France is often known for its beautiful cities that host a myriad of activities. While urban hotspots like Paris bring a wealth of tourists and business to packed city centers, the hidden beauty of the country lies within the rolling grasslands and diverse upland parks. Such parks, like the Pyrenees National Park, are home to a rich population of birds, plants, and animals, like the infamous Pyrenees Brown Bear. The park lies along the southern border of France and Spain, within the Pyrenees Mountains, and has established itself as not only a diverse home for many species but also as a tourist location. While the French wilderness and its many parks may hold a beauty only the most experienced tourist or visitor may find, the local population surrounding the park has been tapping into this natural wellspring for centuries. Utilizing the dense grasslands around the area, farmers began raising livestock for domestic use. As more farmers flocked towards this agricultural practice, the communities formed an identity around it. Today, many farmers continue to uphold the practices and identity of past generations as to not let their hard work be for nothing. However, following the rural exodus of the 1950s and the modernization of farming techniques, issues about forest regeneration and the reintroduction of the Pyrenees Brown Bear now threaten the population’s rich culture of livestock farming.
Rural communities across France would mostly utilize grasslands and moorlands for livestock grazing and agriculture. As an identity began to form around the practice, farmers across the country started using their livestock to shape the land they lived on.1 In the early 20th century, these farmers were criticized for their open grazing practices which were viewed as disgraceful towards natural systems and an improper way to treat the wilderness.2 Despite this, the grasslands formed through livestock grazing provide necessary ecosystem services, such as high-quality forage for livestock and suitable farmland for domestic use. While the practice was seen as disgraceful, the services provided are ideal for sustainable development and human quality of life.3 In mountainous environments, like the one around the Pyrenees National Park, livestock grazing has helped both sustain local communities and allowed for their deep-rooted cultural identity to continue to thrive within the livelihoods of current farmers. Along these mountainsides, farmers raise goats, cattle, and sheep to supply meat for domestic use.4 For the most part, grasslands provide the food necessary for the animals to eat and grow, reducing the need for crops, like corn, for grazing. Towards the mid-20th century, a decline in livestock and agricultural practices caused by rural depopulation led to spontaneous forest growth, with dense forests and shrublands taking over the once-populated open grazing pastures.5 This forest densification caused a shift in views from the locals who now perceived forest regeneration as more threatening towards their deep cultural ties, instead of grasslands. Because of this sudden depopulation, many villages lost farmers, and land abandonment become a big issue. With rural villages now facing a crisis of fewer farmers and abandoned land, communities shifted from agro-pastoral activities, activities focusing on both raising livestock and crop growth, to ones primarily focused on raising livestock. An example of this change in land use can be seen in the commune of Villelongue.
Villelongue is a small rural commune that sits 20km south of Lourdes and roughly 10km north of the Pyrenees National Park. Ideal climate and weather coupled with rich, fertile soil make the area within and around the commune perfect for growing crops. Leading up to 1950, meadows made up a large part of the land coverage, with about 70% of agricultural land use set aside for meadows.6 At the time, livestock pastures made up a small percentage of land use, with around 5%-7% of agricultural land being set aside for livestock grazing. Towards the 1970s, following the events of rural depopulation, land use shifted. As farmers left their countryside vistas in pursuit of dreams within urban cities, meadows were cut away in exchange for pastureland and existing cropland was converted into meadows to feed livestock. The population of farmers before 1950 was around 52 people. Following the rural depopulation, 8 farmers remained, meaning 84.6% of farmers left the village.7 While most of the abandoned land that resulted from this exodus of farmers has yet to be reutilized, a large portion of it has been covered by trees and shrubs, showing signs of forest regeneration over once-used agricultural land. The reintroduction of forests over abandoned land is seen as a threat towards cultural ideals and identity and is heavily despised by locals of the area. Now, after forest regeneration has further taken its toll on the village, environmentalists seek to question how this spontaneous regrowth affects the biodiversity of the area, and evaluate local opinions. Where most other opinions are in favor of regeneration, as it increases biodiversity and promotes the re-wilding of nature, locals both in the village and around the park actively oppose the thought of land returning to an unused condition. In response, they began arguing against the current conservation paradigm and questioning whether public money should be spent to maintain open landscapes.8Villelongue is not the only area to be affected by forest regeneration and rural depopulation. Farther east of the Pyrenees National Park and Villelongue, the Vicdessos Valley has undergone similar changes and effects. Within this valley, agro-pastoral activities were once practiced among the existing communities. Around 1950, the area underwent changes in both agricultural and forest land cover, as seen in Figure 1. With land abandonment being the primary result of rural depopulation, pollen measurements taken in the valley found an increased presence of four tree species since 1950. Once again, the area sees a similar shift in land usage and sees the increased presence of trees in the area. Alongside the increased presence of trees, shifts in livestock demand, land abandonment, and controlled burning of the land are also noticeable. Another common factor between the two areas is how far back grazing practices go. In the area around the Pyrenees National Park, which includes Villelongue, livestock grazing goes back centuries. Similarly, the Vicdessos Valley has seen grazing practices as far back as the beginning of the 19th century and maybe earlier.10
