Jean-Luc Renaud was on a mountain-walking holiday when he saw a bloodstained Belgian tourist staggering towards him. “His shorts were torn and he had been bitten badly in both buttocks,” Mr Renaud told The Times. “He was in a state of complete shock.”
The Belgian had fallen victim to a notoriously ferocious breed of mountain dog brought into the French Alps to defend sheep from wolves.
The attacks are driving holidaymakers away and are splitting the community against a backdrop of controversy over the reintroduction of the wolf in France. To add to the row, shepherds have been taken to court by wounded holidaymakers and 17 dogs have been poisoned in the Maurienne region of the Alps.
At the centre of the debate is Le Chien de Montagne des Pyrénées (Pyrenean mountain dog) – known commonly as the patou. White and fluffy, the breed looks like a cuddly family pet; it is anything but. Fearless, ferocious, weighing up to 60kg (132lb) and nicknamed the Prince of Shadows, it will fight to the death against wolves and bears to save a flock.
Its arrival in the Alps came after the reappearance of the wolf in France in 1992. There are now about 150 wolves in the French mountains. They are protected by European Union law but Alpine farmers say that they have killed thousands of sheep and are a threat to their livelihoods.
In an attempt to pacify the shepherds the EU embarked on a €5 million (£4 million) programme four years ago to subsidise fencing and guard dogs. The plan appeared to be working. The arrival of about 1,000 patous in the Alps coincided with a fall in the number of sheep deaths – down from 3,700 in 2005 to 2,500 in 2006.
It has also brought an alarming rise in attacks on holidaymakers – as Mr Renaud, 55, discovered when he tried to recover the jacket that had been ripped off the back of the attacked Belgian. He found himself surrounded by four patous.
“I am not afraid of dogs and so I stopped to let the female come up to sniff me,” the biology teacher, from central France, said. “She not only smelt me, she bit me in the calf.”
Mr Renaud used his backpack to protect his face and head after he was knocked to the ground, as the dogs bit his legs and upper body. He suffered eight wounds and filed a lawsuit against the shepherd.
France Info, the French state radio, said that holidaymakers were staying away from parts of the Alps amid concern over the patou packs.
Damien Soyard, a mountain guide, said: “There are certain places we don’t take our customers to any more to avoid any problems. We’ve had several cases in the last two weeks alone of holidaymakers telling us about tremendous scares with patous.”
The problem has been exacerbated by the death of 17 dogs, mostly patous, that ate pork poisoned with anti-freeze or slug-repellent. Some shepherds believe that the dogs were killed by extremist ecologists in a violent pro-wolf campaign. Another theory is that they may have fallen victim to a feud involving locals whose revenue has been hit after attacks on tourists.