The Covid Chronicles Part III: Intractabilities

This is the third in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them.

A shot rings out across the valley, shattering the silence that we’ve come to associate with lockdown. In this quiet corner of the French Pyrenees, the local hunting community has just been given special dispensation to restart the hunting season, in spite of the widespread restrictions on movement for the general public. The sound of the shot is swiftly followed by that of hounds barking excitedly as they pursue their quarry. I ask my neighbour, a keen hunter himself, to explain the story. ‘It’s the damage the wild animals cause’, he says, ‘something like €130 million worth of damage to crops and trees. Especially the deer and the wild boar. Do you know there are 40 deer just here in the wood behind our houses? We have to control their numbers for the foresters. I’m going out on Saturday to help.’

Red deer caught by a camera trap in the French Pyrenees © J.Carruthers-Jones

Two days earlier I’d received an email circular from France Nature Environment, a major French nature conservation NGO. They were also keen to tell their story. There’s no reason, they argued, for creating two categories of citizen: those who can practise their leisure activities because they carry weapons and those who can’t because they carry only binoculars. They acknowledged that wild boar numbers were problematic, highlighting other measures that could also have a significant effect on managing their population whilst not threatening other key species in the trophic cascade. The focus of their story, however, was that everyone should be given the right to access nature for leisure, even during lockdown.

COVID-19 regulations, it seems, are no exception to the issues surrounding nature conservation, even in this remote corner of Europe. Lockdowns are in many ways defined by the key themes – boundaries and mobility – that concern us in the ‘Corridor Talk’ project. In France, clear boundaries are specified for our movements during lockdown. Normal daily exercise must take place within a radius of 1km from our homes. Spatial limits are monitored by the police, albeit less rigidly now than during the first lockdown. A signed ‘attestation’ specifying a valid reason for going out, such as buying food, must be completed and brought along whenever one leaves the house. Rightly or wrongly, the existence of different rules for hunters and non-hunters, with different rights of mobility and different boundaries, has the potential to create conflict.

The human/non-human animal divide also separates users of the landscape into two distinct publics, and this binary is frequently seen as a driving factor of conflict. As my colleagues on the ‘Corridor Talk’ project have pointed out, conservation conflicts are often described as ‘wicked problems’. They represent intractable struggles between competing outcomes, some of which are good for humans and others good for non-humans. These are never truly resolved, nor do they simply go away; rather they’re reworked over time towards compromise solutions that are more acceptable or less acceptable to different actors. Humans have been living alongside other species in the Pyrenees for millennia, and while so much has changed during this time it was only as human presence increased pressure across the entire landscape that intractable conflict in the way we experience it now began to emerge.

In Work Package 2 of the ‘Corridor Talk’ project, ‘Immersions’, we explore a classic example of an intractable conservation question, focusing on how humans and large carnivores, specifically bears, coexist in the same landscape. Our main aim is to consider how people move through wild spaces such as national parks, and how they experience the wild species they encounter in these spaces. A focal point of the research is the brown bear, a number of which have been reintroduced to the French and Spanish Pyrenees in recent decades in order to boost their dwindling population. Their reintroduction speaks directly to the idea of ‘connectivity’, a much-used term in conservation science which is central to the project, evoking the key concepts of mobility and boundaries that are also played out during lockdown. In telling the story of human relations with bears in this region, attitudes are often classified by the media into those that are strongly opposed to reintroduction – typically hunters and sheep farmers – and those strongly in favour, typically environmentalists. This polarisation of opinions not only masks the complexities of the story but can contribute to the intractability of the problem. A more constructive telling of the story would not only give all of those involved a voice, but also require them to listen to each other. All those who move through or have a stake in this mountainous landscape have a story to tell: the shepherd, the environmentalist, the hunter, the National Park warden, the tourist, perhaps even the bear, if we knew how to hear it. One simple way to listen is to observe the respective behaviours of these stakeholders. Bears for example go where they will, having no awareness of national, local or protected area boundaries. Their movement decisions are based primarily on the physical geography of the landscape and the suitability of the habitat this offers them.

Brown bears (Ursus arctos) caught by a camera trap in the French Pyrenees © ONCFS EQUIPE OURS

One male bear, recently reintroduced on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, promptly crossed over to the French side and stayed there. The mobility of the bears across administrative regions is clearly at odds with the fixed spatial boundaries of grazing rights afforded to shepherds. The conservation choice to reintroduce bears and protect their mobility rights has arguably had a negative impact on the livelihoods of sheep farmers who can’t change location, and whose flocks are now vulnerable to predation. Whilst sheep farmers are on the frontline of this apparently intractable conservation conflict, a diversity of other voices clamours to be heard. Tourists appear favourable to visiting areas where there is the possibility, however remote, of spotting a reclusive wild animal. At the international level, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) promotes the conservation and restoration of bear populations where they are threatened, warning that the drawing of boundaries, even those as simple as fencing off an area of cropland, can in fact exacerbate rather than alleviate conflict. The traditional conservation response to protecting biodiversity has been exactly the opposite of this. National parks were established to protect threatened species, yet their relatively small size, especially in Europe, along with the fragmented nature of the landscapes in which they are situated, undermines such a static approach to the long-term conservation of these species. The impact of national parks on conservation might be more significant if they more closely resembled what the IUCN classifies as wilderness areas: ‘large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition’. This idea has grown in prominence in France since President Macron announced in 2019 an ‘objectif de 30% en pleine naturalité’ (a goal of 30% of French protected areas to be fully natural), and a strategic review of protected areas for 2020-2030 is currently underway. This ambitious goal still seems some way off, however. In the meantime, as the Pyrenean bears move towards hibernation and sheep flocks have now mostly been brought down to lower altitudes for winter, silence descends on the higher mountains, a seasonally imposed lockdown as man and nature cycle through their annual rituals. In the foothills, the hunting season has only just begun.

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