Another threat to the cultural identities of farming communities is urbanization. Urbanization is the growth of a population in a concentrated area. Part of urbanization is the movement of people from rural areas to growing cities. This, once again, links back to the rural exodus of the 1950s, with farmers leaving their rural villages to live in larger cities. In 2010, the European Environment Agency measured a 970,000-hectare loss in agricultural land due to urbanization between 1990 and 2000. Using the classic American conversion unit, the football field, 1 hectare is roughly 2.47 football fields, meaning 2,395,900 football fields of agricultural land were lost due to urbanization. Figure 2 shows that about 150,000 hectares of agricultural land were lost due to urbanization in France alone. This means that 370,500 football fields of agricultural land in France were lost between 1990 and 2000: 15.4% of the total agricultural land lost in Europe was only in France.11 Another part of this urbanization was the paving of wider roads through villages to introduce tractors and other farming machinery. The reason for this introduction is the advancement of technology making it easier to accomplish agricultural tasks and the increased demand of the market requiring quicker completion.12 Villelongue experienced this change as well. As modern machinery was introduced to the village, traditional agricultural practices began to be abandoned and replaced by more modern techniques. So, on top of forest regeneration and rural depopulation threatening cultural ties, rural communities now fight against both the advancement of technology and changing market demands.One final problem faced in the Pyrenees National Park Communities is the reintroduction of the Pyrenees Brown Bear. In 1954, the brown bear population in the Pyrenees Mountains was around 20 and was considered critically endangered.14 15 The bear population has made their native habitat within the Pyrenees Mountains, the area where some rural upland farms are located. In the early 1990s, a team of scientists used DNA from bear scat and tufts of fur left on scratching posts to identify the last 15 or so brown bears surviving in the Pyrenees mountains.16 This eventually lead to the reintroduction initiative of the brown bears to the region later in the 1990s, which carried on through the early 2000s. Given the cultural views of these farmers and the importance of livestock grazing, the reintroduction of the brown bear caused quite the uproar. Throughout the reintroduction, farmers began opposing it as they believed the bears were targeting their livestock as alternate food sources. This led to retaliation from farmers around the Pyrenees Mountains, both physical and verbal, ranging from glass-laden pots of honey to a pro-bear local mayor being taken hostage and issued death threats. The range of retaliation from the locals is truly remarkable.17 While the hate and resistance towards the reintroduction movement seem outlandish, the reason for their attacks is the history surrounding the livestock grazing industry. In the past, the industry was rather successful due to the number of farmers participating in grazing practices. Since then, rural depopulation, urbanization, and forest regeneration have decreased those numbers and strained the remaining livestock farmers. These farmers must now add the threat of bear attacks on their livestock to the list of issues threatening the industry. Despite how strained they may be, killed livestock only amount to a few hundred a year. The same outrage from locals can also be observed in the reintroduction of badgers and beavers in the United Kingdom, wild boars in Dartmoor National Park, the building of a re-wilding reserve of ancient British animals in Scotland, and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States.18 Additionally, according to the AVES France (Endangered Species Protection Association), herders are compensated for any losses they claim were because of a bear.19 So while the local Pyrenean farmers may receive compensation from the government for any destroyed property or killed livestock, the anger still rages on.
After observing these three problems within the Pyrenees National Park and its surrounding wilds, it’s clear the farmers are facing a wide variety of issues that threaten their cultural roots. So what is the driving force behind these issues? In short, the answer is biodiversity. The reintroduction of the Pyrenees Brown Bear was designed to promote both the maintenance of biodiversity and the reintroduction of native species. While it seems easy on paper, with how little wilderness is left in the Pyrenees and Europe, the process is not so straightforward.20 In the case of the Pyrenees, the three issues described are all interconnected. After the effects of urbanization and rural depopulation took their toll on the local grazing communities, forests began to fill in the spots of abandoned pastureland. This not only increased the forest biodiversity of the area but also created more wilderness for animals to live in.21 22 So, with the regrowth of trees recreating the previously lost wilderness, the Pyrenese Brown Bear was able to return to the area. The reintroduced wilderness, like trees and shrubs, allows for the large predator to roam, hunt, and repopulate without coming into human contact all too often.23. Additionally, Figure 3 shows that the area of the park is considered a perfect spot for biodiversification. Alpine coniferous forests are considered to be species-poor forest types, meaning the number of species per unit of area is low.24 Coniferous forests are already of low biodiversity compared to other forest types, partly due to their poor soil content and winter weather conditions, and are the target of deforestation as well. Coniferous forests also grow slowly, so the effects of deforestation impact those forests much harder than others.25 As a result, efforts are being made to both preserve coniferous forests and increase their biodiversity, making way for reintroduction movements to occur.In the aftermath of these problems, government policies were created to help support the remaining farmers who still practice livestock grazing. Through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the hard work of farmers is recognized and supported. The Common Agricultural Policy aims to support these farmers through direct payments for income stability, market measures to deal with sudden decreases in product demand, and help rural development through programs to benefit the needs of the farmers.27. The policy also considers environmental issues that pose a threat to farming activities, such as climate change, and ensures farming practices and rural development are sustainably managed. So while the government supports farmers financially and ensures that sustainability and biodiversity are maintained through the policy, farmers still hold on to centuries-old cultural ties and fight against the encroachment of woodlands and reintroduction of threatened species.
So, the problem faced by the farmers of whether to allow forest regeneration to continue or hope to revive old cultural ties still plagues the upland farms. How long the issue will persist is dependent on the local communities. They must either change their cultural views and conform to policy standards set by the government or continue to fight against conservationists who wish to see the biodiversification of the area improve. With either approach, it is clear that the farmers’ struggle will continue.