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ENVIRONMENT

What are the most dangerous animals in France?

In general France's animals are considerably less dangerous than its motorists, but the country is home to several species that you need to beware of - from wolves and bears to spiders and ticks. Here's what you should watch out for in the French countryside.

What are the most dangerous animals in France?
Photos: Flickr/AFP

Let’s start with the big animals;

Wolves (les loups)

Since being reintroduced in 1992, wolves have thrived in certain parts of France and they are a regular or occasional sight in around a third of the country. They are mostly concentrated in the east of the country, especially the Alps and Jura mountains, but are sometimes also spotted in the Pyrenees.

Despite their fearsome reputation, they are very unlikely to attack humans unless attacked first, and are really only a problem for farmers who lose livestock to them.

MAP Where in France will you find wolves?

Bears (l’ours)

The brown bear has been reintroduced to the Pyrenees since it neared extinction in the 1990s, with animals brought in from Slovenia.

The new residents to the area have raised some tensions, with farmers complaining that they kill their livestock and environmentalists complaining of farmers illegally killing bears.

The risk of getting into an argument about bears is far greater than the risk of being attacked by a bear, as they generally avoid humans.

Wild boar (les sangliers)
 
Wild boar have caused all sorts of havoc in France over the years. And while they might look adorable taking over a French beach (as they have been known to in the past) they have also run amok in French villages and can panic when cornered and frightened like the one in the city of Toulouse before it jumped in the Canal du Midi.
 

Wild boar and piglets share French beach with bathers
 

Boar will generally leave you alone and will run if they hear you coming, but if they feel in danger or cornered, especially if they have their young with them, then they could charge.

But one of the biggest dangers caused by boar is the hazard they pose to drivers at night. They often forage by the side of roads and stray on to the tarmac and cause an accident. Drivers heading through forested areas at night are advised to be on the look out, likewise for deer which can make a serious mess of your car if you hit them.

Sangliers are most commonly seen, however, on menus as the meat from wild boar is a staple in many traditional French dishes.

Smaller but deadly

Size is far from everything in the dangerous animal kingdom, far more important is whether you have venom. Although it’s not exactly Australia, France does have several venomous animals that you need to be aware of.

Asp viper (la vipère aspic)

These snakes are found in almost all of France, and have a venomous and extremely painful bite, despite rarely being fatal. 

Watch out for them near the city of Montpellier, in the Lorraine region, and in parts of the Pyrénées.

Photo: Bernard DUPONT/Flickr

Jellyfish (les méduses)

Swarms of jellyfish have been known to invade the beaches of the French Mediterranean, with the main jellyfish to watch out for in this area the Pelagia noctiluca, also known as the ‘Mauve Stinger’.

Its stinging cells have a very active toxin that produces a burning sensation, intense pain, inflammation and red skin rashes. The sting typically results in hives, blisters and scabs, with other more rare symptoms include nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps and breathing disorders.

But it’s not only in the French Mediterranean where you need to swim with caution. 

Portuguese man o’ war Photo: Thomas Quine/Flickr
 

On Brittany’s beaches, you’ll find a jellyfish-like creature called the Physalia physalis aka the infamous Portuguese man o’ war. These highly venomous creatures, which are actually siphonophores rather than jellyfish, can sting you just as badly if they’re dead on the beach as they can when they’re alive in the water. 

And if you’re one of the unlucky ones that gets stung, you’re likely to feel severe pain and get whip-like, red welts on the skin that normally last two or three days.

In the worst cases, the venom can cause swelling of the larynx, airway blockage, cardiac distress, an inability to breathe, fever and shock and in some extreme cases, people can die from a sting although this is very rare. 

There have been numerous incidents of the Physalia physalis washing up on beaches in Brittany that have prompted warnings to the public to stay away.

 
 
 
Beaches have had to be closed at times and the public have been banned from swimming.
 
