A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing…

The sensitive relationship between the French and their controversial wildlife continues apace.

For us at spacebetween, based here in France’s Mercantour, we have seen the introduction of a successful wolf park on the very edge of the Park where wolves were first sighted back in the ‘80s after many years of absence.

Semi-wild wolves, held in large enclosures, can be eyeballed at leisure, before walkers head out into full-on nature to search for scat, hides, and, if you are really lucky, a view of the real life wolf in the wild.  It has been known – even if only once every five years or so.

This may not be Yellowstone of course, but for a reasonable price – if you are heading from Europe – the Mercantour can offer a good introduction to wolves.

This pursuit is particularly satisfying in the winter months in the snow, when it is excellent to learn how to distinguish between the tracks of pooches on the outskirts of the Park, the big white Patou dogs that protect the flocks, and the wild wolf itself.   If you are lucky you might find scat (with an intriguing content of chewed bones),  a recent kill, fur caught on fences, spots where female wolves in heat have urinated in the short space of time between you walking up the track and then down again later in the day.

Recent sightings here in the Mercantour have been early morning among a horse troupe; through the trees in the distance in a blink of an eye from horseback; from on high off-piste; and in the hamlet of Mollières.  Even here in Berthemont, wolves chased two of our sheep over a ravine in late winter 2010.

In the past seven years, since an anti-hunting guideline was established, only four wolves have been killed in France.  Nowadays, all has been reasonably quiet in the press about the wolf.

However the canIs lupus has shot back into the headlines due to an alarming increase in reported wolf attacks.  There have been 66 attacks recorded so far this year, in comparison to 86 in the whole of 2010.  With wolves having been sighted in previously wolf-free zones (wolves have been spotted in the Vosges for the first time in 80 years), all is not happy in the anti-wolf camp. Receiving compensation for their losses from the government is just not enough.

Pro-wolf groups suggest that wolf attacks are not spiralling out of control, but that also some action is needed.  A handful of Italian wolves, which re-colonised the French Alps around 1993, are thought to have multiplied to about 200 animals in 20 packs – reaching as far west as Cantal in Auvergne and as far north as Franche-Comté on the Franco-Swiss border.

It is quite likely that the good burghers of the outskirts of Paris could be sharing their forests with their lupine friends within 10 to 15 years.  UK residents need not expect to see wolves boarding the ferry for England in the near future; however, as much of Northern France is not adequately wooded to provide a good environment for wolves.  (Would they drive a VW Lupo?)

Wolves have not been seen in Great Britain since the last 18th century.  There are moves afoot by Paul Lister of the Alladale Estate in Scotland to re-introduce a variety of long since vanished beasts to vast tracts of fenced-in land.  But this, as you would expect, is likely to be a long battle.

Back here in France, experts are pushing for cooperation between all factions involved to produce a rationale action plan for the future.  

However, emotions run very high.  Recently Daniel Spagnou, mayor of Sisteron in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, wrote a staunch  letter to French Government Minister, Ms Kosciusko-Morizet.  He accused her of acting like a sheep (no pun intended) in her heeding of environmentalists and therefore allowing sheep flocks in alpine summer pastures to be picked-off by wolves.  A delegation of Alpine shepherds and local politicians will petition the environment minister for the right to hunt wolves without restriction. Under the present rules, the wolf – protected under European law – can be shot legally only by government marksmen or by shepherds trained and licensed to defend their flocks from an actual wolf attack.

Elsewhere recently, the French government authorised the official hunting down of a wolf in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence after a flock of 62 ewes were driven into a ravine when fleeing an attack.

Here, in the Mercantour, while we still can, we shall continue to take pleasure in searching out animal tracks as we scrunch through the snow.

Further information

Images – courtesy of spacebetween and Dave Willis of Mountain Sport Photography

Spacebetween – www.space-between.co.uk

Alpha wolf park – www.alpha -loup.com

Wolves in Scotland – http://bit.ly/noKzlY

About the author

Liz Lord

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