Deterring bears and wolves
‘The shepherd’s dog must be a big mastiff, strong and stocky with a big head, and around his neck he must have a collar armed with sharp iron spikes or long nails.'
This advice comes from a shepherd called Jean de Brie in a book he published in 1379. In those days, bears and wolves posed such a deadly threat to flocks of sheep, fearsome dogs were bred to protect them. Not that the dogs were supposed to attack a predator. It was more about dissuasion, particularly where the bear was concerned: a couple of large dogs could harass a bear in much the same way as crows mob a bird of prey. With luck, the exasperated bear would retreat in search of an easier meal, and at the very least, the barking dogs would alert the shepherd to the danger.
At around the same time Jean de Brie was writing his book, the inhabitants of Espousouille were writing to their king, John I of Aragon and Majorca. Their tiny village, lost in the mountains to the south-east of Ax-les-Thermes, had a problem with bears. In their letter, the villagers threatened to abandon their community unless the king gave them permission to set fire to all the surrounding forests and flush out the bears. The king duly obliged because, according to his royal edict, these forests sheltered ‘many wild beasts, both bears and wild boar’.
Bringing back the bear
Then, between 1996 and 2018, 11 wild bears were captured in Slovenia and released in various parts of the Pyrenees, eight females and three males. In 2021, a census covering the Andorran, French and Spanish Pyrenees estimated that the population had grown to at least 70, nearly all of them living in the central area to the west of Andorra.
Bringing back the Pyrenean Mountain dog
Understandably, many of the shepherds, farmers and other local people whose ancestors had spent thousands of years trying to banish the bear from their doorstep, cultivated field or sheepfold strongly opposed the reintroduction of such a large predator. To allay these concerns, one of the associations supporting the reintroduction of the bear put in place a breeding programme for the patou and employed a specialist who had worked with guard dogs in the Alps and the Rocky Mountains to teach local shepherds how to make proper use of them.