 
Deadly sea creatures wash up on Brittany's beaches
 

Violin Spider (l’araignée violoniste)

In 2009, the city of Marseille was overcome with arachnophobia, as one British newspaper described it, when a resident came within hours of dying after being bitten by a “violin spider”(or brown recuse as they are otherwise known) in his bed. 

And in 2015 two women in the Harault and Gard departments had to have emergency surgery to avoid the spread of flesh-eating venom after being bitten by tiny spiders hidden in their trousers.

Reactions to bites can vary but a gangrenous ulcer can develop in some victims, destroying soft tissue and sometimes taking several months to heal. If untreated, it can lead to death.

The brown recluse is only dangerous when disturbed and likes to settle where it won’t be found, in dark, quiet places such as cellars, attics and cupboards – hence its moniker.

Before we get too worried – the brown recluse spider is not actually native to France (it’s one of many visitors from the USA) but has been recorded in France several times in recent years, probably introduced accidentally via food shipments.

Photo: oakley originals/Flickr
 

Asian hornet (le frelon asiatique) 

The five-centimetre insect, which was accidentally introduced in France in 2004, has been decimating local bee populations for years as well as killing a number of people.

It has been responsible for at least four deaths in France, most recently in 2018 when a 60-year-old man with heart problems was stung on his face and neck in Brittany.

But even the more common variety of hornet has killed people in France including two recently, one of whom was a tourist from the Netherlands, who died after being stung on a campsite in the Drôme.

In total, bee (l’abeille), wasp (la guêpe) and hornet stings are responsible for around 15 deaths in France each year, most due to victims suffering allergic reactions. 

Asian hornet pictured in the French western city of Hede-Bazougesin 2018. Photo: AFP

Some animals won’t kill you directly – but instead give you a potentially fatal disease.

Tiger mosquito (le moustique tigre) 

These disease-carrying pests have more than doubled their numbers in France since 2012, according to the Ministry of Health, with climate change mostly to blame for their expanding habitat.

Especially virulent along the humid Mediterranean coast, the tiger mosquito first appeared in the Alpes-Maritimes département in 2004 and since then, the insects have spread to most parts of France including Paris.

Unlike European mosquitos, they bite during the day as well as the night but this isn’t the main problem with them – they can also transmit dengue, zika or chikungunya. All of these illnesses can be fatal, although it must be observed that most fatalities occur in countries with limited healthcare facilities.

Photo: AFP

Ticks (les tiques)

Sometimes it’s smallest creatures that pose the biggest threat. 

Ticks are found in forests and other humid green spaces and in 2016 they infected over 30,000 people with Lyme disease.

Although rare, it’s wise to avoid Lyme disease if you can – typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash. If it’s left untreated, infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.

On top of that, it can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to those caused by other health problems.   

Photo: AFP
Cows (les vaches)

OK, they might not seem as scary as wolves or venomous spiders, but in terms of fatalities they are probably the most dangerous animal on this list.

It’s not uncommon for French cows to be responsible for the deaths of humans, especially hikers and dog-walkers.

France is a popular destination for trekking during the summer months, with the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Auvergne region all drawing thousands of walkers, who come to enjoy the stunning scenery.

The network of footpaths often passes through farmland and authorities are warning walkers not to get too close to cattle.

“There must be a certain distance and do not approach them. They are not pets,” said Major Pascal Sancho from a Pyrenees animal rescue centre.

“When you see that they are heading in a particular direction it is best to give them priority.

“It must be remembered that mothers are protective of their young,” he said, adding that hikers should not allow their dogs to go anywhere near the cattle.

Member comments

  1. You did not mention processionary caterpillars in your article on hazardous wildlife. Although their ‘processions’ are fascinating to see, their irritating hairs cause painful reactions in human beings and can kill dogs. Many pine trees have been taken down in urban areas, including our garden, because they contained caterpillar nests (resemble a large clump of spider web) from which descend these horrible beasts.
    It is also worth knowing that a tick bite produces a particular rash: a circle that gets larger, so immediate antibiotics are called for if this is the case.

