Without predators, deer eat the Vosges forest, with the help of hunters

In Alsace, as elsewhere in France, deer are increasingly numerous and feed massively on young trees, leaving no time for the forest to regenerate. Hunters refuse to reduce this population and take a stand against the wolf, the deer’s natural predator. Inform in the Vosges.

Spruce, beech and spruce, several decades old, form a diverse canopy, on the heights of Orbey, at the bottom of the Kaysersberg valley on the Upper Rhine. But at the feet of these big seed companies, almost no sapling can grow. “The natural regeneration of the forest is compromised. Deer are very numerous and eat the small trees”, explains Francis Dopff. The vice president of Alsace Nature shows the damage, on both sides of the mountain path: “It is a slow phenomenon, but of scale in France, caused by an imbalance in the ecosystem: the large herbivores are not regulated, either by hunters or by their predators. »

In the sixties, deer were reintroduced massively across the country, with strict regulations for hunting them. Since then, their populations have steadily increased. They have doubled in the Haut-Rhin in the last ten years. According to the Office National des Forêts (ONF), a third of French forests were already in a situation of imbalance due to overpopulation of deer, roe deer and wild boar in 2015. The public institution did not transmit the most recent data on the number of deer in the country. Vosges massif on Rue89 Strasbourg. This number is “very sensitive”. Francis Dopff, an imposing beret on his head, recalls that at home in Orbey, the situation started to go wrong in 2013:

“It is here that deer populations have reached, here as in many other places in the Vosges, a very high density for forest renewal to be possible. It gets worse over the years. »

“If we do nothing, we will have more than spruce. And again, the deer rubs against the young trees and breaks the bark. Fir trees are no exception. They also die, but later. All this causes serious economic repercussions due to the depreciation of wood. »

Hunters refuse to shoot

What are hunters, France’s self-proclaimed first ecologists, doing with their cover of great regulators of ecosystems? They refute deer superdensity and its impact. For Gérard Lang, president of the Federation of Hunters of the Lower Rhine, “it is not the deer, but the logging, due to the impoverishment of the soil, that is responsible for this situation”. “It’s another problem, a very real one,” acknowledges Francis Dopff. But the mountain ecosystem expert points to the damaged young spruce:

“You can see that the trees would grow if they weren’t eaten. Hunters manipulate arguments as they see fit. »

As a forest forensic scientist, the ecologist shows two plots of 30 ares that belong to a friend. They are surrounded by barriers, which do not allow deer to pass. The difference is spectacular. Just behind the fence, dozens of young spruces are growing. Throughout the protected area, birch, oak, maple and even holly also grow alongside spruce. The naturalist says:

“We agree, I’m not in favor of fenced in forest everywhere, but at least it proves that the problem is linked to deer superdensity. »

On both sides of the fence, the difference is striking: on the protected side, dozens of young spruces grow. (TV photo / Rue89 Strasbourg / cc)

“The forest is not just a playground for hunters”

In February 2021, the Haut-Rhin prefecture asked hunters to kill more deer, “for the excessive damage caused to crops and forests”. They refused. Up to 80 hunters gathered in front of the Colmar subprefecture to contest the deposit. His Bas-Rhin colleagues reluctantly accepted. According to Jacques Adam, vice-president of the Alsatian foresters’ federation, “hunters have no reason to reduce the herd”, they intend to maintain this imbalance in order to have “beautiful hunting parties in the spring, with plenty of game . Yves Verilhac, general manager of the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO) in France, contacted by Rue89 Strasbourg, makes the same analysis:

“Hunters have always wanted to influence environmental policies in favor of an abundance of game. Of course, it’s in their interest. But the forest is not just a playground for them. »

Now 65 years old, Francis Dopff remembers having joined the “Youth for Nature” movement, ancestor of Alsace Nature, when he was 13 years old, in 1969. Today “the referent wolf” of the ecologist association, his profile is atypical: he won the living raising goats in the mountains. The young retiree, who still lives on his farm, awaits the return of the great predator:

“We will have to let it develop in the future if we want to find a balanced ecosystem. »

The wolf could act as a regulator

In the same logic, the Swiss Forestry Society has positioned itself in favor of the wolf: “Like the lynx, the wolf has a positive indirect effect on the rejuvenation of the forest, in particular through predation and the regulation of the deer”, explained the public institution in its position during the debate on a hunting law in 2019. In ecology, large predators are considered key species: they have a very significant effect on their environment, because they regulate the populations of their prey. This implies cascading effects: herbivores are then less numerous, which allows the establishment of certain plant species, and these plant species allow the installation of insect species, for example. Thus, in Yellowstone Park, in the United States, the return of the wolf allowed the reappearance of willows, poplars, aquatic vegetation and even beavers.

In the Vosges, wolves and lynx theoretically play an important role. But they were eradicated by hunting in the early 20th century. Today, they have the status of a protected species, and their removals are heavily controlled. Bobcats have been reintroduced and wolves, who come from the Italian Alps, have colonized the region since 2011. But their populations eventually struggle to establish themselves and “it’s very difficult to understand why”, asks Alain Laurent, president of the Observatory of Wild Carnivores:

“This winter, only two wolves and five lynx were counted in the massif. However, all the elements are there for them to settle down permanently: there are deer and space available. In 2013, shortly after its arrival, there was a first reproduction. The female had literally disappeared by then. In all, there has been only one official wolf slaughter in 2020 since the canine’s return to the Vosges. This makes us suspect poaching. Even though it is very difficult to prove, we know that it exists. A lynx was illegally killed in winter 2020, for example. »

The Federation of Hunters and the FNSEA, against the wolf

The National Federation of Hunters (FNC), a large hunting lobby, very influential to the government, advocates drastic regulation of predators so that deer maintain their population. Most elected officials are moving in the same direction. Contacted by phone, Alain Perea, LREM deputy in Aude, chairman of the National Assembly’s hunting working group, believes that “deer populations are not very abundant in France” and that they are “threatened by wolves”. He also assures that this large carnivore “poses a real threat to humans”.

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For its part, the FNSEA, the agricultural majority union, published press releases calling on the government to “take decisions against the resurgence of the wolf”:

“An inhuman and unbearable pressure is exerted today on creators. We demand a significant increase in authorized wolf hunts and the mobilization of hunters. »

“Give the word to the scientists”

Officially, France has 580 wolves today. Every year, the Ministry of Ecology sets a number of individuals to be killed. For example, in 2021, 110 slaughters are authorized. The goal is that the wolf population does not increase any further. For Francis Dopff, as for many ecologists, this policy is ineffective against attacks on herds of goats or sheep:

“Wolves are drawn at random as long as a certain number are killed. This has the effect of breaking up packs and ending up with lone individuals. It is the loners that attack the herds with precision, in more than 60% of the cases. The idea would be to attack wolves that have problems. Cohabitation is possible between predators and grazing, with fencing, guard dogs and target shooting. »

For Yves Verilhac from LPO, “environmental policies are heavily influenced by hunters, with harmful consequences for ecosystems”. He believes that the floor should be given “to scientists, to establish a management of predator populations relevant to ecosystems and pastoralism.”

Francis Dopff, the defending wolf breeder, with a stick in his hand, dreams of a world where these old divisions are overcome:

“We must not deny the problems. This is a matter to be taken seriously. It requires a debate that is not full of false arguments. Mountain forests depend on it. »

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