicts. Those on different sides aren’t starting with the same values and so they don’t have the same objectives, and there is not much room for compromise, particularly where those wanting wildlife to keep away have guns, land ownership and the remoteness of the locality on their side. I’d wager that the well meaning and academically inclined wander into this area and opine that this could all be sorted out if only people would sit around the table. Good luck with that!

A very good book, well-written, well-produced and well-illustrated. I’m very glad that it came my way. I’m really not sure that the title works that well but everything between the covers of this book is well worth exploring.

The cover? Very striking but quite off-putting? I’ll give it 5/10.

The Implausible Rewilding of the Pyrenees by Steve Cracknell is published on 18 October, by the author and is available from from that date and already from Amazon.


12 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Implausible Rewilding of the Pyrenees by Steve Cracknell”

  1. There definitely needs to be far more objectivity and scrutiny re the claimed and real challenges of returning apex predators, especially when as you say Mark the industry in question is subsidised. Is the very worst predation of all that on the public purse when effectively money has been diverted from the NHS, schools and the police to keep hills bare and more of us living under flood risk? At the beginning of 2020 before the first lockdown I went to a talk hosted by the local wildlife club about the proposed reintroduction of the lynx to Scotland. It was given by a young ‘professional’ conservationist.

    At one point he mentioned the situation in Norway regarding compensation paid to farmers for losses of livestock to predators including lynx. This wasn’t just expected it was the right thing to do as this issue is brought up regularly in debate about lynx reintroductions here. However, what he completely failed to mention was that the Norwegian compensation system is notoriously lax, 97% of the animal carcases involved are never officially inspected, and there have been scandals before with the grossly inflated claims farmers have been making. It was this latter point that was completely left out of the talk, and as research in Norway has indicated that actual lynx kills of sheep is just a ninth of the ones claimed that was an atrocious omission.

    To say I was spitting nails about this is putting it mildly, so in the Q & A session I made sure I raised the issue and the speaker oh so casually mentioned that ‘oh yeah I had heard something about that’, funnily enough he forgot to relay that information to everyone else during the talk. The conclusion he reached was that his computer modelling indicated there wasn’t sufficient habitat for a trial lynx reintroduction in Scotland, a national deer population approaching one million, but no we can’t even have a handful of lynx back to see how it goes.

    The same speaker claimed that relations with the farming community on the lower Tay had been irrevocably damaged ‘for generations’ no less, because of the irresponsible person who’d released beavers. The farmers hadn’t been exaggerating, unreasonable or playing the victim card at all of course, it was the beavers that were the problem. This was coming from someone actually employed in the conservation sector. So what chance that one day Countryfile or Landward will get down to the brass tacks of whether or not we should be subsidising marginal hill farming when we’re struggling to cope with obesity and food waste? A fat chance. This book sounds excellent, we need something similar for the UK.

  2. They scavenge dead and diseased sheep that are dying. Farmers just want to blame their livestock becoming deadstock on something other than themselves. You ever notice when compensation schemes for something are put in place, there is suddenly a radical uptick in the amount of that thing happening to people whom it never happened before? Same principle. Hell, the James Herriot even noted that when compen for lightning strikes were brought in then a lot of cattle suddenly died of lightning even when there wasn’t a storm.

    1. I’ve read that when bears started to return to southern France the compensation level for livestock lost to them was set at a higher rate than losses to feral dogs. Suddenly almost all livestock kills were by bears, feral dogs had apparently lost their taste for mutton, isn’t that incredible!?! According to a head of one of the local crofting boards sea eagles have rendered sheep farming uneconomic along the whole west coast of Scotland, I’m not sure when it was ever economic and didn’t require handouts, but if you claim it was then I suppose it’ll make it easier to get compensation from those ‘sea eagle’ kills.

