Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Bears cause tension in the Pyrenees

In the Pyrenees in south-western France, a row is brewing over the government's decision to reintroduce bears, as Mick Webb discovered during a recent hiking trip.

Refuge in the Ariege mountains
The Pyrenees are a popular holiday destination for walkers and campers
A French mountain refuge is a convivial place, even out of season. So it was no surprise that when my hiking mate and I dragged our weary limbs into the large refectory, we found our dinner places had been laid right next to those of the only other two guests.

They were a young French couple, and in stark contrast to our good selves - who looked like two middle-aged blokes who had just spent eight hours on a demanding mountain trail - they had somehow managed to dress for dinner. She in a black frock and he in an absurdly un-creased shirt.

We may have been 2,000m (6,600ft) up in the mountains of the Ariege but le diner is le diner and deserves due respect.

Over a brimming tureen of asparagus soup - that would have comfortably served a dozen people - we discovered that our fellow diners lived in a Parisian suburb and had made the long car journey south to stay with her grandparents in a village in a nearby valley.

They were now taking full advantage of their proximity to this area's wild and beautiful mountains.

When the main course arrived - an equally vast pot of stew accompanied by couscous - she was keen to know what meat it contained: "C'est quoi la viande?"

Our host, a small wiry man called Fredo answered drily: "C'est pas de l'ours."

"Well it's not bear".

The joke, if in dubious taste, was certainly topical, since the issue of the bears is a very live one in the high Ariege.

Brown bear
Slovenia sent bears to France in 2006
The bears in question are actually Slovenian and were imported to this part of the Pyrenees in an attempt by the French government to swell the dwindling numbers of the native population.

Unfortunately, the bears have proved rather partial to a nice piece of lamb, sometimes more than one piece, and their occasional feasts have incurred the fury of local shepherds and farmers.

The mayor of the village where the French couple were staying had - they told us - just sent a letter on the subject to no less a person than Carla Bruni, the wife of the French president.

It contained a no-holds-barred attack on her support for "les ours". She is one of several high-profile celebrities - actor Gerard Depardieu is another - who are championing the cause of the animals.

Our new friends, though, refused to be drawn into a debate about the bears.

"There are two sides to the argument," was all they would say, so we soon turned our attention back to the stew, which was beef by the way, and tasted extremely good.

Dangerous dogs

The next morning, after a disturbed night during which the prefabricated structure of the refuge was shaken and rattled by gusting winds, another side of the bear saga came to light.

rance showing the Ariege department
Along with copious quantities of breakfast coffee, Fredo brought us a very colourful leaflet addressed to walkers in French, English and Spanish - as we were actually quite close to the France-Spain border.

The leaflet contained a warning of the dangers posed, not by bears, but by the Pyrenean guard dogs that have been brought in by shepherds to protect their flocks from the bears' threat.

Far from the image of the fluffy white animals that you see posing on postcards of Pyrenean villages, these "patous", as they are known locally will stop at nothing, apparently, to protect their flocks.

Do not even try to take photos of them, advised the leaflet. It might be interpreted as a sign of aggression.

We left the refuge and stepped out into a glorious morning. The wind had swept away the previous day's mountain mist, revealing an exhilarating landscape.

The refuge stood like a stranded grey spaceship in the middle of a grassy, light green plateau, while in every direction were mountain peaks - grey, purple and even pink-tinged in the low sun.

Brush with danger

Our route led along a high crest, and from a valley far below came the sound of sheep bells, not quite as re-assuring as they had been the day before though.

After an hour or so, we met a shepherd coming in the other direction. Young, tall and decidedly cool with a pony tail, crook and a dog, which I was glad to see was a collie rather than a "patou".

He told us that the flock we had heard earlier was his one.

"Are there any bears?" I asked.

"Yeah, there was one last week".


"Labas" - down there - he replied with a vague sweep of his arm.

We continued our hike for another couple of days, strolling across the high plateaux and scrambling down steep wooded slopes into valleys - then back up again.

We did have some brushes with danger, but they were all down to human error in the map-reading department, nothing to do with wild animals.

Luckily, we did not encounter a single angry "patou", nor, and I do have a slight regret about this, did we see the faintest sign of a bear.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 6 November, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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