July 13, 2019

Hungry brown bears who took over Slovenias forests face being shot before they reach the villages
Growing up in the densely forested Slovenian countryside, bear sightings were a rare treat for Simon Marolt.  But Mr Marolt, a 37-year-old farmer, says he is now encountering them every day - bears lurking in the woods, bears raiding beehives, and bears grunting with annoyance as they blunder into electric fences protecting crops.  “The bear is a beautiful animal, we love him, but this is out of control,” he says, settling into a white plastic chair next to the barn where his 30 cattle are taking refuge from the July heat.  “Now we are seeing them every day, we are wondering, when will they start to attack people?” Slovenia’s brown bears, which risked extinction in the aftermath of World War Two, have made an extraordinary comeback thanks to recent efforts across Europe to reintroduce once common wild animals. The country's bear population has now risen to more than 1,000, while nearby Romania has 6,000. But the wildlife boon has brought with it a growing backlash, as night-time raids on beehives and livestock are becoming an almost nightly occurrence.  Slovenian farmer Jure Ponikvar, who is concerned that bears will eventually start attacking people in nearby villages, gestures towards the area where he last saw the animals. Credit:  Uros Abram for the Telegraph Last month, the Slovenian government announced it would cull 175 bears and 11 wolves, with hunting quotas dispersed among severely affected areas.  The move has divided Slovenia, with conservationists warning the approach is heavy-handed and a potential breach of EU wildlife regulations.  But the move has divided Slovenia, with conservationists warning the approach is heavy-handed and a potential breach of EU wildlife regulations, while farmers insist it is a necessary step to defend their livelihoods. A few miles from Mr Marolt’s farm in Bloke, sheep and cattle farmer Jure Ponikvar has had several hairy encounters with curious bears who are edging closer and closer to his farm.  He is also concerned about wolves; one night he heard a blood-curdling scream and raced onto his pasture to see two orange eyes floating in the dark over one of his lambs, its throat ripped open.  Despite this, the government’s plan has shocked animal lovers in Slovenia, with a petition against the cull receiving nearly 13,000 signatures - a high turnout for a country of only two million people.  Opponents of culling say the government needs to provide farmers with more non-lethal defences against bears and wolves, such as electric fences, with hunting reserved only for dangerous beasts.  “You are supposed to shoot the problematic bear, not the average bear,” says Tomaž Ogrin, a spokesman for environment NGO Alpe Adria Green. Those “average” bears, he says, should be kept at bay by rigging farms with stun grenades, encouraging people to carry starting pistols to scare off predators, and setting up large electric nets which are harder to evade than fences. Simon Marolt, 37, and his wide, Suzanna, 28, pose for photographs on their farm in Bloke, where there are bear sightings nearly every day Credit: Uros Abram But the most effective move, he claims, would be hiring 100 shepherds to keep an eye on livestock and beehives.  “You could hire young people, students, and it would not be too expensive and would be funded by the EU,” he suggests.   “But the government is not interested in that. Instead, it has a simplistic calculation - 200 bears were born this year, so let’s shoot 200 bears.” He sighs. “In other countries, if people see a bear in their swimming pool they think it’s funny and put it on the internet. But in this country everyone gets hysterical and wants to shoot them.”  Farmer Ponikvar is skeptical of those measures, and worries that covering his land with fences and shepherds would be a Sisyphean task.  “My livestock is spread all over so I would need at least 15 guards dogs,” he explains, pointing at his vast expanse of farmland on hilly terrain. “I have tried to set up electric fences but the wolves keep crawling under them… it is stupid, it is just not possible.” To drive home the point, he takes out his phone and flicks through several gory images of the horses and sheep he has lost to animal attacks over the last three months. Unlike wolves, conservationists stress that brown bears are peaceful creatures, attacking only when they are provoked or their cubs are threatened, and that they prefer berries and bee larvae to meat.  But this has done little to allay fears in Bloke. As Mr Ponikvar fumes: “Maybe the people who say bears won’t attack us should climb into a bear pen and see what happens next?”  Many villagers darkly reminisce about a case ten years ago where a young man was attacked by a bear as he walked through the woods with his girlfriend, suffering horrific injuries which left him paralysed for life.  A beehive near Bloke in Slovenia which is protected with an electric fence to prevent bear raids Credit: Uros Abram More recently, an 80-year-old woman was attacked by a mother with cubs in the village of Vrh nad Želimljami, just nine miles from the capital of Ljubljana. But the overwhelming majority of bear encounters in Slovenia are harmless. In the headquarters of Ljubljana’s Forest Services, ranger Miha Marenče chuckles as he recalls one incident where a man chopping trees with a chainsaw in the woods looked up to see a bear gazing down at him.  “We have an enormous, forested landscape but we are a small country and the bears do not have enough space,” he says, sitting in an office filled with wooden bear statues.  Later, he proudly shows the Telegraph a stuffed bear cub, claws raised in an eternal snarl, perching on his colleague’s table.  “These bears will eat anything, though it’s mostly vegetables, and in some very rare cases they will come in to the house. But they are real gentlemen, you know.” Marko Maver, the state secretary for Slovenia’s environment ministry, has been keeping a close eye on the anti-culling petition.  But he insists that all realistic, non-lethal alternatives to culling have been exhausted by the government.  “If it gets to the point where the population affects people's lives, we get to the point where we have to accept an intervention law,” he says.  A keen jogger, Mr Maver has his own method of scaring off bears in the countryside - the sound of his keys jangling in his pocket has made them scurry away on a few occasions.  Prof Miha Krofel from Ljubljana University gestures as he crouches next to a bear footprint Credit: Uros Abram Professor Miha Krofel, a wildlife expert at Ljubljana University, says villagers in bear-infested areas can do much more to reduce their encounters with them.  “We did a study on bears coming into villages, trying to find out why they came, and the most important factor was a human one,” he says.  “Anthropogenic food, such as slaughter remains, garbage bins, compost, food leftovers at picnic sites, orchards, can attract the bear as they can smell carrion from up to several kilometres away.  “We have designed bear proof bins and compost bins to raise awareness of this, as well as to prevent bears from accessing this human-provided food.” When all other methods fail, a brown bear will usually meet its end at one of the hunting spots dotted around the country.  The professor led the Telegraph to one such site in a forest clearing with ample evidence of a bear frolicking around the night before - footprints, a large clump of dung and some bristles of fur stuck to a tree.  “This is sort of like Facebook for bears...they rub against the tree and communicate with each other,” Prof Krofel says with a wry smile, before turning to the gloomier subject of the culling process.  Deep in these woods, he explains, a rotating spindle that sows corn will lure bears to the clearing, where they eagerly gobble up the food.   Slowly, and silently, a hunter will raise his rifle to his shoulder from the safety of the watchtower above.  Then, a shot rings out across the forest - and the bear’s mischief-making days are over.



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