      A highly reputable conservationist I know has recounted how way back in the 1970s as an act of friendship towards the Scottish people the Norwegian Government wanted to build an example of a type of shelter they use, in an even more inclement climate than Scotland’s, to improve sheep welfare and reduce mortality. A free gift, a kindly offered demonstration site for better sheep husbandry – it was rejected. I wonder for how long it’s actually been subsidy they’ve been farming on the hills, it doesn’t require shelter.

      1. Interesting to read about attitudes to sea eagles.
        On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, there is no compensation for attacks by stray dogs. Farmers can pay privately for insurance.
        Stray dogs are often blamed by conservationists who wish to minimise the problem of attacks. But most of the sheep deaths are at over 1600m above sea level where there are no strays. A shepherd would soon spot one and deal with it.

        1. My source was from book a good few years ago now and may well have not been the Pyrenees, it covered the recent return of bears to an area, which is why I said southern France which was a bit more general, but of course covers part of the Pyrenees too. A friend who spends part of the year in the Cevennes has made an observation along similar lines about shifting compensation structures there with subsequent change in the nature of the claims made. I’m extremely keen to read your book, it’s needed! Re the sea eagles as soon as their population began to ‘fill out’ a bit then fingers started being pointed at them.

          One of the first significant incidents of this was on the Gairloch Peninsula, where there were utterly ludicrous claims hundreds of lambs were being eaten when this was physically impossible. Politically the crofting community pack a big punch, so what was the then Scottish Natural Heritage spent what must have cost a lot of public money to fit radio collars to 58 lambs (crofters say jump, Scottish government says ‘how high?’). If I remember correctly there was one that might have died naturally, and may have been scavenged a bit by a sea eagle, maybe. That was it out of 58 lambs in an area they were supposedly being decimated in.

          Many of the locals were very disappointed with this and claimed the sea eagles were deterred by the radio collars, that the scientists had been putting out supplementary food to stop them eating lambs to skew the results and that the worst offending eagles had been trapped and moved or kept in captivity while the study was ongoing. Some people had the wind taken out of their sails and didn’t like it. However, a good few years have passed since then, there are more sea eagles and if the volume of new claims about them munching up all the lambs is louder and incessant it could drown out lack of hard evidence and reason. I fear it will get to the point the only thing left will be openly and directly challenging the motivation behind and the integrity of these claims, which is virtually taboo, especially from the conservation community especially towards the crofting one.

        2. “I’ve read that when bears started to return to southern France the compensation level for livestock lost to them was set at a higher rate than losses to feral dogs.”

          “On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, there is no compensation for attacks by stray dogs.”

          So the compensation for livestock loss to bear attack was set at a higher rate. QED. (pedant score, that, and just an example of what I would term a ‘political interchange’.)

          “But most of the sheep deaths are at over 1600m above sea level where there are no strays.”

          That bald statement requires data 🙂

          Most of the sheep deaths are /stated/ to be above 1600m, but do they actually occur above 1600m? What is the veracity of the data which supports the statement? What minor %age occurs below 1600m?

          (Just thinking of similarities with studies that use satellite tagging for monitoring raptors and where they/disappear, to drag the discussion back into some semblance of being relevnt to Mr. Avery’s blog).

          1. Hi tuwit,
            I’m glad you are asking for my data sources as it gives me the opportunity to point them out for anyone who is interested. The 2021 data can be found on, the official French government site recording claimed bear presence. Officials climb up to the pastures every day from June through September to verify claims (and less frequently out of season).
            By the end of the year, many of the records of sightings and attacks etc now categorised as “en cours d’expertise – being investigated” will be reclassified as true, false or undetermined. As far at the hight above sea-level is concerned, the lieu-dit (placename) is what counts. But in any case, the estives (summer pastures) are by definition in the high mountains and they are where the vast majority of sheep deaths and injuries happen.
            At the end of the year a summary report is produced. The information on the bear population and attacks is well worth studying. See for the 2020 edition.
            Don’t hesitate to come back to me if you are looking for more information.
            Best wishes, Steve

          2. I am unable to reply to the reply that Steve Cracknell posted.

            I’ll just have to talk to myself 🙂

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