  2. I have to advise folks about another potentially problematic pest that is a problem in the Mediterranean regions and that is the sandfly. If you have dogs that you take to the vetinaire, you will see big posters warning about leishmaniasis which is a life threatening infection to dogs spread by sandflies (particularly in these regions).
    I am a doctor and I have personally been ‘bitten’ by sand flies in this area. The bites are not too painful (not even noticed) at the time, but the red reactions can be really annoying over the next few days. These sandflies are only about 3mm long (stripped abdomen on close inspection) and they go for the lower leg and ankles in particular. The real worry is being ‘bitten’ by the female whereby eggs / parasites are deposited in the skin. If you get one of these it can turn very nasty indeed where the tissue around the eggs effectively dies. The cardinal sign is a black spot in the middle of the reddened area. This needs to be dug out as soon as you see / become aware of it. Use antiseptic etc. and go to a doctor if worried. The only places I have come across these is wooded areas and areas close to woodland and in the spring / summer. However, I guess (as the name suggests) they would be on or near beaches. The way we deal with them when they are around is to use DEET repellent and or to swat them as soon as they land on you, and of course, to leave the area. It is important to say that I am not an expert in this area and I have struggled to find robust information on the Web and some of it is contradictory. However, I have previously had bites on my ankles that has the ‘black spot’ that nearly drove me mad with itching. As soon as I dug out the black spot the lesion quickly healed – albeit with a permanent scar!

  3. Thank you for these warnings. I am just about to move to the Herault district, so quite concerned.

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ENVIRONMENT

KEY POINTS: Why is Sweden planning to cull half its wolf population?

Sweden's government has announced that it will allow a major wolf cull this year, with hunters licensed to kill as many as half of the estimated 400 animals in the country. What is going on?

KEY POINTS: Why is Sweden planning to cull half its wolf population?

How many wolves are there in Sweden? 

Wolves were extinct in Sweden by the mid-1880s, but a few wolves came over the Finnish border in the 1980s, reestablishing a population.  

There are currently 480 wolves living in an estimated 40 packs between Sweden and Norway, with the vast majority — about 400 — in central Sweden. 

How many wolves should there be? 

The Swedish parliament voted in 2013, however, for the population to be kept at between 170 to 270 individuals, with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency then reporting to the EU that Sweden would aim to keep the population at about 270 individuals to meet the EU’s Habitats Directive. 

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency was commissioned by the government to update the analysis,  and make a new assessment of the reference value for the wolf’s population size. It then ruled in a report the population should be maintained at about 300 individuals in order to ensure a “favourable conservation status and to be viable in the long term”. 

What’s changed now? 

Sweden’s right-wing opposition last week voted that the target number should be reduced to 170 individuals, right at the bottom of the range agreed under EU laws. With the Moderate, Christian Democrat, Centre, and Sweden Democrats all voting in favour, the statement won a majority of MPs.

“Based on the premise that the Scandinavian wolf population should not consist of more than 230 individuals, Sweden should take responsibility for its part and thus be in the lower range of the reference value,” the Environment and Agriculture Committee wrote in a statement.

Why is it a political issue? 

Wolf culling is an almost totemic issue for many people who live in the Swedish countryside, with farmers often complaining about wolves killing livestock, and hunters wanting higher numbers of licenses to be issued to kill wolves. 

Opponents of high wolf culls complain of an irrational varghat, or “wolf hate” among country people, and point to the fact that farmers in countries such as Spain manage to coexist with a much higher wolf population. 

So what has the government done? 

Even though the ruling Social Democrats voted against the opposition’s proposal, Rural Affairs Minister Anna-Caren Sätherberg agreed that the wolf population needed to be culled more heavily than in recent years. As a result, the government has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to once again reassess how many wolves there should be in the country. 

“We see that the wolf population is growing every year and with this cull, we want to ensure that we can get down to the goal set by parliament,” Sätherberg told the public broadcaster SVT.

Sweden would still meet its EU obligations on protecting endangered species, she added, although she said she understood country people “who live where wolves are, who feel social anxiety, and those who have livestock and have been affected”.

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