NICE, France (AFP) - Wolves have killed one horse and badly injured another in an attack on the outskirts of a ski village close to the French Riviera, officials said on Thursday.
The attack, at Auron in the Alpes-Maritimes region inland from Nice, was the latest incident to trigger anger among farmers in southeastern France over the protected status of wolves and their growing numbers.
The owner of the horses, Jacques Riguccini, said a pack of wolves had chased around 30 of his animals one night last week and one of them had been ripped apart after getting tangled up in safety netting by the side of a ski slope.
"I'm not breeding horses to provide meat for wolves," the exasperated farmers said, adding that he has lost four horses to wolves in recent years.
Although attacks on horses are relatively rare, local official Sylvie Cendre said attacks on sheep in the area were almost daily with at least 1,750 animals killed since the start of the year.
"Officially there are 250 wolves in France, but in reality we know they are many more," she said.
France's environment and agriculture ministers responded to mounting complaints from farmers in May by approving a decree authorising the killing of up to 24 wolves per year, more than doubling the previous maximum cull of 11 animals per year.
In practice however the culling process has been repeatedly frustrated by animal rights groups who systematically challenge the specific local authorisations required for one or more wolves to be shot. Officially, only seven wolves were killed between 2008 and 2012.
Wolves were hunted and poisoned to the point of extinction in France but they have made a comeback since the 1990s, when a number of them moved over from neighbouring Italy.
The largest numbers are in the Alpes-Maritimes but they are also present in other parts of southeastern France, the Pyrenees and on the fringes of the Ardennes in northeastern France.
Animal rights groups say farmers' accounts of attacks on their herds cannot be trusted because of the potential for fraud related to provisions for compensation to be paid in the event of wolf attacks.